Jack’s guest is American-born Israeli poet Rachel Tzvia Back. Born in Buffalo, New York, she was raised in the US and Israel. The seventh generation of her family in Israel, she returned there to live permanently in 1980. She currently resides in the Galilee, in the north of the country. Back studied at Yale University, Temple University, and received her PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently a senior lecturer of English literature at Oranim Academic College, Israel.
Among her books of poetry are the chapbooks, Litany (1995) and The Buffalo Poems (2003) and the full-length books Azimuth (2001), On Ruins and Return: Poems 1999-2005 (2005) and A Messenger Comes (2012). Poet Kazim Ali writes, “Where is any place now when even in Israel one longs for the promise of Israel? When every place has two names and two destinies, ghosts cannot be silent and the land itself speaks…Back is able to use open field composition, multivocal address, polyvalent textures, and a particularly disturbing fractured form of couplet to speak searingly, bracingly, truthfully about a life only she has lived.”
Back has published a book of criticism, Led by Language: The Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe (2002) and four books of translations: Lea Goldberg: Selected Poems & Drama (2005); Night, Morning: Poems by Hamutal Bar Yosef (2008); With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (2009, hailed by Adrienne Rich as “an historic collection”); and In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner (2014).
Today’s show will concentrate on two books: On Ruins & Return and A MessengerComes. Susan Howe writes of On Ruins & Return, “The past exists in layers of our present and perhaps nowhere more powerfully than in the place evoked in this beautiful and haunting collection of poem. Rachel Tzvia Back’s passionate historical sense illuminates ways in which outer violence touches our deepest subconscious…When hope is in retreat and there seems to be ‘nothing left resembling the human / but soldiers on their knees / in the sand,’ the austere beauty of this poetry remains.”
On Ruins & Return is haunted by the words hold, empty, broken, shattered, gone, howl, mangled and by a visionary image of the buffalo which Back experiences in Israel, where there are no buffalo:
On the curving road between severed hills, I stop—
must stop, the road is spinning, will not settle. I step out of the car, crouch by the side of the road, put my head between my knees for a moment until the nausea passes. When I raise my eyes toward the vast silence of the charcoaled gnarled hills, I see it.
There, where the slope meets valley floor, as though it had just stepped out from behind the charred wings, unwedded to the broad stage, shifting the balance—all
eyes (my eyes) to the far corner, to the hulking mass in a crevice of space, in shimmering still smoke-tinged air—
Still, erect, frozen. Silent. Its thick furred hair motionless in the windless air. Its hump its own solitary mountain, carried from far-away places. Its head half-lowered, in profile—a dark brown buffalo, wandered into these Jerusalem hills.
On American plains there were once
sixty million, here
there were none
though now I see him here
as though returning
(dark thick-tongued ruminant
massive beast of crowded herds)
his solitary ruins
to this narrowland
still brown body
in still and dry heat
[Note the Biblical resonances of “I raise my eyes toward the vast silence of the charcoaled gnarled hills”: e.g., Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.”]
A Messenger Comes is a book of elegies centering in pieces for the poet’s father and sister, though the book opens with a re-writing of Genesis which includes a section in which Jacob (“Israel”—“he who struggles with God”) wrestles with the Angel, though both Jacob and the Angel are imagined here as women. (“Someone had to do it,” Back remarks.) Hank Lazer writes of the book, “In A Messenger Comes the poet’s spirit is broken by her grief. Beautifully rich and emotionally engaging, this is no simple book of consolation. In its steadfast beauty, it is a book of questions…A harrowing & inspiring book of poems!”
This is a section of “Lamentation,” Back’s sequence “for my father, on his dying”:
By the door by the snow by the night
grace and ribboned
in the hushed air there
you once saw me
no longer a child—
it was all in my hair
falling, burnt spring
on my shoulders.
This was long ago—in slow
motion you pulled it all back
tucking it out of sight
my head with the hood
at the threshold So
you’ll stay warm you said
waiting to watch me
into white night.
And this is the opening to “Elegy Fragments,” her deeply moving poem to her late sister, Adina:
My sister died
in mid-summer, in the middle
of the night, in the middle
of her life.
Her slender self suddenly
and the crowded world
Brooklyn heat held
still in its murmuring
arms as we
cradled her at earth’s
comfort in her ears there
at the terrible
Postponed from an earlier date.