Figs and Facebook: The Poetry of Agi Mishol

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Agi Mishol




Figs and Facebook: The Poetry of Agi Mishol by Joanna Chen

February 8th, 2014 reset - +

THE FIRST TIME I went to Agi Mishol’s farmstead in central Israel, she did not immediately invite me into her home. Instead, she led me to a huge fig tree growing in the garden and picked a couple of round, green figs for me from one of the lower branches.

“Don’t you just love it?” she said, speaking with a mouth full of fig.

Yes, I do, I nodded.

Mishol is one of Israel’s leading poets, and the director of the Helicon School of Poetry. She lives in the country, surrounded by a handful of indolent cats, a small and suspicious dog, and an unruly garden. The farm run by her husband grows peaches, persimmons, and pomegranates in season. I had awkwardly parked my car in a narrow space between a field and a shed around the back of the house where the produce is packed. The land upon which the fruit is grown seems to stretch out for miles, rows of neatly cut trees in earth that dries out quickly in the hot sun. When I was there, it was peach season.

Mishol writes while sitting at her wooden kitchen table, her dog at her side. She composes delicious, juicy poems, as well as more frugal ones:

When she sees me in the morning
coming out of the house towards the fields
she leaps around me releasing
on the path
one long, precise sentence
of happiness.
(From Working Order)

Writing mostly in free verse, she has a particular affinity for Hebrew punctuation, which is always tricky since a system of dots under the letters is used in place of vowels. In “Poets,” an ars poetica, Mishol uses the physicality of punctuation as a vehicle to underscore what she sees to be the role of a poet:

sticking punctuation onto letters so they won’t fly
off the page
thirsty for prepositions
but bleeding from every hyphen…

To date, Mishol’s books have been translated into 11 different languages. Lisa Katz translated Look There: New and Selected Poems, published by Graywolf Press in 2006, and (full disclosure) I am currently translating Working Order. I use the word “translated” here to mean converted, transformed, rendered comprehensible to an audience who may not share Agi Mishol’s specifically Israeli roots, but who do share the universal emotions that she evokes. Take, for example, “Snapshot”:

This backside suddenly revealed
in a mirror facing a mirror
in the bathroom of a hotel
in a foreign city —
no one here
but me —
it must be mine:

Pale moonscape
with furrowed craters and
hills of cellulite
that I land on
for the first time and plant
a flag.

With the biting, often self-deprecating humor that invariably permeates her writing, Mishol describes alienation not only from a strange environment but also from the physical self. The sudden and unexpected confrontation with her own image in the mirror is exactly what Mishol accomplishes in her poetry — she holds up a mirror and compels you to do the same, wherever you are. Yet this poem is intensely Israeli, gently laughing at the tendency of the average Israeli to stick an Israeli flag wherever she is, whatever she’s doing.

Over the past six months, Mishol and I have been meeting regularly to work on her next book in English translation. She takes translation seriously: “Poets are dependent on translation in order to know other poets around the world,” Mishol says. Some of her favorites are Rainer Maria Rilke, Wisława Szymborska, Eeva Kilpi, and Mary Oliver. Translation, of course, is a two-way street: she wants other people to know her world as well.

The act of translation is a complex one. It involves rolling up linguistic sleeves and doing a certain amount of digging in order to reveal the multiple layers of meaning. The novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote that “a translation can serve as a lens into the underground life of another culture,” and I always bear this in mind when approaching a text. Translation should reflect the original yet do so in a way that will still let the words resonate and flow. According to Linda Zisquit, a former teacher of mine, who translated an expansive body of Mishol’s poetic predecessor, Yona Wallach, the art of translation is “to create a poem that will be faithful to the original spirit but not be confined by it.”

Hebrew is an ancient language rooted in the Old Testament, but it only began circulating as a living, spoken language in the late 19th century. This juxtaposition of old and new is mirrored in the name “Tel Aviv” (tel meaning “ancient ruin,” aviv meaning “springtime”). It is a juxtaposition that lives in the language and the culture, and so it is only natural that this theme is a prominent part of Mishol’s work. Take the poem “Back Then,” which blends past, present, and future: 

When we loved without margins and God
came to take his due
we threw him a faint smile thinking he deserved
no more.

Long distance gazers, we put our trust
in cakes of love:
little fried crepes of desire
for the seven
good years

forfeiting wings that grow
only to those who first jump
into the abyss
without them.

