A Person Stands on a Cliff and Attempts to Fly Again
By Einat Yakir | 05/08/2010
The opposition of body and mind to the idea of falling creates a restrained storm that nonetheless expresses itself in the world and provides the world with the exaltedness it seeks. Einat Yakir follows in the footsteps of poet Avraham Ben-Yitzhak
Illustration: Udi Gindi
The mountains that have been merged
Into a single circle
Around my city
Conceal the secret inside their forests.
Hovering above that secret is the sound of a sea of trees
And in the hiding-place of their shadow
The secret is concealed.
The golden, noble grape harvest
Will scatter its light all around –
All the paths have been bathed in light
Even the forest is illuminated,
The silent, exalted forest.
Its head is in the heavens
And the light reposes
On its secret.
The peacefulness in the eye of the storm. The longing to be redeemed through that which lies before our very eyes and which survives because it has the innate power to survive; the longing to be redeemed through what we see before us with our own eyes because of the intense will of the "I" in each of us to be redeemed. The longing for the innocence that, with a skillful hand that so clearly displays its rich life experiences and its creativity, has become innocence itself, because, at this precise moment, heaven's gates are being opened. Everything is being revealed; everything is full of secrets and the secret is hidden in everything.
The few poems that Avraham Ben-Yitzhak wrote and published and the seeming reductiveness in the existence of the "I" in his poems are what led me to become a detective. The closer I get to the area of loud noises, the further away I move – in the expansive, patchwork semantic fields (I shiver under my light, transparent but wide blanket), those fields which the poet spreads out before me.
The Landscape of Ben-Yitzhak's Poetry
Thus, the first sentence written by Ben-Yitzhak that I encountered, "The mountains that have been merged/ Into a single circle/Around my city," was given a substantial, private translation. The city is Haifa, and the hills are the Carmel Mountains, while the secret that is concealed in their forests, as Ben-Yitzhak writes in this poem, is a shared secret. Elijah's cave is located on Mount Carmel; it is the human and mythic manifestation of the secret. The dark, damp cave reeks of urine. Elijah the Prophet epitomizes the poet's "obligation" to tell his truth. Elijah, who, as it is written in the Bible, rose in a storm heavenward riding in a chariot of fire, and Ben-Yitzhak's poetry, whose core is a longing to rise heavenward, is in the final analysis burnt by the fire of the chariot of words that are paving the road leading to heaven.
In my view, his poetry is like a person standing on a cliff and attempting to fly again. The expanse surrounding that person is symbolic and the time is cyclical. Thus, the poet's body surrenders to the world that he has set up and it falls slowly, driven by the power of a lyrical momentum like the last leaf – down to the "bottom of the sea", to the "blackness of the forest", to the "pallor of your solitary house", to the "sorrow of evening", to a "tired world". The opposition of body and mind to the idea of falling creates a restrained storm that nonetheless expresses itself in the world and provides the world with the exaltedness it seeks.
You learn about this restrained storm through your senses – sight, hearing, touch – which are solitary traces of a human, sensuous presence. On several occasions, I have found myself drawn to the sun - it seems to be falling "on the cocoons of ice,/on the hardness of crystal –,/and it will break" ("A Bright Winter") like the sensuous incarnation of the internal rift inside the speaker.
As the site where the "I" undergoes its experiences, the city is kidnapped by the mountains in the first poem that I read by Ben-Yitzhak; it is swallowed up by them and it becomes a secret. The heart beating inside Ben-Yitzhak's body is the heart of this land, and its foundations are his foundations. However, the eternal and mute cyclicality – the simple present created through the conduct of these foundations – in contrast with the linear chronology of human beings from birth to death – generates an exciting, heart-breaking existential tension and turns the concrete into a memorable impression and the substantial into the abstract. Such an existential situation recognizes poetry as a medium that is no less eternal, no less cyclical and no less mute and which requires, even within the poetry itself, linguistic equivalents.
"And they sank down into the land of the living/And the black forgetfulness will descend upon the last remnants of the passion of their sorrow/While you, who cannot sleep because of nightmares,/Hover above the darkness" ("A Psalm"). The poet, who cannot sleep because of nightmares, is required, because of his painful recognition, to translate the darkness into a black forgetfulness. This is the only way he knows to defiantly take a stand in the face of the descending darkness, and it is, from the very start, a limited, painful and very modest power. Despite his hidden, tragic knowledge that words will always stand in the middle between one's strongly felt experience and the spiritual and religious molding of that experience and despite his hidden tragic knowledge of this middle ground, this white vacuum between two parallel lines, he never stops hoping – perhaps he never stops believing.
