Waltz With Wallach, A Prose-Poem


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 it happen.

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 light. 

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."