Moshe Dor, Scorched by the Sun. The Word Works,
translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Goldberg and Moshe Dor
The power to
hold and accommodate contradiction is a signal characteristic of irony, as of
metaphor—and, for that matter, of all good poetry. By that measure, the Israeli
poet Moshe Dor, whose new collection of poems, Scorched by the Sun has appeared in a splendid English translation
by Dor and his wife Barbara Goldberg, is a supreme ironist—and also a supreme
romantic. A recipient of just about every literary prize the state of Israel
awards to writers (the Bialek Prize and—twice—the Prime
Minister's prize), Dor is the consummate man of letters, a leading figure in
Israeli letters who deserves to be equally well-known here. He has published
over 40 books. This book of poems is his fourth in English translation.
Dor's poems are
at once straightforward and canny, complex and simple, wry and lyrical, bitter
and joyous. They are steeped in the colors and smells, the language and history
of his troubled homeland, where past and present, beauty and turmoil are all
hasn't arrived, but in my dream my nostrils fill
your smell, lost motherland, the smell of eucalypti
the banks of the Yarkon on a sunny day,
smell of oil from gas stations along the coastal plain,
browning in frying pans
embedded in his language and walks beside him on his way to the grocery store.
Political reality and personal experience are intimately entwined. Exile and
longing are persistent states of mind, and the threat of war is never far away.
day faces blush anew, not
shame, but from blood spilling
both sides of the invisible border;
olive leaves and the flesh
man because he is
tree of the field.
Dor belongs to a
"generation praised for holding back," raised to be dry-eyed and
furious in the face of the daily death tolls. We "created ourselves out of
fury," he writes, "severing/ our umbilical cords with our own
if my eyes seem moist to you today—it's the north
scorching them with icy fingers. Indeed, let the wind
blamed for that sound coming from my direction, that
like a wounded beast, tired unto death.
toughness and restraint provide the sinew of his poems. Yet for all this
toughness, Dor is, above all, a lyricist. Even poems of lament and anger, like
"Heaviness" and "In Praise of Hate," are essentially love
poems. His double muse, the objects of eros and longing, are two-fold, a
country and a woman, and sometimes (in echo of the Song of Songs) the two
images merge into one:
belly—the coastal plain,
between your thighs sometimes
saltiness of the Dead Sea
biblical landscape and sometimes grim scenarios, Dor's poems are full of humor and sharp observation, metaphorical
richness and ease, the landscape of myth brought down to the realm of reality
by a wealth of daily detail. The beloved, whose body is likened to the hills of
Jerusalem, goes for massages and is torn between "debating the importance
of Jewish traditions" and her appointment with the hairdresser. A squirrel
hunches on a finial like "a Roman senator/ brooding on the Empire's
decline." Friends meet for hummus and Turkish coffee or watch soccer games
while cracking sunflower seeds between their teeth.
weather, the sheer joy of being alive in this world provide moments of pleasure
and sudden radiance in defiance of the indignity of aging, the grief of exile,
physical pain, political turmoil and loss. There are meaty poems of myth and
legend reimagined. Adam and Eve walk about Eden "innocent / of sex, slums,
literary theory," ignorant of history, the destroyer, anchored on the
other side of the island. The patriarch Abraham explains that he didn't intend
to break the idols. It was an accident, He complains bitterly of God's yoke,
wishing he had rejected a harsh One in favor
a bickering family of gods, all of them lusting
power, easy to play one against the other.
like "In My Dream My Life," are brief and mysterious as a breath, a
my dream my life was a stretch of deserted
tracks, grass growing between the crossties,
rusty because of the weather.
in my dream I walked along those tracks
after awhile I stopped and sat down
buried my face in my arms.
introduction to The Lives of the Muses:
Nine Women and The Artists They Inspired, Francine Prose cites as one of
the essential attributes of a muse "the ability to make the artist feel
that he (or she) is in the presence of the perfect audience" and points to
Lou Andreas-Salomé, "whom Freud described as 'the great understander.'"
In this regard, a good translator, like a good psychiatrist, can be said to
share some of the qualities of a good muse. Everyone knows, by now, that
translating poetry is impossible: "traduttore-traditore," Poetry is
"that which gets lost in translation," etc. "I ask for the
impossible," writes Dor (in "Distance") "that you hear my
heart through / the din of the world."
To be truly
heard—beyond the question of translation, isn't this what we all want? Most of
us who will read Scorched by the Sun cannot
know how Dor's poems sound and feel in their original Hebrew, but in Goldberg,
Dor has found a sensitive and astute co-translator, an attuned listener, who
has helped transform his words into the music of tough and resonant English
Nordhaus was the subject of our Closer Look in Innisfree 13:
volume of poetry, Innocence, won the Charles B. Wheeler Prize and
was published by The Ohio State University Press in 2006. Her other books include The Porcelain Apes
of Moses Mendelssohn (Milkweed Editions, 2002), My Life in Hiding (Quarterly
Review of Literature, 1991), A Bracelet of Lies (Washington
Writers' Publishing House, 1987) and two chapbooks, A Purchase of
Porcelain and A Language of Hands.