Happy Are the Sowers Who Will Never Reap
I was a guest in the shadow of this complexity, and, as a writer, I found in Ben-Yitzhak the linguistic events I was seeking, the restrained boxing ring of writing, a place that will always seek to smash the metal bars of the language in order to build a descriptive, sensuous, hypnotic world that will be a substantive, plastic manifestation of the feelings one has in a nightmare. However, as a medium, language, because of its essential nature as a mediator, ironically blinds, delays, overturns, betrays.
As I continue to write, I am becoming increasingly aware of language's essential tendency to twist and distort, and, over the years, I have become increasingly aware that the twisting and distortion perhaps constitute the only response that life can give to death. As a writer of prose, as an individual who is becoming increasingly conscious of the pole of stuttering and who is giving that pole more and more space, I am saying goodbye to Ben-Yitzhak; perhaps, here is where you can find the difference and the similarity between poetry and prose. When writing poetry, you create large empty spaces; when you write prose, you stutter as you write about those spaces, and thus they will point out the large empty space, they will attest to its existence.
The large, empty space that Ben-Yitzhak sets up is perhaps the secret; perhaps, it is the concealed engine of writing and the engine that can silence writing. In the last line of the stanza that closes the last poem he published, he writes, "In accordance with their eternal law, they maintained silence," and then adds, "Happy are the sowers who will never reap." Nonetheless, there is an incipient optimism even in this closing line. Like the first poem in the edition that I have in my possession, "The mountains that have been merged/Into a single circle/ Around my city" (Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, Poems, Jerusalem: Tarshish, 5768/1967-68), this poem, the last one that Ben-Yitzhak published, contains a promise.
The poem, which begins with the grape harvest's promise to bring light, ends with the promise of the non-harvest to bring light. The light remains, the secret remains, and the possibility of returning to the time when the world was first created remains. The process that Ben-Yitzhak underwent did not diminish my hope of being able to build myself up through the power of writing, through the power of the event/non-event that occurs within the act of writing and through that act. I refuse to surrender to anyone this faith – this stuttering, aware, sincere, broken, at times comic, at times tragic, faith. Thanks to the abundance of scarcity that Ben-Yitzhak has placed before me, I have been given the privilege to take a brief look at the microcosm of the microcosm: a world in which each emotional charge has a geography, its own unique geography, color and sound. That world is similar to the faith that the very recognition of limitations can enable the world to be created, at least no later than evening time: "And, in the morning,/You hover above the face of the deep/In order to flatten the deep with your profound heavens,/With the huge sun in your hands –/Until evening" (Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, "A Psalm").
This motivation, which is imprisoned within itself, awoke in me a desire to study this poet, to reveal the individual who was born in the late 19th century, lived through two world wars, and was part of the birth of the State of Israel as a realization of the Zionist dream. A map of wandering – from Eastern Galicia, where he was born, to Vienna, where, from the age of 25, he spent most of his formative years, and then to Israel, where he spent the last 12 years of his life.
Although, as an ardent Zionist, he was committed first and foremost to Hebrew literature, his second, cosmopolitan foot consistently strayed from this sidewalk, which was too narrow for his survival as well as for his creative work. Similarly, he consistently refrained from committing himself totally to Zionist activity; avoided the growing politicization in the Labor Zionist camp, although he held it in great esteem; maintained close ties with key figures in Hebrew literature; and felt very much at home in the literature being written in Europe at the time by such people as James Joyce, Robert Musil, Arthur Schnitzler, and especially Hermann Broch. With one foot on the sidewalk that belonged to Haim Nahman Bialik and Jacob Fichman and even went as far back in time as Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Ben-Yitzhak had his foot firmly planted on the sidewalk that belonged to Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Friedrich Nietzsche.
With his feet on such different sidewalks, he became proficient in two poetic languages, German and Hebrew. He would regularly translate from German to Hebrew and vice versa, and even wrote some of his poems in German. It was as if he were trying to undermine the possibility and even the submissibility of a single cultural source.
Again, I return to the last poem he published, "Happy are the sowers who will never reap", which tries to reconcile the phrase in the Book of Psalms, "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy" (126:5) with the rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament in a single statement that, in the final analysis, imposes a verdict of muteness.
In the first volume of his memoirs, The Tongue Set Free, Elias Canetti describes Ben-Yitzhak as a much-admired individual who exerted an immense influence on intellectual life in Vienna but who was, at the same time, proud and aloof and highly reluctant to talk about personal matters or his literary activity. The memoirs that Leah Goldberg wrote about Ben-Yitzhak, Encounter with a Poet (Pegisha Im Meshorer), present him in a Romantic light; she loved him, although she did vainly try to control him. The Ben-Yitzhak that Goldberg portrays is the poet as tormented genius.
