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Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005)

Dahlia Ravikovitch, a Jewish writer who died in 2005 at the age of 69, was one of Israel’s most beloved poets and translators. She was also acclaimed for her courage as a peace activist who was "deeply involved in the cause of Palestinian human rights." Through her poetry Ravikovitch alerted the world to the disdain many Israeli Jews had for Palestinians:

You won't be accepted anywhere.
You are banished human beings.
You are people who don't count.
You are people who aren't needed.
You are a pinch of lice
stinging and itching
to madness.

Ravikovitch's death was front-page news in Israel and was met with an "outpouring of grief from every corner of society." In their introduction to Hovering at a Low Altitude (Ravikovitch’s collected poems), her translators Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld said Ravikovitch is considered by many to be the greatest female Hebrew poet of all time. According to Bloch and Kronfeld, "no Hebrew poet, with the exception of the late Yehuda Amichai, has been so universally embraced by Israelis." Her fame was not just literary; she also had "a kind of celebrity status" so that even "the color of the coat and shoes she wore to some reception or other were considered worthy of notice in the gossip columns." This fascination owed something to her "reclusiveness and striking beauty," but even more to the "powerful intimacy of her poetry." Here's an example from her poem "Trying":

Remember you promised to come on the holiday
One hour after dark.
For my part, I won’t keep count of wraths
Or wrongs till you come.
And you: Don’t believe a word I say
Even when it’s wondrous or perverse.

Here is a translation by Robert Friend of her poem "Clockwork Doll," published when she was 23:

I was a clockwork doll that night,
and I turned left and I turned right
and when I fell and broke to bits,
they recomposed my wax and wits.

I was a proper doll once more,
my manner carefully demure;
and yet a doll of another kind—
an injured twig that tendrils bind.

And when they asked me to a ball—
although my steps were rhythmical,
they partnered me with dog and cat.

My hair was gold, my eyes were blue.
I wore a dress where flowers grew.
Cherries blazed on my straw hat.

The first poem in her first book, "The Love of an Orange," has been called "passionately carnal, in a way that would become Ravikovitch’s hallmark":

An orange did love
The man who ate it,
To its flayer it brought
Flesh for the teeth.

The poems in her third collection, titled "with meaningful plainness" The Third Book, were cast in a more "relaxed and plainspoken style." For instance, this excerpt from "Portrait":

She sits in the house for days on end.
She reads the paper.
(Come on, don’t you?)
She doesn’t do what she’d like to do,
she’s got inhibitions….
In winter she’s cold, really cold,
colder than other people.
She bundles up but she’s still cold.

Ravikovitch became an "outspoken critic of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Though not all her protest poems transcend the subjects that provoked them, the provocations themselves—the burning alive of an Arab worker by Jewish arsonists, the killing of a pregnant woman’s fetus ‘under circumstances relating to state security’—are sufficiently terrible to make the verses powerful." She became the poet who speaks of seeing but not acting in "The Window":

So what did I manage to do?
Me—for years I did nothing.
Just looked out the window.
Raindrops soaked into the lawn,
year in, year out….
Winter and summer revolved among blades of grass.
I slept as much as possible.
That window was as big as it needed to be.
Whatever was needed
I saw in that window.

What was it that she was seeing? Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which resulted in the massacres of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, seems to have shocked her into speaking more forthrightly and forcefully. (It's interesting that Osama bin Laden has been quoted as saying that he first considered the attacks that became known as "9-11" as he observed Palestinian and Lebanese women and children suffering and dying at the hands of Israelis and the U.S. navy, which shelled Lebanon with the largest guns afloat: the 16-inchers of the battleship New Jersey. The New Jersey blasted seven hills southeast of Beirut with forty rounds of shells, as reported to the Associated Press by Marine spokesman Captain Wayne Jones in December, 1983. Diary entries made by Ronald Reagan confirm that he authorized the use of U.S. naval bombardment of Lebanon in September, 1983. In an especially eerie "harmonic convergence," Reagan's diary entry on 9-11 mentions that the use of U.S. artillery "could be seen as putting us in the war." Eighteen years later to the very day, those words would prove to be prophetic.) Ravikovitch wrote of the massacres:

Over the sewage ponds of Sabra and Shatila
there you passed a considerable number of people on
from the land of the living to the land of the dead
night after night
first shots
then hangings
and then slaughter with knives
. . . and our sweet soldiers
they have asked nothing for themselves
they wanted so badly
to go home in peace.

