It’s good to have you back

Yitzhak Laor on Shulamit Apfel’s reappearance on the Israeli poetry scene
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© wanchai on Shutterstock.

Apfel disappeared at the end of the 1970s. She’s not the only woman poet who did. See how mature she is now, and how liberated.

The Spring 1973 issue of [the literary journal] Ahshav featured poems by [25-year-old] Shulamit Apfel, including “Injured Bird”: “My fist is such a small shout./ Who knows that the bird resting inside my throat/ for years/ has died. Who knows a bird is injured./ A poem / does.”
More of her work appeared in the 1976 Fall-Winter issue of the same journal. One of the poems went like this: “An animal crouches silent as death./ Such a stillness./ I am becoming silent,/ the street puts its hands on me/ and perhaps I am hard/ and within my body/ an animal crouches silent as death.”
In her new book two decades later, Apfel is writing poems in which death is different, now spread around the world; many are dead – family, friends, neighbors. The poet’s isolation is relieved by the burdens she’s shed, and increased by the pain of lost opportunities:

Perhaps I’ll write a poem
the poem will give its name to a book
that will compensate me
for the lump in my throat
the weather will be good
the house won’t fall apart
when I say
I’ve loved
my life
I must go
as if someone
is holding me by force
as if someone
is holding me
There are no metaphors here, and death too is purified, stripped down, lurking beyond the poem; that is, it threatens to interrupt the writing [. . .] any minute now, or perhaps it won’t arrive. The violence in her earlier poems has also increased its vitriol but is less likely to ignite, in the sense that power has moved from the fist to all parts of her body. Apfel’s poetry has returned filled with place names, the Holocaust, wars, biographies; in short, signifiers that Hebrew speakers recognize and that did not show up in the poetry of her Tel Aviv years (cited above) [. . .]:
this poem is killing me
I’ve been sitting on it since morning
my feet are frozen
I know this can’t be compared to Siberia
the skies hang low there when it snows
but I’m still cold
And how lovely these lines are: “The last time we lay together/ the sand your daughters brought into the house stuck to us/ it didn’t hurt but I was ashamed.”
[Still] Apfel doesn’t write for the sake of aesthetics [. . .] but as someone who has lived and worked and suffered and has arrived at the blessed moment of this book. In “Holiday Without my Mother”:
It’s cold and the skies are dry
on the first holiday without her
I haven’t stopped mourning yet
sitting with the children
on a bench in the bus station
I imagined a moment of serendipity
until darkness fell
and at night I learned that the moth
casting a shadow in the room
as I bent to diaper my son
is called a “death’s head”.

This moth, whose proper name is perhaps overloaded with significance, yet occurring by chance, "serendipitous" in the speaker’s language, does not detract from what the poem asserts. On the contrary, the terrible moth serves as a myth. Now compare these lines to the ones in Apfel’s earlier poems and see how mature she is now, and how liberated.
Apfel disappeared from the poetry scene at the end of the 1970s. She’s not the only one. Hundreds of [women] poets [whose work appeared] in magazines and literary columns in newspapers began then and disappeared. One prominent fact is that there were less women poets in the past than men and this isn’t so anymore. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. [. . .]
One of the reasons for the big change is without a doubt due to the disappearance of literary cliques [. . .] that were extremely masculine [affairs}. With the death of the clique, the discourse has changed completely.
[. . .]
Ahshav, where Apfel first published, preferred strong or masculine verse in the spirit of modernism. [. . .] One way or another, the adjective “strong” was often used by [Ahshav editor] Gabriel Moked (and when he wanted to humiliate poets, whether or not the reasons were justified, he would call them “semi-strong”, even if he had in the past called them strong.)
[. . .]
Shulamit Apfel’s poem “Don’t ask” must be read in the context of the anxiety of the influence [of the strongest woman member of this group] Yona Wallach, and it may be the key to understanding Apfel’s disappearance:
Don’t ask if I’m writing
it’s none of your business. You were the reason
for the escape into metaphors,
the reason for despair.
It’s possible to err and think
your husband discovered
that you had quietly
possessed me,
and when I couldn’t contain you
any longer,
the desire to be buried
was all mine.
It’s good to have you back, Shulamit Apfel.

moth image © wanchai on Shutterstock

© Yitzhak Laor (Vertaald door Lisa Katz)

Bron: Haaretz 19 February 2013


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