Editor’s note: Vivian Eden has juxtaposed her translations from the Hebrew of Amichai Chasson’s work with her own poetry, written in English. Both writers mine their different generations, personal heritages and family memories for material, revealing diversity’s potential for connections, for dialogue. —Lisa Katz
Vivian Eden: How it Happened
Amichai Chasson and I live in nearly adjacent Jerusalem neighborhoods, but we travel in only barely overlapping circles and would probably not recognize each other even to nod if we happened to be walking in opposite directions on the same sidewalk. However, we have the same publisher – Liat Kaplan at Kvar Books, who in 2018 sent me a copy of his first book, Bli Ma (“Emptiness”), from which I translated one of the poems that grabbed me and sent it off to him as a small thank-you for the volume.
At the end of 2022, I received a copy of Amichai’s new book, Shirim al Saf “(Liminal Poems” Kvar /Bialik Institute 2022) which begins with a long sequence of reflections on his experiences growing up in the world of nationalist religious Zionism, its strictures, its ideology, and its challenges for adolescent boys and young men. This is experientially, religiously and ideologically quite the opposite to my own world. As for the language, the Hebrew was mysterious to me in many places and many of the references in it were unknown to me, even though I have been living in Israel since well before Amichai was born. As I wrote to him in an email on December 31, “My sense was that I was being instructed and I could only listen hard and not fully engage: The experiences are foreign to me, as is much of the language, perhaps not like Chinese, exactly, but more like Norwegian, a mostly familiar alphabet, many familiar sounds but a different melody and glimpses of the known through a lot of the unknown. Liminal?”
And then, at page 30, all at once I felt I was a partner in a live exchange and the words began translating themselves into English as I read. I wrote to him: Attached please find a bit of a “conversation” between translations of some of your poems, and some of the things I have been working on during the past year. We wrote back and forth a bit, and he gave me some excellent editorial advice about a difficulty I was having with one of my drafts. Later in the correspondence, for which I am exceedingly grateful, I went back to look at the first pages of the book again, the “bildungs” poem, and found that it, too, could speak to me. A man’s life as lived growing up in Israel met a woman’s life as not lived in Washington D.C., where I grew up.
Amichai Chasson: A volume of poetry is also an invitation to a dialogue between writer and reader and when the dialogue happens with a poet who is also a translator, it becomes an encounter of different order. Poems that have just been published find themselves beside poems still in the lab and like a couple of dogs tugging at the ends of leashes, the poems sniff one another, identifying signals that cover distances of time, language, place and gender. Lo and behold – they are reverberating with one another. A bungalow in Rockaway in Queens, New York meets a shelter from Scud missiles in an Indian teepee in Ramat Gan, a fig tree meets a lemon tree [...] – childhood stories and family mythologies mingle, on two desktops in Jerusalem, the one in Katamon and the other in Abu Tor, about a mile apart. I am grateful to Vivian for the dialogue and the generosity of the translations. (To my regret, I don’t have the talent to translate her poems into Hebrew).
Here is that conversation as it developed. Amichai Chasson’s poems translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden are from Shirim al Saf “(Liminal Poems” Kvar /Bialik Institute 2022). Vivian’s poems are from a work in progress provisionally entitled “Where You Find It.”
Chasson: The First War
In January nineteen-hundred-ninety-one I discovered America
at the end of a corridor on Gilgal Street in Ramat Gan. My brother and I were
Indians, our grandfather the Big Chief, our parents had traveled
across the river
to bring a new brother.
Outside there was a war on.
Saddam Hussein sent missiles and Vipers
struck nearby buildings. We painted our faces
with red markers, we wore battle masks,
we dodged arrows, we sealed a teepee from inside.
From disheveled sofa pillows we wove crowns of feathers
and thorns. We paddled a canoe through thickets of foam, the tub overflowed,
water cascaded onto the floor. Victory was achieved in a battle between
the sheets from Macy’s, which had immigrated from New York
with Mommy and Daddy in the late sixties.
A great wind blew in our region, Scud missiles missed our camp.
Our parents returned haggard from the battle, bearing a plastic
cradle, a wide-eyed infant and a cowboy doll.
Eden: Far Rockaway
I am a big girl, I am five.
Tonight, I am allowed
to stay up late to play outside
with my cousins in the yard
of our uncle’s bungalow
not far from the beach
at the end of the subway line.
The ocean, said the grownups,
was too choppy for swimming so
we only went to the boardwalk
and saw the big waves crashing
but we didn’t see any boards walk.
We went back to the bungalow
and my brother bit our uncle’s
ankle through his boot, though
his teeth aren’t as sharp as our dog’s.
I am allowed to stay up late
to play with my cousins outside.
In the small front yard
the fireflies flash and glow.
My biggest cousin catches three
in an empty jar, just for me.
I take them inside to show
the grownups. I discover
they are just plain brown bugs.
and light is only where you find it.
