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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Hear O Lord: Poems From the Disturbances of 2000–2009, by Eliaz Cohen, translated by Larry Barak.  New Milford: Toby Press, 2010.  177pp.  $14.95.

 

Bringing together poems from two of the poet’s previously published Hebrew collections, this bilingual volume reveals a poet at a career crossroads. Unlike prominent Israeli poets Uri Tzvi Greenberg and Avot Yeshurun, who successfully advanced their ideological views through poetry without sacrificing their aesthetic strengths, Eliaz Cohen’s promotion of his political views through poetry has distanced him from the understated tone and layered meaning featured in his best poetry. As a result, he needs to choose between continued poetic development and use of poetry for political ends.

              With rare exception, Cohen’s political poems prove to be unconvincing kitsch of potential interest only to those sharing similar views. Raised in the West Bank settlement of Elkana and currently residing over the Green line in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, Cohen adheres to a National Religious ideology that views settlement of the whole of the historic Land of Israel as the pathway to redemption. Adherents of this ideology actively fought representatives of the democratically elected Israeli government during Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and, in a section of the present volume entitled “An Invitation to Cry: Six Poems on the Disengagement,” Cohen passionately sides with these protesters and employs his poetry to convey their political sentiments. Yet, in these and other political poems in the collection, Cohen all too often selects ready-made metaphors rather than creating original ones to convey his emotions and experience and thereby dampens or deadens the impact of his poetry on non-partisan readers. For example, in a poem intended to express his anxiety about Israel’s Jewish future entitled “From Poems of the Coming Holocaust,” Cohen compares Israeli Jewry’s future fate to that of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims. He prophecies that if nothing is done the land’s Jewish inhabitants will become “azure/ crystalline/ ethereal,” like Auschwitz’s incinerated Jews, whose essence melted away in the heavens together with crematorium smoke. Beyond its lack of heuristic value, this self-pitying comparison proves off-putting and tasteless due to its divorce from actual conditions in Israel/Palestine. Similarly Cohen repeatedly draws on the biblical story of the binding of Isaac for countless images intended to portray the lives of Israeli Jews as a ceaseless and frequently deadly religious trial. Binding and ram imagery pervade his poetry, and one must ask if this theme can be conveyed in a more original manner.

              In contrast, when Cohen employs the minor tone dominant in contemporary Israeli poetry, he writes subtle and nuanced poems. Cohen’s poetry on universal themes, such as parenthood, mourning, and love, displays a unique poetic voice drawing upon, but not imitating, the poetry of Dan Pagis, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Hayyim Guri, and Yona Wallach, whose work Cohen frequently alludes to. One can only hope that he continues to develop this part of his corpus that is on full display in poems like “Ultrasound” and “From Me To My Uncle.”

              The short poem “Ultrasound ” constitutes a captivating meditation on the wonder of parenthood and exemplifies Cohen’s poetry at its best: “‘And all the people saw the sounds’/ look, we do too: a tiny heart dancing in red and blue/ the spine a pearl necklace/ (or sun rays)/ five fingers searching/ and five more/ the sex organ is hidden/ (in any case we didn’t want to know)/ something is trembling inside us/ wanting but unable to touch,” (p. 45). In quotation marks, the opening line comes from the description of the giving of the law at Sinai in Exodus 20:14. The visual perception of sound referred to in this verse has long been understood as a cross-sensory metaphor intended to convey the wondrousness nature of divine revelation, something deemed absent from modern life. Yet the poem’s title and its reference to obstetric sonography employing ultrasound waves to produce visual images hint that such wonder does not lie completely beyond human grasp. Modern Jews can visually perceive sound just as the Israelites did at Sinai and they too can receive a form of divine revelation on par with Sinai when they glimpse a new life on a fetal monitor. Consequently use of this intertext helps Cohen convey the wonder felt by expecting parents at the first sighting of their child, as well as the clarity of vision and revelation of purpose that comes with it for so many parents.

              While appreciation of the incomplete poetic cycle “From Me to My Uncle” requires careful attention to associative linkages, it illuminates the complexities of mourning. The Hebrew word dod in the title can be translated as both uncle and lover, something the English translation fails to capture. The title actually comes from Song of Songs 6:3 and it could be rendered alternatively as “I am my beloved’s.” By fusing dod’s alternative meanings, the title points to the love that binds family members one to another and the pain involved when one of these bonds is prematurely severed. The Hebrew title can also be rendered as “me for my uncle,” which hints at the burden that Eliaz faces as he is forced to stand in for his fallen uncle Eliezer for whom he is named. Just as Eliaz lacks the Hebrew letter reish at the end of his uncle’s name, all efforts to replace his uncle, who fell fighting in the Sinai desert, will fail. When his grandfather watched Eliaz play in his backyard amidst the fruit trees, his memory temporarily betrayed him and he saw his son Eliezer. Experiencing a temporary “resurrection of the dead,” joy returned to his life only to disappear again when he recognized his error. As the poem hints, the pain of such experiences leads the grandfather and other bereaved family members to pull back from the younger members of the family, the fruit of their loins, just as they come to neglect the fruit trees in the backyard, neither tending them or effectively harvesting their fruit.

              Poems like “Ultrasound” and “From Me to My Uncle” point to Cohen’s poetic skill. True poetry lovers can only hope that his subsequent poetry develops along these lines.

 

Phillip Hollander

University of Wisconsin-Madison