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On translating Yona Wallach

January 18, 2006
Yona Wallach's was a voice that was not heard before in modern Hebrew: “the female voice of an aggressive, transgressive, at times transcendent “sacred prostitute”,” sharp-edged and blasphemous, combining holiness and shocking sexuality.
In 1982 I translated several of Yona Wallach’s early poems in response to the request of a friend then editing an issue of Hebrew poetry for The Literary Review. I had reservations: Hebrew is not my mother tongue, and Wallach’s reputation – as a masterful poet who fragmented syntax with demonic power and broke laws of male and female conjugation – was intimidating. From the first, I felt myself pulled into a whirlwind, challenged by Wallach’s brilliance, and charged by her contrariness. More than a need to enter the sensibility of an important poet, I felt an instinctive pull toward that mysterious space out of which Wallach speaks – where nothing is absolute and everything is in constant flux and the self remains unfixed. As though there were no choice, only an organic imperative requiring my energy to match hers, I have continued the project over these years.

The history of modern Hebrew poetry is a series of formal rebellions waged by the leading poets responding not only to changes in the culture but also to a rapidly developing spoken tongue. The language that Yona Wallach was born into is almost unrecognizable from the Hebrew of a hundred years earlier. In 1897 Eliezer Ben Yehuda, responsible for compiling the first modern Hebrew dictionary in Jerusalem and credited with successfully launching the Hebrew speaking movement in Palestine, called on women to revive “this old, forgotten, dry and hard language – by permeating it with emotion, tenderness, suppleness and subtlety.” Till the turn of the century Hebrew was primarily the language of the Book, confined to the study hall and synagogue.

The “Tel Aviv Poets” demanded a direct confrontation with the reality of their lives: the aftermath of several wars, the burden of post-’67 occupation, the absorption of new immigrants, the shattering of national myths of returning and reclaiming the homeland, questions about religion in a secular society, familiarity with a living spoken Hebrew. And the city that charged their imagination was the city where they lived – lively, quick-paced Tel Aviv. It was time for dissonance, disjunctive syntax, slang. No more lyric wholeness or quiet tones, the music now was fragmented, louder, from Tel Aviv’s noisy bus station and the imperfect speech of immigrants, part Polish, part Arabic, part American English, part street talk, all that these younger poets felt was missing in the verse of their predecessors. What could be heard in their poetry was aggressive, jarring, startling and amplified; and in the case of Wallach, for the first time in modern Hebrew, it was the female voice of an aggressive, transgressive, at times transcendent “sacred prostitute”.

In the early 1920’s, several women poets began to make their voices heard in Palestine. In the late 1960’s, an intense female self-perception linked in spirit to these earlier poets became harnessed to a defiant unorthodox intellect in the poetry of Yona Wallach. As one of the “Tel Aviv Poets” beginning to write in the 1960’s, Yona Wallach’s work came to full force in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.

Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Kiryat Ono, Yona Wallach never left Israel’s borders; completely “at home” in Hebrew, she used its street talk with impunity. She lived close to the senses and wrote often of the ruthlessness of feeling. She dared to present herself as a blasphemous woman, shifting from childish innocence to blatant sexuality, as no woman writer in Hebrew had done before.

Yet it is her artistic achievement and the radical uniqueness of her style – the force-of-nature intellectual energy, irregular metrics, broken syntax and the innovative treatment of gender in the holy tongue – that has earned her a place at the forefront of modern Hebrew poetry. In many of her early sharp-edged lyrics, she speaks through personae – children in the grip of pain or terror who persecute and inflict pain on others, wounded and rejected female souls with strange, foreign-sounding Christian names on the brink of madness. Written in the late ’60s, these poems approximate natural speech rhythms and primary diction.

In much of Wallach’s later work, mostly long incantatory monologues written in the knowledge that she was dying of breast cancer, she expresses impatience and disdain for “the wrong kind of sex”; charged with heat and tenderness, anger and sorrow, these poems are moved by a courageous and desperate search for love and guided by a deeply religious sensibility.