The poem asks whether physical love can endure without metaphysical meaning. There are two biblical references in this short poem: the “seven good years” refers to Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream, a well known biblical story. The second reference, “cakes of love,” ashishot in Hebrew, is mentioned in the Song of Songs as an aphrodisiac. This word is not in use today (although it did reemerge briefly in the 1970s in a popular song that may resonate for readers of Hebrew) but is planted into the poem purposefully, in order to establish the specific biblical backdrop of the Hebrew language. “Back Then” also weaves in colloquialisms. The words “he deserved” — magia lo in Hebrew — form an extremely common turn of phrase from the root hagaha — to touch, to arrive, to approach. The phrase “Long distance gazers” demands a weaving of the term for long distance runners with the word bohim — staring or gazing, at its root.

Hebrew is a language with many layers because it is constantly being reshaped by the cultural melting pot that is Israel. This is no different from any other country where there are many immigrants, but one must take into account the rupture in time between the ancient biblical Hebrew that lay largely dormant until its Zionist revival in the late 19th century. Consequently, the biblical infrastructure of the Hebrew language invariably colors the meaning, no matter how much the words or the syntax change. These layers can be difficult to express in English, and yet they are essential to the original. “Showing You” is a poem that illustrates this difficulty:

Undressing for you down to my handwriting
down to the gutturals
the hard phonetics
the vowels

until you see my O
my very suffixes

the trees made into paper,
flutes and the desk
with the chair that swivels
empty

when I come to you so
you will read my ink.

The word “vowels” is a translation of “haehhewi,” which, in Hebrew, indicates letters whose sounds, and therefore meanings, are differentiated onto a, e, i, and o. The word also contains a loose tetragrammaton for God, subtly suggesting that God is behind the formation of every word. Mishol and I decided to drop this allusion in the English translation because it was too heavy for the poem. “This is a love poem and, as such, God appears in the cellar of the poem, not at the front porch,” Mishol argued. “I want it to be hinted at very softly, as the Hebrew does.”

The first line of the second stanza was a challenge since, in the original, the letter Mishol uses is samech, which has an “s” sound and, graphically, looks much like a circle. In translating, I chose the letter “O,” which has broad sexual connotations, rather than the actual sound of the letter. In English, “O” also alludes to Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which Lear refers to the female genitalia as “O.” This allusion, of course, does not appear in the original Hebrew.

The word “suffixes” is an interpretation, rather than a straight translation, of the original word for “final letters,” a special form for certain letters appearing at the ends of words, since this does not exist in English. What is lost in translation is the way that the original Hebrew wording of these two lines emphasizes the idea of an “ending” or an orgasm, as if this is what the person is going to reveal when she “undresses down to her handwriting.”

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Mishol published her first book of poetry in 1972. Since then, she has published 15 more, including Working Order, which has sold more than 12,000 copies to date, an unprecedented achievement for a book of poetry by Israeli market standards. In a world of virtual pleasure found online or on-screen, Agi Mishol pulls in the crowds, easily filling leading Tel Aviv venues such as Tzavta and the Cameri Theater when she reads. The accessibility and simplicity of Mishol’s poetry has made her one of the most well loved poets in Israel today; it is this very simplicity that is occasionally cited as a weakness in her poetry, mirroring criticisms of Billy Collins and Jane Hirshfield in the United States.

Mishol’s work has frequently been described as eco-poetry or poetry of the land. She uses her everyday life on her farmstead as a lens to talk about the inner workings of the human psyche, as in Plantation Notes, published in 1986, a book she first sold together with her peaches by the side of the road. In these and other books, Mishol never loses her grip on reality, a reality that is always colored by the turbulent political backdrop of the Middle East.

Location is key to Mishol’s writing: “I was dropped in the shadow of a persimmon grove / under the migration track of birds,” she says in the title poem of Working Order. Mishol posits the idea that God distributed different poets over different parts of the earth in order to write a poetically mapped biography of the world: “You won’t find peaches in Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry, or snow in mine,” she says wryly. “It’s like each poet is handed a particular worksheet. Mine has peaches in it.”

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Mishol’s poetry has a lot more than peaches. Since Mishol divides her time between her home in the country and her work in the cultural hub of Tel Aviv, her poetry also retains an intrinsic cosmopolitan quality, and an awareness of the global interconnectedness that technology and social media has fueled. “The green, glistening pea / of Gmail / signifies they're both available,” Mishol remarks dryly in “Green Things,” a poem that considers spiritual interconnectedness in an age of technological substitutions.

Her poetry is also peculiarly and specifically Israeli. She writes poems about the Hasidim flying on Israel’s national airline; relations with the Palestinians; foreign workers in Israel; the booms she hears from her back porch as the Israeli Army bombs Gaza a few kilometers away; and a female suicide bomber (“You are only twenty / and your first pregnancy is an exploding bomb,” translated by Lisa Katz).

