In David Israel Katz’s poems, bodies are reduced (or elevated) to the status of objects, and between forms, intimacy grows. Whether that intimacy is kind or productive is not always clear. Katz’s invisible speakers move through relational and physical structures; elements of climate and landscape (fog, sand, eucalyptus); allusions to distance or disaster; and thoughts of morbidity and vacuous longing, all of which create a sensorial experience that reads like love but might be the social proximity of sex and emotional need.
In this moment in late-October, with war’s glasses over my eyes, I cannot manage to read any poem except as a love poem, and every love poem as a prayer. Although these poems are not overtly about war, they have comforted me through these days, because they contain a kind of speed-running of pervasive confusion and grief:
these debts cannot be paid and cannot but be paid
the dim attention paid to swarming mice who
dig rubbery forks into the hissing nylon sheath
stretched over my heaving lava fencing the
pastures that surround my glowing marrow with
exquisite masonry automatic as crystal platelets
The speakers offer abstracted stories of distances that cannot be breached or covered—night to day, America to Israel, body to body, from the myth to the living, or from self to self, which is as true a way as I know of to think of any displacement, of anyone who has endured ongoing losses of home. It is a Jewish experience, though it does not belong to Jews alone.
When I first read these poems, I sat on a city bus on my way to Ben-Gurion Airport. Around me, people sat silently or somberly, some talked and laughed, others leaned into their phones. In the previous two weeks, I had arrived in Jerusalem and learned the words mamad and mamak, the words rimon and cal, learned the etymology of Nablus and the history of Lifta, become acquainted with the low drone of the siren that announces Shabbat, as well as the pointing pitch of the red alert siren. I had not yet seen the wall when I first read these poems, though I saw it soon after.
These poems affirm something to me about Israelis in crisis—heartbroken, torn asunder, seamless. Stoic yet vocal, abrasive yet calm. When I read those adjectives back to myself, I realize that I partly experience Israel in crisis as a potent, distilled version of the Jewish experience in general, even though I know that these two things are not the same and should not be conflated.
David Israel Katz writes us into spaces that negate sense, and importantly, negate our impulse to try to locate sense. His poems release me from this social obligation and false need—a relief in a moment and a world that makes no sense but insists on performing it. These poems are to me at once a resistance and a catharsis. A pushing out and a leaning in. The psychic spaces created by these poems enable me to coexist with senselessness—of childhood, disasters, violent structures, desire, mediation, the way that sex or even touch has the power to both place and displace us—though the spaces of senselessness are entered through the door of the known. Through the familiar, we sit with what is strange. These poems seem to contain elements of harm—knees to concrete—or maybe only the items of childhood, the basic realities of the world we inhabit. What is normal and who gets to decide? What are the terms of the world in which we live and how do we survive it? Here are the unknowable things and the icons stripped of meaning: Here is the bomb shelter, the “soot enriched lubricant,” “the washboard,” “the woven cranecables,” and here are recognizable objects pushed into something unrecognizable, much like our lives.
The structural forms that hold the poems themselves look like protected spaces or shelters—boxes—at once holding and limiting. Some are enclosed while others offer openings of danger and light, like stairwells. Beyond the poems’ worlds and within them, we may have access to protected spaces, to relative safety, depending on our locations and privileges and other transiting unknowns.
Of the poems, Katz writes: “Even though they are not translations, they are definitely translated because I am a translated person. The foremost example of this is the relationship between my Israeli and American experiences as a native Hebrew speaker in California. The many languages that populate my sound-world come not only from multiple places but also from multiple generations of my family––and this is where Jewishness comes in, not as a decorative element but as the warp and weft of this fabric.”
As I traveled to the airport in sorrow and relief, the teenagers who boarded the bus were like teenagers everywhere—bombastic and wild-limbed—except that they were talking about war. As in Katz’s poems, they made sense and they didn’t. They shouted and whispered, wanted and relinquished. They touched and they let go.
Maura Pellettieri is a writer and editor from New York State. She writes and teaches at intersections of ecofuturism, contemporary art, queerness, and Jewish experience and identity. Her writing can be found in The Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Guernica, Denver Quarterly, On The Seawall, Adroit, Ayin, and others. Maura is Moment’s new resident digital poetry editor.
David Israel Katz is a multi-disciplinary artist who works with voice, movement, text and image. His Jewish art project, foreignfire, unleashes the aesthetic heat potentized in heritage ritual formulations through scored performances, improvisations, installations, sound recordings and video-art. Katz fronted the legendary Tel Aviv underground trio The Fluorescents (Lahakat Hazoharim), and appears in recordings by Brett Carson and Hauswasser among others. His solo work has appeared in such places as Tectonics Festival (Tel Aviv) and Musrara Mix Festival (Jerusalem); through foreignfire, he released unsolicited, a collection of poems in bookart format , and waterpuller’s light, a weekly digital Torah reading series featuring contributions from over thirty artists from the United States, Israel, Europe and Latin America .