My Wife Watches Me — A Poem by Giora Fisher

Haim Watzman

The one great emotion most neglected by poets is the profound love of the long-married couple written from the perspective of middle age. Most poets who reach that age (one wonders what Byron might have sounded like at 60), the male ones in particular, seem to be hung up over their lost libido. From C.K. Williams to Hanoch Levin, they devote poem after poem to old loves or desperate attempts to regain the sexual passion of youth.

Giora Fisher, photo by Dafna Kaplan for Helikon
So it’s a great pleasure to find a poet with the voice and skill (for every marriage is unique, and intimate, and no true lover would violate its confidence) to depict a love that young men know not.

Giora Fisher, five years my senior, is a high school teacher and farmer who began writing poetry just a few years ago. His first book, Aharei Zeh (In the Aftermath is the English title), has just been published by Am Oved and, he tells me, the 1,000-copy print run has already sold out. I offer my translation with the poet’s permission.


MY WIFE WATCHES ME

Giora Fisher

I’m asleep.
My wife watches me
I feel her eyes scanning
My balding head
Examining the brown blemishes
The date of expiration
Stamped by time.

I sleep
But my heart wakes, waylaying my wife
Waiting at the edge of sleep
For the verdict of her eyes.
And only after it hears a sigh
A sigh of no pain
And without regret
Just a quiver of wistful desire

My heart, too, subsides
And slumbers.

translated by Haim Watzman

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Stuck on the Fence: Shahar Bram’s “North of Boston”

Haim Watzman

Shahar Bram
When I encountered Shahar Bram’s lyric “North of Boston” on the back page of Ha’aretz’s arts section last month, I was immediately struck by its plethora—celebration, really—of intertextuality and interlingual word play. A poem awash in allusions and puns that cross textual and linguistic boundaries is by definition impossible to render into any other language without losing precisely that which makes the work stand out. But, inured as I am in expressive frustration, I wrote and asked him for permission to essay an English version.

Robert Frost
I begin here with the usual caveat I affix to my other attempts at translating and commenting on poetry here on South Jerusalem. I’m not a poet, as a translator of poetry must be, so this translation is very much a work in progress that I intend to revise in response to reader comments, and those of Bram himself.

The original Hebrew version can be read here. I’ll follow my translation with some notes to explain what excites me about the poem.

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The Poem as Translation–Leah Goldberg’s “About Myself”

Haim Watzman

It’s always easy to tear a translation apart, and the easiest kind of translation to tear apart is poetry. Vladimir Nabokov, who lived multilingually and thought a lot about translation, was one of the best, and funniest, critics of other people’s renditions of Russian classics into English—as can be seen now in his ”Art of Translation”, a article from 1941 available on The New Republic’s website.

But Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin, which he mentions working on in this piece, didn’t come off so well, because he got overly concerned about following rules he set for himself. Any translation of a poem has to give up on entire swathes of what makes the verse intriguing and worth reading in the original, but it can’t work on any level if it doesn’t stand as a poem on its own terms. But to do that, as Nabokov notes, the translator needs to see the world, as best he can, through the poet’s eyes.

A mistake of that sort came up in an evening on the classic Israeli poet Leah Goldberg that I attended last week.

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Dead Off: Hanoch Levin’s “Lives of the Dead” in English

