Waltz With Wallach, A Prose-Poem
By LINDA ZISQUIT
She was a child when her father was killed. The year the
State was born. I heard her name for the first time the dark February we
arrived. At a party for translators. I didn’t know a word of Hebrew yet, but I
had been invited to the party honoring Gabriel Priel where I met Gabi and Zali,
my new Israeli ‘brothers.’ They were editing a journal for a special issue on
Israeli poetry, and asked me to try my hand at two of her poems. They told me
about her demonic verse, her experiments with sex and drugs.
I was 30. She was still alive. But nothing, nothing could have been further
from my mind than a long term relationship. It was winter, bleak, silent, I
looked out from the absorption center for new immigrants on the city of
Jerusalem, my new home. With two little daughters and a husband I loved—but
whose need to come here had ripped me from my other home. I couldn’t speak
couldn’t breathe there was no light in the basement of our immigrant quarters,
I left without a word, he followed me with the little girls and 12 suitcases to
a cheap hotel in the center of town. Where to go? At the party I’d met poets,
translators, people accustomed to the harsh light. I couldn’t see my way
through that first weekend. I called my mother and cried, unable to comfort her
for the sudden cruel separation from her only daughter, or my weakness in not
finding expression enough for my own ambivalence to console either one of us.
But that request for two poems resonated as I enrolled in the Hebrew class at
the immigrant quarters where we returned after being offered a third-floor
space with a window that opened to the light. We stayed there six months. I
bussed the girls each morning into town, chafing against the brutal landscape
that softened over time as the Hebrew gutturals and the Russian doctor in my
class became another home.
I never met her. Those first two poems I tackled like so many things in my life
as ‘the challenge presenting itself that I cannot refuse’ but why Yona why the
attraction initially so unconscious so circumscribed by responsibility by
desperation by loss. No voice. I could have as easily slipped into a stream and
used that material. My life at the time so vulnerable and inhabitable by
whatever wind flowed through. Missing home finding home missing words missing
phrases missing rooted connection missing the ground that enables flight
missing all that I had thought of as my self and at the same time wildly and
dangerously experimenting in my new life breaking the borders of traditional
religious observance while keeping close all the barriers as authorities as
keepers of the gate as dynamic judges—and so Wallach was the perfect
choice—though I never considered her a choice. I was as if chosen. It was what
was given to me. Out of darkness. As organic a responsibility as my own poems,
as much an act of faith and trust as the poems that came from my own daily
attending to life’s textures.
What changed in you Yona, she was asked. I’ve developed techniques
she said. An ability to analyze the material. She was already sick then,
dying. In the hospital the doors opened for her, the corridors, monasteries
where she no longer felt afraid, there she found the porous poetry I seek, the
ability to use all the material that once seemed unfit for poetry. Hers was
cerebral and physical. A psyche made of body and flesh. A language of the self
dynamic and procreative. Where God is revealed. Like nothing I imagined at the
beginning. The censorship I’d heard of, the enticing gossip, photos of the vamp
the long hair the exaggerated platform shoes the theatrics – none of that as
compelling as the intellect the spirit moving through the brain the enormous
power of her appetite to dig the Hebrew for its roots and follow the
tributaries of its watery underground feeding system to reach the ancient, the
slang and the marketplace, the transcendent blue dome the Church of the
Dormition, ‘the sky a helmet over us.’ I used that phrase in a poem recently
and had no idea till now it may have come from her. Intimidated at first by her
reputation, I submerged my ear in the hardest sounds I’d ever encountered. Word
by word, phrase by phrase. Buds of sensation unfolded into meaning. The
pathetic persecuted little children of her early lyrics, the pursued
Jonathan/Jesus the gladiola stalk whipping across the page, the sounds of her
leaping tongue, the split, crossed, exchanged, and multiplied selves. How did I
ever enter that domed room? What would have happened if I’d resisted, said no?
A slow start. Like stones. Coals. Like fire. It caught on. Like smoke it rose
and formed shapes I didn’t recognize. An attraction? Affinity? We never met.
