Book Review | On the Surface of Silence: The Last Poems of Lea Goldberg Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

A woman of letters—and mystery
By | Jul 31, 2018
on the surface of silence

On the Surface of Silence: The Last Poems of Lea Goldberg
Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back
Hebrew Union College Press and University of Pittsburgh Press
2017, 296 pp, $25.00

On the Surface of Silence, the final collection of legendary Israeli poet Lea Goldberg, is a book of splendor in more ways than one. With its large 10×10 format, a beautiful cover photo of a desert landscape, a selection of mystical pen-and-ink drawings by the poet, and the haunting poems themselves in Hebrew and English on facing pages, as if afloat in a world of silence (“Silence the fence around wisdom? Perhaps”), it draws the reader into a state of meditation a bit like what we might feel reading passages of the Zohar. As Zohar means splendor or radiance and points us to something beyond words that speaks to our intuitive understanding, so do Goldberg’s poems, composed near the end of her life, speak to us of something wordless yet radiant—that we almost understand.

One of the best-loved and most important Hebrew poets of the 20th century, Lea Goldberg grew up in Lithuania, began studying Hebrew as a child and was already an accomplished scholar and poet when she immigrated to Palestine in 1935. At the age of 15 she had written in her diary, “The unfavourable condition of the Hebrew writer is no secret to me…Writing in a different language than Hebrew is the same to me as not writing at all. And yet I want to be a writer…This is my only objective.” Knowledgeable in seven languages and author of poetry collections, plays, literary criticism, novels, translations of Russian, German and Italian classics, as well as children’s books that are still favorites, she is that rare creature, a woman of letters equally vital in literary and popular culture. Many of her poems have become popular songs recorded by Israel’s most famous singers. The plaintive “And will they ever come, days of forgiveness and grace,” sung by Chava Alberstein, is played every Memorial Day. The joyous “Boi Kallah” (“Come, O Bride”), sung by Ahinoam Nini (known as Noa), today accompanies many brides to the chuppah. Goldberg is also a figure of mystery, not least because, at the time of her death from breast cancer in 1970 at the age of 58, she was composing poems startlingly different from her previous work.

For most of her life, Goldberg was a formalist, fashioning sensuously elegant lyrics in traditional patterns, sonnets and terza rima in particular. Unrequited romantic love was a frequent theme; she wrote also of nature, seasons, the land. The last book published in her lifetime, With This Night (1964), begins to loosen this attachment to convention, and its final poem, “Toward Myself,” leaves meter and rhyme behind, along with romance, as it accepts the aging process:

The years have made up my face
with memories of loves
and have adorned my hair with light
silver threads
making me most beautiful.

In my eyes are reflected
the landscapes.
And paths I have trod
have straightened my stride—
tired and lovely steps.

If you should see me now
you would not recognize your yesterdays—
I am walking toward myself
with a face you searched for in vain
when I was walking toward you.

A few of the poems in On the Surface of Silence were previously published in journals and newspapers. Most were collected from Goldberg’s notebooks and scattered papers found in her house after her death by her friend and fellow poet Tuvia Ruebner, who arranged and published them in Hebrew under the title The Remains of Life in 1971. Stripped down, seemingly spontaneous improvisations, cryptic yet urgent, they are what translator Rachel Tzvia Back in her excellent introduction calls fragments, but, paradoxically, “whole fragments”—in other words, not accidents. Unique in themselves, not portions of something greater.

The radical American poet Adrienne Rich once called traditional form “asbestos gloves” and began to abandon it after her first two books, enabling the reader, as well as herself, to feel the heat. Goldberg waited longer and never wrote explicitly politically, but the effect of her stripping bare has an equivalent intensity. If formalist poetry is gloves, Goldberg’s late poems are a naked self speaking to and moving toward itself. We see cryptic fragments because the poet herself means to keep her secrets, or because as a woman entering the final phase of life, she chooses an absolute austerity in her art, or because she herself cannot fully grasp what she is, or because she knows but will not tell, or because the reality is too stunning for words and can only be hinted at. Scraps seem to fly past like torn paper carried by wind. Moments come into and out of focus. Time is defied, sometimes grammar too is defied: 

I knew, I’ve forgotten.
I have forgotten.
I am other.
I am other.
I am free.

I am as free as the water torrent,
fresh and I’ll never grow old,
never growing old, I lived on endlessly
a hundred years and one night.  

There are many questions, and many biblical references gesturing in the direction of a sacred energy we cannot quite reach:

The face of the waters
and the lesser light
and the spoken word was with God—

And why do we stand
before this strange house
with its blinds drawn?

There is also shock, as in the opening of “The Remains of Life”:

I strode into this night
which is endless
and suddenly it was morning
and the sun lit up
the faces of the living
who envied the dead.

“When there are no roads / there’s no fear of borders,” she writes elsewhere, and one feels, reading these scraps of poems, that Goldberg takes us across borders that would limit poetry, limit reality, limit a woman’s self. Nothing in this work is overtly feminist, yet the directness of her address clearly foreshadows the bold poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch and the scandalous poetry of Yona Wallach, who have punctured conventionalities about gender and thrilled Israeli readers for decades now. Back’s translations are gratifyingly clean and pure, and she has provided useful notes on many of the poet’s historical and literary allusions. American readers increasingly are becoming acquainted with the extraordinary riches of modern Israeli poetry, and Lea Goldberg’s work will resonate with readers thirsty for the lyric passion and beauty that seems to be disappearing from the American poetic scene. For me, as a poet facing old age and moving toward austerity and transparency in my own work, Goldberg feels like an elder sister. As Robert Alter said, “It is a gift to have these poems in English.”

Alicia Ostriker is a poet and a scholar. She has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. She currently serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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