In early 2015, as this profile was being prepared, poet Anna Herman was awarded the ACUM Prize for her third book of poetry, forthcoming this year. An editor at the noted formalist journal Ho!, she makes her living writing, editing, translating and teaching, and is a regular reviewer of children’s literature for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Her first two books, Unicorn and The book of simple remedies ‘are two of the most interesting books of poetry to come out of Israel – and in Hebrew – in the last ten years’, according to poet, scholar, and Herman translator Adriana X. Jacobs.
The poet’s perhaps surprising formalism is often discussed. Israeli translator and critic Peter Kriksonov, in a review of Herman’s first book, remarks:
Along with the use of the formal features of poetry, Herman is also known for her frank treatment of young girls’ and women's lives. Writer and critic Ruth Almog notes ‘the traumas of childhood and adolescence’ in Herman’s work: ‘Many of the poems [in Unicorn] carry clear signs of a wounded childhood. There are teddy bears and dolls, a mother’s reprimands are heard, and the school playground [is present]’. But in a 2006 newspaper interview on this topic, Herman emphasizes the consolations of poetry (the interview is published here alongside this profile).
In her essay on the poem ‘MMHMM’, Jacobs discusses Herman’s use of rhyme and meter:
For Herman, poetic form is a productive constraint, and it is no surprise that she has found a home, as it were, in the pages of Ho!, a journal of contemporary Israeli poetry and translation that has championed, since its inaugural issue, classical form and prosody. In Herman’s work, the familiarity and comfort of rhyme and meter provide a meaningful contrast to the uncomfortable and disquieting tales and images that Herman composes. For instance, a poem that begins with the Grimm’s tale of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ quickly turns into a reflection on Sylvia Plath’s suicide, all told in rhyming couplets that are shockingly soothing to the ear. This mix of the old and new is very typical of Herman, who can refer to both Beethoven and George Michael in the same poem, and provides another way for Herman to challenge the charge that an adherence to form and prosody in this day and age is indulgent and anachronistic.
In Unicorn, which Herman dedicated to Ho!’s founding editor Dory Manor, Herman engages in an explicit and generous dialogue with her sources and influences. Many of the poems in this collection include epigraphs, dedications to other writers, or are marked as written ‘after’ a particular painting or drawing. This information reveals a wide-ranging poetic map that adeptly includes William Blake, Abraham Sutzkever, Yona Wallach, and Charles Baudelaire but also encompasses Herman’s contemporaries, whom she equally acknowledges in several poems. What stands out in this particular collection is Herman’s engagement with Wallach (1944–1985), one of the major Israeli poets of the 1970s and 1980s. This makes for a provocative pairing given Herman’s measured verse and Wallach’s iconoclastic poetic idiom, but it’s one that allows Herman to bolster her implicit argument, which she advances persuasively in Unicorn, that carefully built and technically sound stanzas have no trouble accommodating strange, solitary worlds.
that softly close
I open the door
and out falls a lonely girl
like shade in the yard, at recess,
her frozen face.
Behind this frozen face
She hides hills and mountains
She hides a whole wide world
Behind this frozen face.
– ‘In memory of white doors’ (trans. Adriana X. Jacobs)
The reader of this Poetry International profile will notice that Jacobs has reduced some of the rhyme in her translations, for reasons she explains in an essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review, and that my translation of ‘Anna Karenina’ eschews the end rhymes of the original couplets altogether, with the gracious acquiescence of the poet. (Perhaps a PI reader can produce a gracefully rhymed version?)
Alpha and Omega (with Dory Manor), a libretto for the Israel Opera, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2001
Had-Koren (Unicorn), poetry, Habbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2002
Hasefer shel refuote pashutote (The book of simple remedies, poetry, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2006
As translator, English to Hebrew
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (Yomanay Sylvia Plath), Yediot Aharanoth Books, Tel Aviv, 2002.
A Sketch of the Past (Rishum min ha-avar), by Virginia Woolf, Modan Books, Moshav Ben Shemen. 2011.
“Is ‘mmhmm’ a sound—a moan or hum expressed ‘using words’—or is it a word?” Adriana X. Jacobs on reading and translating Anna Herman
‘MMHMM’ in Hebrew and English
Peter Kriksonov on Unicorn
Complete Ynet interview
Entry in the Ohio State Lexicon of Contemporary Hebrew Literature
Feature in Haaretz, ‘The poet takes on a super nanny’
‘MMHMM’ in Hebrew and English
‘MMHMM’ set to music
Herman reading at The Poemhemian Rhapsody launch
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