Yona Wallach, beyond immersing herself in the immediate and palpable, evokes a near-hallucinatory world of the inner self. She rejects any suggestion of influence from the Hebrew tradition. “I hated Hebrew poetry and literature. It seemed like one big deception. I loved Baudelaire and Walt Whitman. It seems to me that Hebrew poetry misses the point . . . it conceals everything from us. They didn’t speak to us about suffering. They spoke about Bialik, that fat self-satisfied man adored by the entire nation, but they didn’t speak to us about madness. Everything was fat, everything was national . . . ”

Wallach’s poems are governed by the ear, animated by excited and spontaneous speech, responding to intense personal needs. Her biography is not easy. Her father was killed in the War of Independence when she was young. When she was committed to a psychiatric hospital as a young woman, she experienced mind-expanding hallucingens as part of her treatment. She saw poetry as a way out of the inner chaos. “I saw that I haven’t a defense. That’s what rescued me . . . that’s simply life itself . . . I don’t live without poetry. Poetry is natural bread. You also need music. But what saved me was the need to understand life. The thinking about life saved my life. I wanted to decode for myself what I saw, the riddle of the world. That’s the way I wrote my understanding.” She mentions no mother or father or sister or friend in her work, dedicates no poem to a hero. Her ‘I’ is exposed to God, to Nature, and in these it recognizes itself. Her poems are acts of insight arising beyond her control, of words from which effective power streams.

In Wallach’s poetry, God has body, voice, a physical presence she has known intimately in all the passionate imperfection of human encounter. Simultaneously she stands as if one with the radiant angels and also as a secular Israeli woman, a modern poet alienated painfully from her God, in a state of desire and engaged in a process of constant struggle and choice: What is generally accepted as religious, sexual or national identity she treats as material to be tested, turned on its head. What appears at first a shocking taboo-breaking poem about an incestual longing becomes a clear and immediate expression of desire for God the Father. In a series of love poems beginning {id="3510" title="When You Come . . ."} Wallach daringly invites the male to play various social roles of authority, such as Judge, God, Father, and so explores the sexual rules that govern these relations at the same time that she expresses deep personal longings and love. For Wallach there is no separation, no contradiction between the transcendent and the physical; further, sexual desire becomes an avenue to the transcendent. It is only by shocking the system out of habituation, compartmentalization and the mundane, and going beyond society’s acceptable norms to the perverse, aggressive, and transgressive, that one can achieve revelation. Like the Biblical harlot, she combines holiness and shocking sexuality.

It is not only for shock effect that Wallach speaks through voices both male and female, many and one, but by means of shock, to transcend everyday life. Through sexual physical passion and transgressing the conventions of everyday life, Wallach fuses the opposites of the sacred and profane, and makes the physical and transcendant inseparable. Moving at great speed, her poems discourage a detailed, close analysis. Incorporating irregular rhythms and prophetic pronouncements that explode universal sexual taboos and violate sacred religious beliefs, they are often but not always lucid, following their own idiosyncratic interior logic as their spiritual landscape keeps shifting.

Wallach joins polar opposites in sweeping gestures, singing and laughing, at times with bitter humor, only in order to bridge the gaps. As whole poems gradually coalesced for me, and meanings surfaced, many of them nevertheless remained syntactically fragmented. My struggle to translate Wallach’s poetry into accessible English continually raised some essential questions: how to render the poems into an English that makes sense without filling in the spaces of Wallach’s Hebrew? how to achieve the Hebrew feel of some of her phrases with an English that does not read like a partially realized translation?

As Wallach speeds along, I have tried to keep up with her, to listen as syntactical fragments turn into whispers or screams, to hear the voice of her mind-movement, to allow the discomforts and the pleasures of her flashes, and to bring the poems to an English that is faithful to her quick, shifting idiosyncratic Hebrew and at the same time lead us to light, a wild light at the end. I hope I have done that.

Excerpt from the introduction to Wild Light: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach, translated by Linda Zisquit. New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1997. ISBN 1-878818-54-6.
© Linda Zisquit
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