Monday, October 7, 2019

**Int'l Essayists** Marcela Sulak on The horrific Stranger and the Self: Two New Israeli Lyric Essays (that do not look like essays)

Israeli publishing houses and literary journals don’t usually distinguish between literary fiction and literary nonfiction—it’s all simply prose. Possibly a greater distinction would be made between journalism and literature, although even here sometimes there is cross-over; for example, Assaf Gavron’s funny and over-the-top newspaper column which was later collected for publication as a book, Eating Standing Up, a review of Tel Aviv falafel stands.  Within the “prose” category I’ve noticed an emergence of flash experimentation: Alex Epstein’s single-page, single paragraph meditations published in English translation as Blue Has No South (marketed under “fiction” in English translation) or Yoel Hoffman’s flashes of meditative memoir, Moods (also marketed as “fiction” in Peter Cole’s English translation). The lyrical essay which does not look like “prose” on a page is rare in Hebrew. But I’ve encountered two extraordinary examples this past year.  Both are book-length lyrical essays which contemplate what it means to give shelter to a potential enemy and the role of poetry, religion, and art in our mediation of insider and outsider, past and present. They are Sharron Hass’s THE DAY AFTER: An Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry (Afik books, 2018) and Adi Sorek’s essay in nine tiles, City of Refuge, which was not so much published as exhibited in a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2019. These multidimensional works unlock the doors of times past, and draw attention to the materiality of words. Indeed, their efforts do not actually look like prose at all. Hass’s resembles a collage/poem and Sorek’s resembles a page of the Talmud framed with the lid of an archival carton.

“It is highly political to discuss Athens and the fragility of democracy. It is complicated and not altogether complicated, the ways that theater and democracy grew up together,” Sharron Hass tells me one day in July about THE DAY AFTER: An Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry. “My project was also an implicit projection of these discussions onto present day Israel,” Hass adds. This essay follows the literal and stuttering footsteps of Sophocles, who at the end of his life, in his last play, retraces the journey of Oedipus Rex to Colonus, a village just outside of Athens. It is the birthplace of Sophocles. Hass notes:

Oedipus is the horrific stranger who comes and asks for shelter. How do we treat the outside world, horrific (so we imagine) strangers, enemies whom we believe are dangerous to our existence? I hold this up to present-day Israel not exactly like a mirror, but as a kind of scaffolding.
But this essay does not look like an essay, a fact that Hass, who has published five collections of poetry and has garnered Israel’s most prestigious awards for them, including the Amichai Prize in 2019 and The Bialik Prize in 2012, brings to our attention. Her fourth stanza proclaims:

I’m not confused: this isn’t poetry

this is an essay on Sophocles’ farewell

to poetry; and nonetheless I’m writing

in short lines with gaps. This is another way

to sit on a rock like the aged


A short line is far more similar to a rock

than a long line.

It’s hard to lie. And not only because of the lack

of comfort.

Of exhaustion.

The translation in progress is by Gabriel Levin. The rock in question is in Colonus, where Hass has traveled to be near Sophocles as she writes. She wishes to leave far behind  “the wretchedness of theory.”  Indeed, she seems to exchange this wretchedness for the misery of sitting without shade, with no water or food. Hass’s line is filled with stones and the natural elements, the body of Sophocles and that of Oedipus, their defilements, drawing attention to the way the flow of language and thought is dependent on the free movement of the body within the arrangement of its physical surrounding.  

But why isn’t Hass writing “poetry”? A few pages later, she explains:

Lyrical poetry is ahistorical, it aims

to stabilize the present moment appearing in the first person singular

with the help of transformation and rupture.

Theater is, I believe, different. It’s hard to know where if at all meaning trails off between

            the bodies that are speaking. The instability

allows for freedom of movement, a feeling of expanse,

a horizon, and even a glimpse as such conversation sound   

                                                                                                                        judgment –

and perhaps every so often tragedy will deny us all of the above?

Hass is writing neither lyrical poetry here, nor theater. Her goal is to disrupt the very idea of genre in order to arrive at unknowing. She explains in her interview with Aya Elia conducted in June and published in the Israeli daily paper Yedioth Ahronoth:

Look, every genre picks up a certain theater of consciousness, to organize reality in a certain way, and to organize the ability to interact with reality and experience it. Tragedy knows one thing, epic another, and comedy another. They can correspond, here and there, but genre is a kind of knowledge. It's very difficult to know beyond the limits of knowledge. So it’s true I wanted to disrupt something, but I also know: genres are stronger than you and me, they're older than us. I'm not sure one person can disrupt a genre.

 This distinction of genre is one to which the reader must attend, Elia notes: 

[On the page] there are various phenomena: cropped rows, fonts of different sizes, short columns indented to the margins, and also highlighted and aligned paragraphs. This is not just an eye-catcher. Hass talks to Sophocles, but also hears and replays Nabokov, Avot Yeshurun, Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi, and others. The voices that come, come from all directions. Maybe that's why writing from right to left is not enough…This is not a typographic image but an oceanic structure—different depths that are constantly in motion. In order to pass the reading you need swimming skills, it is impossible to float unawares, anyone who falls asleep may drown.

Hass’s goal is to arrive at a conscious unknowing, an open-minded ignorance, a curiosity, which is the only place from which one can truly encounter the wretched and sublime stranger. In Sophocles and his Oedipus we have humans the gods themselves observe to discover themselves, as Hass would have it. And perhaps because of this extremely powerful self knowledge, which required a break with human law to obtain, both are cast out of society.  
“There are those for whom nothing is worse than not having a country,” Hass notes of them.  But they are blessed, in the end, if we can use the word “blessed” in this context, for death is a kind of knowledge, as well, and earth welcomes the body and its mysteries.  