Her father was killed in the War of Independence. He was a founder of the town
where she was born. Kiryat Ono. Her mother ran the local movie house. She never
left Hebrew, never left Israel. A Tel Aviv poet who admitted herself to the
Talbieh Hospital in Jerusalem to observe her states of mind under
hallucinogens. Joined a rock band. Made music. Made the stones and the coals
and the buried nuggets of heat and cold rock together, the mind ignited.
Secrets opened into generosity. As she watched her body consumed with cancer
she gave up the fear that others would steal from her, or that she had to hide
anything. She held on. I held on. Someone said reading Wallach is like riding a
horse, you have to hold on, better not stop to make sense or analyze, just
read, follow the words, the wild light, the music and the visual sounds.
So I started with those two personae poems Jonathan and Cassius. And then one
day another. And another. Absalom. Christina. The incantatory monologues. The
love poems inviting God and Father to sleep with her. The k’desha engaging
with holiness through sexuality. The powerful pleasure of not knowing where I
was being led that kept me holding on. The “I” that never clearly voiced its
personal sorrows or its delights only its mind-music singing wildly like an
operatic heroine singing till she died singing at the top of her lungs singing
till there was no place or relationship further to explore, long hair flowing,
breathing pulsing muscular men becoming women becoming softer, sex in
partnership, a landscape of not particular clarity names rarely spoken memory
less of a present tense lingering in the mind than a life-force of words making
I am now twenty years older than Yona Wallach was when she died more than
twenty years ago. It took me more than twenty years to translate the poems into
English from the brilliant burning Hebrew of Wallach’s tongue, all the while
charged by her mastery, charmed by her playfulness, provoked by her pursuit of
spiritual truth. As the daily practice of prayer requires some estrangement, so
her liberating wild poems appear now as living acts of faith.
The material was of her self: fear of persecution, fear of not being loved, the
father and mother hunting, the doe, the Garden, the monster self. And of
recurring situations. The doe recurs. Madness recurs. She took pills to watch
madness. She played with fear as with a child throwing it in the air.
Literature she said should help us understand our lives, not the nation. What
matters is the personal, the private, what is connected to our lives. That is
the work of literature, she said, to find the secrets of existence.
Wallach never wrote about the nation. Or the wars. Or the troubling leadership.
Or the injustices. How did she ignore the burning issues. Wasn’t she a poet
engaged in the local scene? Wasn’t she a Tel Aviv poet churning up the garbage
on the street together with the holy books? Wasn’t her poetry a political act,
a confrontation with the squeamishness the hiding behind tradition and
gender-conscious rules of a language in order to free it, out of love and
concern? What is the poet’s motive? Is it finally to understand herself?
Would she have sat with me at a café and enjoyed our conversation? Would she
have disdained my effort to translate her poems? I never thought about these
questions, was taken as if by some internal force into the whirlwind of her
hand’s work. And I never stopped out of frustration as I pondered the
equivalent weight and size of a word knowing there was no match for her choice
no studied solution that would please unless I let the words do it in me.
Caught in immobility, stunned by loss, I turned to her for some movement the
way a bird’s call wakens. And there in the cadence of her “I no longer love
being afraid” I found the longer line the gathering energy that repetition
restores if we don’t restrain ourselves out of fear. Just as I had been afraid
of their reaction, the chorus of men the ones who called my poetry passionate
as if that were a female weakness a critical flaw. And she set me out on the
branch to call with a thin voice, our song perched on a wire in the dark night
and the sound of the bird that I perceived as hers as mine became a force. But
really what other pleasure is there in a poem unless it carries you somewhere
else. You stumble and fall over the difficulties and that too is another place,
solitary, confused. God came through her window and when she knew he would no
longer come she mourned. Towards the end she observed her body on the bed tired
after so much doing, so much observation, knowing that above all she must take
care of herself. Dismiss the hypnotist. All that tireless scrutiny must finally
give way to simple acceptance. A fighter. She played with fire. And then the
final poems slowed down by the body’s cancer became her guide, another
I keep thinking we are done, this can’t go on, but there is always more.
Author's note: "This is a meditation on translation written in a
stream-of-consciousness mode. Some events are probably conflated in memory."