In “Two Isles Hath New Zealand,” a poem that has "become a mantra for the peace-camp in Israel," she wrote:

No point in hiding it any longer;
We’re an experiment that went awry,
A plan that misfired

According to Jerome A. Chanes, "Bloch and Kronfeld lose the savage irony of the poem’s title. 'Two Isles Hath New Zealand' is a wonderful play on 'Sh’nei g’dot la-Yarden' — 'Two Banks Hath the Jordan' — the opening line of the territorial-maximalist poem of the great Zionist-Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky celebrating Jewish claims to the entire Land of Israel, a poem that was a mantra of the right-wing Herut/Betar movement of past decades. To 'get' Ravikovitch’s poem you have to 'get' its title; Ravikovitch gleefully turns Jabotinsky on his head." (Now, if only she could make him roll over in his grave!)

The following poems by Ravikovitch were translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut:

Get Out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks
and the utensils and washtubs
and the books of the Koran
and the army fatigues
and the tall tales and the torn soul
and whatever's left, bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the village.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It's hard to keep tabs on kids in a situation like this.
Not like in the old country
in the shade of the mosque and the fig tree,
when the children the children would be shooed outside by day
and put to bed at night.
Put whatever isn't fragile into sacks,
clothes and blankets and bedding and diapers
and something for a souvenir
like a shiny artillery shell perhaps,
or some kind of useful tool,
and the babies with rheumy eyes
and the R.P.G. kids.
We want to see you in the water, sailing aimlessly
with no harbor and no shore.
You won't be accepted anywhere
You are banished human beings.
You are people who don't count
You are people who aren't needed
You are a pinch of lice
stinging and itching
to madness.

A Baby Can't Be Killed Twice

On the sewage puddles of Sabra and Shatila
there you transferred masses of human beings
worthy of respect
from the world of the living to the world of the dead.
Night after night.
First they shot
then they hung
and finally slaughtered with knives.
Terrified women rushed up
from over the dust hills:
"There they slaughter us
in Shatila."
A narrow tail of the new moon hung
above the camps.
Our soldiers illuminated the place with flares
like daylight.
"Back to the camps, March!" the soldier commanded
the screaming women of Sabra and Shatila.
He had orders to follow,
And the children were already laid in the puddles of waste,
their mouths open,
at rest.
No one will harm them.
A baby can't be killed twice.
And the tail of the moon filled out
until it turned into a loaf of whole gold.
Our dear sweet soldiers,
asked nothing for themselves—
how strong was their hunger
to return home in peace.

The Tale of the Arab Who Died by Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn't happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
"God! They are burning!" he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack's boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn't ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn't last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.

An Unsatisfactory Answer to The Question

What do you think of the murder of the Prime Minister?
Yes, what do you think of the murder
of the Prime Minister?
And what do you feel?
Are you in shock
or depressed?
A question was asked.
And do you stutter
or are you unsure of what will happen,
or do you speak with such bewilderment
because of the future or the present—
A question was asked.
And perhaps you feel stupid
or without a point of view?
And I reply:
All that you say is right
and you are a dear person.
And I want to add one more thing:
The Prime minister died a happy man.
Peace to the dust of the Prime Minister
Husband and father and something more:
the son of Red Rosa.

Mechanical Doll

And that night I was a mechanical doll
and I turned right and left, to all sides
and I fell on my face and broke to bits,
and they tried to put me together with skillful hands
And then I went back to being a correct doll
and all my manners were studied and compliant.
But by then I was a different kind of doll
like a wounded twig hanging by a tendril.
And then I went to dance at a ball,
but they left me in the company of cats and dogs
even though all my steps were measured and patterned.
And I had golden hair and I had blue eyes
and I had a dress the color of the flowers in the garden
and I had a straw hat decorated with a cherry.

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