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  • A Poetics of Trauma: The Work of Dahlia Ravikovitch by Ilana Szobel
  • Ranen Omer-Sherman
Ilana Szobel. A Poetics of Trauma: The Work of Dahlia Ravikovitch. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2013. Pp. xx + 177. Paper $35. ISBN 978-1-61168-355-4.

Dahlia Ravikovitch’s (1936–2005) oeuvre, while made available only in recent years to English readers primarily through the vibrant translations of Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, has long been celebrated in Israel (her first collection of poems appeared in 1959), both for her singular artistry, and, in the final decades of her life, her searing political courage. Today she is widely regarded—alongside Yehuda Amichai and Nathan Zach—as one of the most revolutionary voices of Hebrew verse. Recipient of the Israel Prize (1998), Ravikovitch published ten volumes of poetry, as well as short story collections and books for children. Since her death there has been an outburst of posthumous celebration and truly illuminating criticism (by Nili Scharf Gold, Chana Kronfield, Barbara Mann, and others as well as Hamutal Tsamir’s and Tamar S. Hess’ Khitmei [Sparks of Light: Essays about Dahlia Ravikovitch’s Oeuvre], an edited collection of essays available only in Hebrew) but Ilana Szobel offers the first book-length treatment to date.

An associate professor of Hebrew Literature at Brandeis University, Szobel’s theoretically rich and lively study is that rare work that genuinely provides both those previously unfamiliar with the poetry and those better-acquainted with it a plenitude of critical tools and important insights. A Poetics of Trauma is a timely, rigorous, and truly essential discussion of a poet whose oeuvre richly illuminates the fraught condition imposed by maternity, femininity, and the burden of gendered citizenship in the State of Israel. Ravikovitch is a poet whose work encompasses an extraordinary array of responses to experience, from the early solipsistic poetry that traverses exotic or mythic realms to substitute for deprivation and loss, to the later lyrics that demand the reader’s urgent attention to the quotidian and the political. And Szobel proves an authoritative and passionate guide to all of it.

A Poetics of Trauma addresses an enormous range of works. In that regard, Szobel’s approach is admirably distinguished by its attention to lived experience and she ably addresses the devastating elements of the poet’s personal life, including her father’s death when she was a young girl, debilitating struggles with depression, and other crucial biographical facets, and Szobel is attentive to neglected creative work beyond the famous poetry (short stories, children’s literature, and translations.) Though occasionally the treatment of the short fiction might seem too fleeting and fragmentary (presuming prior familiarity on the part of the reader), Szobel’s lyrical analysis is always cogent [End Page 211] and fulfilling. Indeed, to my mind she does that brilliantly, in close readings (the kind that are too often woefully scant in what passes for literary analysis) that are always fresh and profoundly stirring. A further strength of this book has to do with Szobel’s graceful (never jargon-laden) interweaving of the post-modern philosophy and theoretical work of Elizabeth Grosz, Emmanual Levi-nas, Shoshana Felman, Luce Irigaray, and Jacques Lacan, among others. This enables Szobel to achieve a thoroughly cogent and often captivating foundation for the ambitious psychological and cultural dimensions of her study, especially when it comes to the subject of trauma (whether that of the private individual or the collective.)

It is hard to write both lucidly and with theoretical rigor but Szobel’s prose is exemplary in that regard; genuinely masterful at blending important insights gleaned from psychoanalytic and feminist theories of trauma, witness theory, and memory studies. Yet to her lasting credit, those interests never overshadow her own natural acumen for producing ambitious and highly independent close readings of salient issues (such as the poet’s portrayal of national identity and alienation, deviation from societal norms, madness, orphanhood, otherness, and repression), in her own terms. In examining these issues, the pivotal Hebrew term harigut emerges, which Szobel renders as “estrangement” even as she emphasizes the multiple denotations and rich layerings of the original: “otherness, difference, aberration, outsider-ness, minority, and dissidence.” (39) As...


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