As different as the essays appear to the eye, and as different as the sources upon which they draw, Adi Sorek’s City of Refuge shares the preoccupation with who is a stranger, what is a refugee, and how must we behave, given our responsibilities for the talents and wealth that we posses. Sorek, who is a “prose” writer and who is writing her doctoral research on Talmudic laws governing Cities of Refuge, has created a series of nine “tiles,” which look like the pages of the Talmud.

Sorek explains in an essay I translated with her for the journal The Ilanot Review:

In the Talmud, a City of Refuge is a city in which someone who has accidentally killed another person can claim asylum, or find refuge. In Hebrew, the words for “refuge” and “shelter” are the same. Therefore, this project arose from intertwined questions: What is a shelter? And what is a City of Refuge? 

The central text is a diary that Sorek wrote over the course of a year, during time she sat in the center of Tel-Aviv at Habima Square in the mornings and recorded what was happening before her. The diary begins in the fall of 2014, at the end of the last Gaza War, and ends in the summer of 2015. Surrounding this text are quotations from the Talmud, Sorek’s Ars Poetica, meditations on the language of the Talmud, on the laws of the City of Refuge, and imagined questions and encounters of the visitors to the exhibition which was held in a bomb shelter in the summer of 2019.
Originally, the frame of a tract of Talmud was a part of a weaving loom, Adi Sorek informs me over espressos at a café on Habima, and her tiles reference this frame. Like the Talmud, Sorek’s tiles are also a kind of time line, or archeological trove, with layers of content in various languages. Since Sorek’s essay hung in a bomb shelter, space here is integral to the project.

Sorek chose Habima Square because it has a hidden fallout shelter dug beneath it. In her Ilanot Review essay about her project she says,

I began by attending to the outline of the doors leading to the underground bomb shelter—doors designed as part of the plaza floor and therefore paved in tiles, covered, like secret doors. They open during wartime and close in times of “peace”.

In wartime, the underground area is supposed to be a shelter. At other times, it is a parking lot…

I perceive the texture of the resulting text as a kind of tile, or mosaic. During the process of writing, the tiles of Habima Square merged and separated repeatedly from those of the City of Refuge, and the oscillation between them led to a mental wandering that inquires about the connections, gaps, and passages that exist or have the potential to exist between the text and the everyday space.
One day, Sorek tells me, during the Gaza War, the missile siren sounded and she picked up her daughter, who was four at the time, and ran into the shelter. As she held the soft body of her daughter, she began to think about the mothers and their children who lived in the Talmudic cities of refuge:

It is written that you could see mothers bringing food and goods to the refugees in the city of refuge, so they won’t want the Chief Cohen (who governed the city) to die. Because at the death of the Cohen, the refugees in the city of refuge are set free. So mothers would give clothes and food, to help the refugees feel good. They took their children with them to teach them to do this, too.

Sorek’s thoughts follow the women from the public squares of the Talmudic city of refuge back home:

When you think of the role of women at this time, you realize their main domestic duties included weaving cloth to make clothes. In fact this was the case throughout the Mediterranean region, and in the Greek stories, too, women were weavers. We think of Penelope weaving and unweaving her shroud, and of Philomela [who, when her tongue was cut from her mouth, wove the story of the crime into a tapestry] and of Arachne. In Homer, Ovid, and all the Greek male poets, we think how the quality of a woman’s weaving and its purpose will determine the social fabric, in a way.

Women as weavers are a counterpoint to male poets, Sorek says. And she thinks there is something to be said about the page of the Talmud as physically framed with a line from a weaving loom. About the Talmud itself evoking a textile. 

Just as Hass seeks to avoid genre labels, to get at a basic unknowing and deep attention to truth, so does Sorek strive toward avoiding the way we associate distinct languages with their attendant kinds of truth and knowledge. The Talmud contains various languages: Hebrew, different dialects of Aramaic, and Greek, among others. And so Sorek also meditates on and mediates among languages through the image of the sabra, a succulent which was originally introduced into the region by the Spaniards who brought it from the New World in the fifteenth century.  It is featured in the Habima Square sunken gardens, where Sorek would sit.

In Arabic the meaning of the word Tzaber (صَبَّار) is related to patience, tolerance and endurance. In Hebrew Tzabar (צבר) is a verb that means to accumulate (Litzbor) and is related to the Tzabar plant (or Sabra),* perhaps due to its ability to accumulate liquids. Or perhaps because of the web of entanglements in the word as it appears in the Semite languages of Ugarit, Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic (Ivrit and Aravit) with regard to gathering and congregation. In Modern Hebrew “Tzabar” is the nickname for a Jew born in Israel; and also a plant that is associated with the emptied Arab villages – for generations dense fences of the Tzabar have marked the village boundaries.
Sorek sees the modern high-tech city of Tel Aviv, with its high-rise glass buildings reaching for the heavens, Habima Square’s sunken garden piping in symphony music, with its bomb shelter parking lot and hidden doors, its inhabitants of locals and refugees, bracing against a real or imagined enemy, the enemy within the borders or the one without, its laws rooted in the Talmud, and its language rooted in the Bible, as a sort of hypertext. What the mothers of the Talmudic City of Refuge are actually giving us is the way to interpret, to weave into the story cycles of voices, she says. And in her own essay tiles, Sorek, like Penelope, sees a purpose behind their unweaving, and their weaving back again.


Marcela Sulak's third poetry collection and first memoir are forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press. She’s co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. A 2019 NEA Translation Fellow, and a 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation finalist, she’ translated five collections of poetry. Sulak is an Associate Professor of Literature at Bar-Ilan University.

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