In this way, her poetry is infused with the politics of Israel and the dichotomies within it. “We’re not sitting in the Himalayas meditating — we’re sitting here in turmoil in this mad, aggressive country and the politics percolates, seeps into my poetry,” Mishol says in one of our many discussions about the impossibility of writing poetry in isolation from politics. In “The Combine Harvester,” published in 2009, the innocent description of someone working in the field becomes a succinct metaphor for the Israeli military’s activities in Gaza: “Erect in his cabin / MP3 blasting / the harvester advances. / One by one ears of corn collapse / on their way to bread.” And in “Love Reports for Reserve Duty,” Mishol admonishes love that appears before her dressed for battle: “Go, I tell her. / The wars are over.”

In his introductory essay to Mishol’s Selected and New Poems (2002), Dan Miron of Columbia University writes:

Agi Mishol’s poetry acts not only in the literary-poetic field of an Israeli culture struggling to consolidate itself; it also makes a broader attempt to shape a way of life and a worldview.

This worldview is devoid of God in the conventional sense but nevertheless has a strong spiritual dimension, a longing for solace in a world of ephemeral materialism and bare physicality, as exemplified in “Synchronicity”:

At this very moment there is someone lying
in the hollow of a carton
with all the other eggs,
improving relations with his
internal organs
and there are runners running the body
that one day will turn around to kill them
and they are rushing nowhere
like hamsters on a treadmill
in the gym and
they say to the air: I'm on my cell.

But there is also a she who anoints her body
and dedicates it to love
and a he whose soul
bursts out towards her
less like a dove
more like a flower

From Working Order

One thing I learned from the many years I worked in a foreign media bureau based in Jerusalem is that you cannot write about Israeli culture without relating it to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or “the situation” as it is often referred to by Israelis. These are both blanket terms that cover arguments about Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the Israeli policy of occupation, discrimination against Israeli Arabs, against Palestinians, and the disputed Right of Return of both peoples. Israelis are constantly asked to explain their political standpoint: to each other and to the world outside. And the world outside is watching. The cultural boycott of Israel is long-standing but has lately gathered steam. Even in the cossetted atmosphere of Tel Aviv, the hum of politics continues in cafés, bars, at the supermarket checkout, and along the promenade where families mill around on weekends.

Every time there is an Israeli military incursion (and there are many) the cultural boycott against Israel naturally intensifies. When poet and musician Joy Harjo visited Israel in 2013, just over a year ago, at the invitation of Tel Aviv University, the Israeli military was conducting an incursion into Gaza. She was urged by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) to reconsider. Harjo, author of Crazy Brave, stood firm the eve of her departure; she also visited the West Bank as a genuine gesture of reaching out to those who criticized her. “I am a Mvskoke person living on occupied lands,” she posted on Facebook, in an effort to explain her decision to come, later adding that she hoped her decision would “generate discussion and understanding for many paths to justice.”

Mishol is, of course, well aware of the boycott. On a tour of the United States back in 2006, she was constantly confronted by protesters carrying signs in support of the cultural boycott and shouting slogans against Israel’s military operation in Lebanon. At a French poetry festival, people would leave the room when Mishol entered, a scene that recurred throughout her visit, and one that both puzzled and hurt her. “So often, what is poetically correct is seen as politically incorrect,” she tells me in a phone conversation. “Poetry and art provide an alternative to politics, a way of listening to other voices and other opinions, a way of bridging.”

Of course, there are those who would have it otherwise. There is even a movement in Israel today, initiated by a member of the Israeli parliament, to group specifically right-wing poets together. I must add here that the bulk of leading poets in Israel today are considered left-wing. Does this matter? Must they be typecast before they read their poems out loud to the world?

Mishol is vehemently opposed to being labeled a political poet, insisting that she does not have a political agenda. Granted, her poetry is infused with the atmosphere of Israel and all its political turmoil, but to my mind, one of Mishol’s great strengths as a specifically Israeli poet is this: her poetry is anchored in the personal. “My own private world reflects the situation so well,” she tells me over tea and dates in her kitchen. “We have a big farm, we need working hands. Before the Intifada, we worked in harmony with Palestinians for years. The government of Israel put a stop to that and today the connection is severed. My own backyard mirrors this.”

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Mishol’s poems dig into the roots of words that continuously evaded her as a child, since Hebrew was her second language. She grew up in the home of Hungarian immigrants, who arrived in Israel from Transylvania in 1951 when Mishol was just four years old. Mishol relates this in her poem “Holocaust, Remembrance, Independence”:

that blurry one called Agnes,
who in nineteen fifty changed her name
to Agi, and since then this hollow girl has tailed
my father, who was her father as well.