Haim Watzman

    <em>Hanoch Levin by Yigal Tumarkin</em>
Hanoch Levin by Yigal Tumarkin (photo by Yair Talmor)
My friend Atar Hadari’s translation of Hanoch Levin’s anti-epic poem “Lives of the Dead” provides a fine opportunity for English readers to make an acquaintance with an important but very frustrating member of the modern Israeli literary pantheon.
Levin, who died ten years ago in middle age, made his major impact as a playwright and director, but was an accomplished poet as well. Like a number of other poets, critics, and writers of his generation—Meir Wieseltier and Yitzhak Laor come to mind—he was a rebel who began his career storming the castles of canon and tradition. But the edge of his sword was blunted because he came into his artistic prime in an era when flouting convention and toppling literary idols was fashionable and, in fact, the best road to success. So, paradoxically, he soon became part of the canon himself and found that the castles had turned into windmills.
He kept tilting at them anyway, displaying a great deal of flair in the process. But when I see a Levin play or read a Levin poem, I generally find myself much more impressed with the craft than the message. Levin’s major concern is the absurdity and depravity of life lived in the presence of death, and the futility of the beliefs, euphemisms, and obfuscations we use to avoid accepting death’s inevitability and its nullification of our selves. But having said that, he never found anything else to say. The point got belabored, and all the while a good chunk of his sense of humor remained in junior high school. Even though he died far too young, his death came after the dawn of a new era, one in which it became more radical and non-conventional (at least in literary circles) to talk about God and the spirit than to trash them.

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Soldier, King, Slave–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The heart is two
It’s yes and no.

    <em>Avraham Halfi on stage</em>
Avraham Halfi on stage
It’s an Avraham Halfi moment. Like an overstimulated actor, I’ve pushed my way to center stage. Slipping between mothers sitting in chairs, climbing over brothers and sisters on stools, I’ve gotten to the edge of the clear spot next to the screen on which we’ve just seen a film of our sons in action. Only then do I see that N’s father is there, ready to speak. I’m such an idiot. Sorry, I mumble, go ahead. No, it’s fine, N’s father says. Really, I didn’t . . . Don’t sweat it. He steps aside.

We’re in the backyard of S’s house, a green corner deep in one of the commuter suburbs that has sprung up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the last two decades. “We” are the families of the dozen young men in my son’s commando squad, who a week before finished their year and then some of intensive training. In collusion with us, their commander, O, brought them to S’s house, where they discovered their mothers and fathers and sibs waiting. Meat was on the grill, salads abundant. The setup was worthy of a wedding, because H’s parents, who have a company that stages events, brought a truckfull of sleekly-designed tables, chairs, stools, and even four couches to lounge on, not to mention lights, gas heating elements, a screen, a projector, and flowers.

The newly-certified commandos don’t look particularly warlike. They’re dressed in shorts and teeshirts despite the winter chill. Grins on their faces, but beyond that no sign of surprise or emotion. They are the survivors of a grueling selection process that whittled their numbers down from a group twice the current size; one of the main criteria for selection seems to have been the ability to project an air of insouciance. We parents are beside ourselves, want the boys to be surprised and ecstatic. We know nothing about what they do in the army—can’t we know something about what goes on inside them? Apparently that, too, is classified.

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In Praise of Hegemony: Mizrahi Culture in Israel

Haim Watzman

Is the cultural freedom of marginal and minority groups violated by the promotion of a standard central culture by a state or society? In contemporary sociology and cultural theory, “central” and “standard”—more often called “hegemonic”—are dirty words. Such scholarship, veering from the descriptive into the prescriptive, seeks to rescue the lost and oppressed voices of marginal groups and to defend them against the dictatorship of the official, mainstream culture.

     Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
I encounter this view frequently in scholarly works that I translate. Right now I’m pondering it as I work on the introduction to a book on the poetry of Israel’s Mizrahim—that is, of Israeli Jews whose origins lie in the Arab world—by Yochai Oppenheimer, a poet and writer about poetry.

Indisputably, when Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel in the great wave of immigration in the 1950s, they encountered a central Zionist culture that believed itself to represent the only viable future for the Jewish people. That culture rejected Jewish religious tradition, and drew considerable inspiration from modern Europe. It viewed the Orient, and its Jews in particular, as a backward and primitive place. Therefore, its leaders and doers were not, for the most part, interested in fostering or respecting the native culture of the new immigrants. Instead, it sought to assimilate the Arab Jews and make them into Hebrew-speaking moderns.

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