- Translating Agi Mishol and Nurit Zarchi
Translation of the intangible, the unknown or the fantastic into concrete terms is a subject and a technique in these poems by two very different Israeli writers. In one poem, Agi Mishol portrays a highly spiritual experience that occurs just before cutting a tomato. In the second, she reports on a momentary flash of pantheism: a shared life force surging through animals, plants and people's minds. In the first selection by Nurit Zarchi, the speaker quotes an absurd philosophizing fish who talks sense, and the second portrays the Israeli Independence War through the eyes of a young girl, whose surrealistic vision portrays its destabilizing influence more effectively than realism. Obviously, among other things, both poets are questioning the classic divisions of matter and spirit, reality and fantasy. One comes away from these poems feeling that the material world of women is charged with spirituality, and that spirituality requires solidarity with the material environment.
In Mishol's "Revelation," preparing salad is interrupted by a visionary experience. The experience is described and the poem ends with an allusion to a Talmudic story. It is a well-known scene in which Rabbi Akiba warns that (in one interpretation) the desire to have a spiritual experience may lead us to fake [End Page 96] it, and to lie: to look at shining marble and say that one sees water. Mishol seems to write in defense of illusion: "… if I'm shown pure marble—/I'll still call it water water." But responding to Rabbi Akiba is an effort to join the serious, real-world dialogue about spirit. Perhaps the speaker's spiritual experience in the kitchen leads her to believe that marble and the illusion of water it creates are one, that there is only one world, and it is infused with spirit. This would seem to be borne out in the second poem, "All," in which she evokes a spiritual force in animals and plants—geckos, dead badgers, ordinary wheat—along a continuum with the non-physical (that is, mental) world of human philosophy and poetry.
While Mishol's work is located within a convincingly familiar daily life apparently indivisible from spirituality, Zarchi's is known for a tendency to fantasize wildly, incarnating spirit in objects. Ceilings fly (how fragile and yet forceful the home!), and love lands on her head in the form of a spaceship (is that a lucky accident or just a disaster?). At the same time her work evinces a harsh view of human nature which would seem to deny the existence of an unseen realm. On the side of fantasy, a talking fish speaks from the body of water in which it is trapped. Yet he remarks on the prevalence of illusion, based the deceptiveness of appearances: "Think about it, patches comprise our concept of volume" and on faulty assumptions: "… being hidden doesn't mean you have a secret." On the realistic side, "1948" is a historical poem about the profound effects of the Israeli War for Independence and the establishment of the state on a young girl. Yet it is couched in surreal terms: a house like a teardrop, a tunnel opening in a room. However, this Jewish-Israeli reality is familiarly biblical, that tunnel gaping "like the parting of her ancestors' sea." Isn't the Bible a spiritual source grounded in a material sense of geography, filled with fantastic happenings and yet a potential moral guide? [End Page 97]
Lisa Katz won the 2008 Mississippi Poetry Prize. Reconstruction, a volume of her poetry translated from English into Hebrew, as well as poems written in Hebrew, was published by the veteran Israeli press Am Oved in 2008. A secular American, in 1983 she moved from her native New York to Israel, where she now works as a translator. In addition to Mishol's Look There, she is the translator (with Shlomit Naor) of the forthcoming Approaching You in English (Zephyr Press), poetry with a focus on gender and religious practice by Admiel Kosman. She is the mother of two bilingual adults in their 20s.