Mishol’s parents were Holocaust survivors, a heavy curtain of family history that was rarely lifted in front of her. Her mother survived Auschwitz; an older sister did not. Mishol writes about her family extensively in House Call, published in 2004. She writes about the silence that pervaded the house and her mother’s insistence that she did not remember. “Memory is something dynamic, it changes our consciousness, it’s not what happened but what I remember,” Mishol insists. Perhaps it was here, coping with a new country and a new language, that Mishol’s stance as an observer, on the outside looking in, began to percolate. She slowly began turning words over in her mind, speaking Hungarian at home and Hebrew outside of the home. She wrote poems sitting at the dining table. A shy child, words became her companions. “I was a late bloomer,” she tells me. “There were no books at home. I didn’t come from an education of poetry.” It was only later that Mishol was introduced to the world of literature.

As a schoolgirl, she began reading the poetry of Lea Goldberg, a poetry that is rooted in romanticism, Zionism, and the tension between the collective and the individual. She also read Hayim Nahman Bialik, considered by many to be the national poet of Israel. In the 1960s, Mishol was influenced by the biting, experimental poetry of Yona Wallach. According to Linda Zisquit, Wallach was the first Israeli poet to venture into direct confrontation with taboo subjects such as sexuality and gender. She is still one of the most influential forces in the literary landscape of Hebrew poetry today, along with Dalia Ravikovitch, whose gentler, lyrical poetry opened the door to more direct introspection. Mishol herself admits she walked the fine line between these two poets for many years. Today, Mishol’s work is perhaps closer in spirit to Ravikovitch’s. Israeli poet and literary critic Meir Wieseltier snipes at Mishol for this in a recent article in the Israeli daily Haaretz: “We already have Yona Wallach, so who needs this? And if we’re already talking about it, Dalia Ravikovitch is much more interesting.” To my mind, what Mishol brings to the table is humor, a down-to-earthiness, and an approachability that is irresistible to many of her readers.

Her teachers back in the 1970s were Yehuda Amichai, who Mishol has called a “poet of the people,” and Dan Pagis, both of whom wrote of war, the Holocaust, and the founding rock of the state of Israel. These two poets, writing out of the 1948 War of Independence, expressed the dichotomy between individual desires and national necessities. These roots are still visible in Mishol’s poetry. But what grows now from these roots is something different, exciting, forward-looking, and provocative.

And often humorous. Working Order contains a love poem about a tortoise. Another imagines a best friend as a dog “who from one end barks at me and from the other — wags his tail.” “Humor and irony enable you to see things from a greater state of detachment, to take a step back. It’s connected to alienation,” she says, quoting “Poets”:

Look at us staring
at the bluish light of the screen —
a vast luminary not created in Genesis,
until one perfect sentence
justifies our lack of existence

As Director of the Helicon School of Poetry, Mishol teaches and, no less important, listens keenly to the voices of emerging poets. They are voices that incorporate Hebrew buzz words, crude abbreviations, and slang. “The old school of poetry is horrified by what it sees as a cheapening of poetry,” Mishol tells me, “but as long as it excites and moves me, I not only welcome it but incorporate it gladly into my own writing.” Among Mishol’s past students is Noam Partom, a 28-year-old poet from Tel Aviv whose irreverent poetry is making waves in the growing poetry circles of this cultural metropolis: “On him I rest my head / piss without dread — in a wide arc over everyone.” Partom, Mishol claims, is highly representative of Tel Aviv here and now. “When I read her poetry,” Mishol says, “I feel like I’m sitting in a bar with her. She filters history for us, puts you right in it.” Another intriguing poet is 29-year-old Nadav Linial, whose highly lyrical words expose little-written-about subjects with blunt honesty. In “A Diary of Basic Training,” for example, Linial writes about homosexuality during mandatory service in the Israeli military. “In the tent, questions are directed / at my body, demanding I lie. / Tonight your name changes / its sex again.”

Where is Israeli poetry headed? This summer, Mishol’s poetry, combined with an evening of theater, playing to a packed audience. The literary magazine of Hebrew poetry Ho! has a dedicated following of readers looking for new poetry that honors more traditional forms, and the Israel Poetry Slam regularly provides a vibrant poetic stage. Poets of Babel, a multilingual poetry club, celebrated its first anniversary at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque with a large gathering of poets reading in different languages. 

Since I first met Mishol, the stifling heat of summer has morphed into a sunny, mild winter, with precious little rain. Two more dogs have joined her family, although she swears she is looking for a home for one of them and asks me to take photos to post on Facebook. And it’s persimmon season on the Mishol farmstead. She sets before us on the kitchen table a plate of this bright orange fruit, freshly picked that morning. She has sliced it horizontally into thin circles, “so you can see the heart,” she explains, “otherwise it’s not worth it.” Next to the plate is her new book, Awake, published back in September, a deeply personal collection that considers poetic form and is perhaps Agi Mishol’s most intensely sober writing to date, like the taste of persimmon cut to reveal the heart. 

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Joanna Chen has written for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and the BBC World Service, covering events in Israel and the West Bank.

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