In a windowsill on a Dutch street
on the bank of a canal, I saw a fig
tree striving to grow in a big, blue
tin can, exiled
in the Lowlands diaspora
where the rain is in your face
and the light is frugal
and fresh figs aren’t routinely
sold. Hail is coming down now,
pounding hard and the tree stands
in the storm here, yielding nubbins.
(Amsterdam, Nissan 5782)
Eden: To the New Neighbor
Our gardener, Mahmoud,
Die Zitronen blühn
no more. The lemon tree
has been slain
and left as a stump
and some brute
has hacked to its root.
the old jasmine vine
that climbed up
over the front door
to our building
into my workroom
on the second floor.
You meant no
to have said, a near cliché
for people who paint and write, harm.
Your rooms were dark.
and seek Mehr Licht, more light,
in your ground floor windows.
The last words Goethe is said
stumble into my chemo brain.
I sigh along with Mahmoud
who also works with light and life
and like my surgeon and my editor
only to save
what might survive.
Eden: The Anniversary
January 6, 2022
The sun itself is elder by a year now and the distance between the poet and the speaker is about two feet. That day, mine were in sheer tights and fine boots with heels too high for extended flight but the fuzzy street-market socks I had pulled on against the weather, concealed between cold nylon and costly leather, steadied my ankles well enough to run down to the windowless space.
I slightly raised the mask off my face, trying to catch my breath, gasping dank air, recalling Tante Gerda’s story of how, through the tall windows in Opa and Oma’s music room, she watched the Reichstag burn. From their Potsdam home, she couldn’t smell the smoke, but she could see the shapeless flames way across the Berlin plain when her youngest brother Otto staggered into the pretty room, distraught and disheveled in his nightclub clothes, and chose that moment to confess that he was what Opa called “you know” and in love with Pastor Schmidt’s son Dieter, Dee, the boy next door.
Then Opa, who on his business trips abroad had bought and catalogued a world-class collection of precious clichés in many languages roared: “Never darken my door again.” There at the door Oma, who knew that love is love way before anyone copyrighted the slogan, slipped the rings off her fingers and the pearls off her neck into her son’s overcoat pockets, but without a kiss because he stank so of booze and piss. Otto stumbled to the station and caught the first train to Antwerp, where Oma’s brothers in the diamond trade cleaned him up and sent him out of their pious sight to England. Dee, evading conscription, joined him. They aided British spies of similar persuasion and throve. Opa and Oma, sent back to Poland, died.
I, too, couldn’t smell real smoke, just the ersatz of Bar-B-Q Chips someone was poking under the KN95 on his nose, and sweat, soap, damp wool, hairspray, shampoos, farts, deodorants and clashing perfumes. And the crashing, shouts, thumps and breaking glass that gave way to stomps, whoopees and firecrackers or maybe gunshot seemed to mean they were having fun up there, not yet burning the Capitol down. Rectangles of cloth or paper defended us from fate, chance and desperation: All except the very worst were masked and among the men, mostly dark-suited and half-faced, I recognized Tante Gerda’s grandson Dave, the player of cello and basketball, standing very Black and very tall at the back of the large space.
Cousin Dave and I clustered with some kindred souls, crystallizing like the ice shards at a puddle’s edge as the temperature plunges, a solid but ephemeral ring. Others, entire of themselves, blasted duels of cacophonous news, holding close their hip flasks, water bottles, snacks, gum, aspirin, and battery packs. Our group pooled the resources we owned, shutting the phones save the one we passed hand to hand for quiet calls, replaced and recharged. Needing music, we hummed or sang together from all past years and those who could – harmonized, trilled or improvised.
father bought one little goat,
Dona nobis pacem, pacem,
our God is One and stands alone
halleluiah, Michael row your boat
the cat came and ate the goat
that saved a wretch like me
a hole in the bucket, a hole
at the bottom of the sea
halleluiah, is muddy and cold
and my true love gave to me
five Books of Moses – five gold
rings that have no end
We thought but never said: No, no, not again, and today, suspended in uncertain victory on this anniversary, I still measure the distance, foot by foot, but in flat shoes lest a need to flee arise once more, though love of home, any home, is love even if there is a bad stink.
Chasson from The Seer
Elul[i] mingles with August.
The house is quiet. I awaken
burning and not with fever. Again the sacred beasts[ii]
roused in the nights rise high
in the carnal hour, their faces lights in Jerusalem’s skies,
their body exuding terror, fire of Days of Awe.[iii]
Through the cracks in the blinds, smoke
spreads through the room, grabbing my flesh,
thickening my tailbone.[iv]
I have arisen in the watch before night’s end.
I do not go out for Selichot.[v]
The exercises in which the youth of Israel engage
onscreen at the Tokyo Olympic Games don’t relieve pain.
My hand reaches for the shelf of sacred books
and I clutch at them like expired medications.
At the start of his book “Illuminations”
Rabbi Kook[vi] of blessed memory shines on me
like in the days of my youth. Would that I
could call upon the Rabbi and hear his reply.