Ironically, Ben-Yitzhak's poetry eschewed Romanticism, or, to put the phrase more precisely, his poetry used its Romantic foundations in order to oppose Romanticism. His proud aloofness, his stubborn taciturnity, his refusal to love, the restraint he demonstrated in all his interpersonal relationships paradoxically and tragically create the image of an individual who is torn between a tendency toward Romanticism and an inclination toward incisive, critical self-awareness. Perhaps, however, the two tendencies are not mutually exclusive.
The quip that Leah Goldberg attributes to author Asher Beilin as his reaction to Ben-Yitzhak's taciturnity at a social gathering, "Maybe we should be silent about some other topic?" brings me back to Ben-Yitzhak's poetry, and I find myself rereading it against the background of his silence as a reverse realization of Romanticism. Those same empty spaces and those same silences are now being filled with the power of nature's creatures, the heavens and the earth, and the very wildness of nature - all of these elements expressing the missing autobiography that Romantic poets tried so hard to fashion in accordance with their spirit. Ben-Yitzhak recruited these elements in order to deny any link between them and his poetry or in order to emphasis the tension between these elements and his poetry. I am now giving the above elements a double reading because they also generated his poetry.
It is perhaps not coincidental that the only essay Ben-Yitzhak ever published under his own name was about Mendele Mocher Seforim (Shalom Jacob Abramovitsch) – "A Word on Mendele" ("Mila Al Mendele"). In that essay, Ben-Yitzhak argues that the internal rift that had developed in those Jewish communities which were situated in the very midst of the Gentile world produced satire in Mendele. According to Ben-Yitzhak, because of Mendele's deep love for the Jewish world he depicted, he transformed that satire into humor, which, in turn, expressed the pathos of the position of Jewish society, torn between the "logic of reality" and its own internal "Jewish logic"; however, the Jews were never able to resolve this tension. In his prose, Mendele, a Belarusian Jew, expressed what Ben-Yitzhak wanted to create indirectly in his poetry. An individual fluent in two languages, Ben-Yitzhak was a Jew who spent most of his life in the Gentile world and was aware of the tension between the Jewish world's inner logic and that of the Gentile world. He utilized that tension and even amplified it. In his writing, he was aware of the wide gap between his stormy, frightened existence as a Jew and the Gentile world that is bereft of pathos, whose beauty and cruelty – the logic of reality – cannot be negotiated; this is the pathos of Ben-Yitzhak's existence. His only resort is to long to be united with the secret, which is hidden and which decrees repeated attempts to obtain a foothold; thus, he wanders in the forest of the Hebrew language. This wandering becomes a blessing and offers a single promise: "Happy are the sowers who will never reap/Because they will wander to distant destinations".
I am also a wanderer, the daughter of immigrants whose language – which expresses their thoughts and their longings – wanders into my own language, breaks down there and, from that position, expresses yearning and sometimes becomes the stuttered lamentation of grief. The sincere intention of rebuilding oneself comes face to face with the gate that signifies the law governing writing; the route through that gate is narrow and fixed.
Avraham Ben-Yitzhak was a pseudonym; the poet's real name was Avraham Sonne. Here we have an additional duality. In his use of the pseudonym Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, the poet actually turns the tables. Yitzhak, the son of Abraham in the Bible, becomes Abraham's father. Abraham, the son of Yitzhak, is able to laugh (the name Yitzhak is derived from the Hebrew root tzadi-het-kof, to laugh), to make himself heard; he derives his strength from divine inspiration but he is also the one who is offered up as a sacrifice to God (the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22). The tragic force of life is expressed in the repeated doubling of the name. Although Abraham is Isaac's son, he is also the one who is instructed by God to offer up his son – that is, himself – as a sacrifice.
In the opening to his "Duino Elegies," Rilke asks "If I scream out, who among the angels will hear me?" Like Rilke, Ben-Yitzhak must believe in the existence of angels, in the metaphysical secret, even if all metaphysical existence is expressed in Abraham's world with the angel's instruction to him, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad" (Genesis 22:12). Abraham is standing on Mount Moriah, on the cliff, holding the knife – the pen – in his hand, which he has now raised. Now the frame freezes. In Ben-Yitzhak's translation, the angel's instruction, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad," becomes "Lay thy hand": The knife becomes a pen that rewrites, and renews, the story of his own binding on the altar.
Einat Yakir is a writer