At the yeshiva high school, in the difficult afternoon hours
when the body slumps into a catnap and the teacher’s soft
voice sails into his praise of the Commandments dependent on the land,
I gazed at the late Rabbi’s portrait placed by the blackboard
like a shepherd watching his flock
and his good eyes console my face that has fallen flat
on the table. My lips synched on their own: “The Land of Israel
is no external thing, no external asset of the nation.”
When I awakened,
the teacher said to raise a hand
to enumerate the virtues of the good land.
In the heat of the day the class was quiet.
I raised my hand. I began to speak
in the first-person plural.
And we knew that the Land of Israel is holy.
And we knew that the Land of Israel makes men wise.
And we knew that the Land of Israel is bought through walking it.
And we knew that the land of Israel is bought through torments.
And we knew that the Land of Israel is our property
and must not be abandoned in alien hands.
And we didn’t know what to do with our body
and the hairs multiplying in our groin.
In vain we concealed our erections.
Inside our pockets, our hands made fists.
Our voice thickened in closed rooms.
Every morning we saw evidence of the wet dreams.
We didn’t dare tell a soul, didn’t understand
what we were supposed to feel. With trepidation
we visited the known sites. We laved our hands
again and again, alternately. We read the Ten
Psalms to rectify spilled seed.[vii] In waiting rooms
we were more interested in women’s mags.
On the Bnei Akiva[viii] clubhouse wall, we painted a portrait:
the Rabbi (of blessed memory) in pale oil paints.
We graduated to the higher tribe. We stood in threes
at the roll call wearing clothes of Torah and labor,[ix]
We waved flags. From the clubhouse roof we saw:
Tel Aviv awakening, turning on the lights
of its tall towers before it got dark.
In Sabbath’s twilight, at the end of our meeting, we sang
together, boys and girls: “When the soul illumines,
even skies garbed in fog produce pleasant light.”[x]
Translator’s note: This segment of “The Seer” hinges on the end of Stanza 2: “I began to speak in the first-person plural.” In Stanza 3, the adolescent voice uses the first-person plural to parrot the ideological line, a kind of hyper good-boy speaking for that all too prevalent Israeli we — and the educational “we” in English and no doubt other languages, as in “We don’t pick our nose in public.” In stanza 4, the same first-person plural in the voice of the older, wiser poet looking back transforms the goody-goody “we” into a kind of sardonic editorial “we,” critical of the collective that often crushes the “I,” which is exactly the subject matter of this segment. Though he refers to himself as “we,” the speaker is not a chorus but rather a soloist. Singular and plural are carefully calibrated in the Hebrew. The items of which the speaker, anatomically, has only one are consistently singular, the items that are naturally plural are plural: one body, one groin, many erections, two fists and so on. If readers are uncomfortable with the seeming inconsistency in a phrase like “our groin” – that is part of the intention here. —VE
- The twelfth month of the Jewish calendar, prior to the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah)
- See the Book of Ezekiel 1:5-14
- The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement
- The term in Hebrew is “almond bone.” There is debate as to whether this refers to the top vertebra in the spine, or the bottom vertebra. The latter interpretation seems relevant here
- Prayers for forgiveness recited in a quorum in the month of Elul and during the Days of Awe
- Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi during the period of the British Mandate and a key founder of religious Zionism
- Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137 and 150
- Religious Zionist youth movement
- Torah ve’avodah: Torah and labor, or Torah and service – a slogan of the movement denoting the combination of religious practice and learning with doing actual work and service in the military, in military, in addition to that learning.
- The words to the song are from a commentary by Rabbi Kook
Amichai Chasson was born in 1987 in Ramat Gan. He is a graduate of yeshivas in Bnai Brak and in Otniel in the West Bank, and the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. He works as a screenwriter and film director and lives with his wife Miriam and their three children in Jerusalem, where he is the curator of the gallery at the Beit Avi Chai cultural center. “Liminal Poems” is his third volume of poetry. See https://www.poetryinternational.com/en/poets-poems/poets/poet/102-29459_Chasson
Vivian Eden (b. USA) holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature with a specialty in translation from the University of Iowa. Her 1988 translation from the Hebrew of Anton Shammas’ novel Arabesques has just been reissued by New York Review Books — an excerpt is available here: https://lithub.com/arabesques/. She continues to translates from Hebrew to English and publishes her writing in the English edition of the daily Haaretz newspaper, and other venues. Front and Back, a selection of her work in English with Hebrew translations by Israeli poets, was published in 2008. She and her son live in Jerusalem; her daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters live in the Boston area.
Lisa Katz (b. New York, in Jerusalem since 1983) is, most recently, translator of So Many Things Are Yours, a bilingual selection of the poetry of Admiel Kosman, (Zephyr Press, 2023) and The Absolute Reader, a chapbook of verse by Miri Ben Simhon (Toad Press 2020) A chapbook of her own work, Are You With Me, was published by Finishing Line and Shihzur/Reconstruction, poetry in Hebrew translation, by the Am Oved Press.