Reviewed by Gwen Ackerman
Agi Mishol is as one of Israel’s most beloved poets. The recipient of numerous awards including the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize, the Yehuda Amichai Prize for Hebrew Poetry, and the Lerici-Pea Prize in Italy, she has taught in programs and schools throughout Israel. Her work has been translated into several languages, including a previous English collection Look There by Lisa Katz (Graywolf Press, 2005). She has said of her writing: “Poetry is swimming against the current of all the noise and commotion, the political events, and the wars. It is being in an underground stream. It is seeing what everyone sees, but differently.” Agi Mishol’s Less Like a Dove digs deep into the universal soul to arouse powerful feelings of love and loss in this exquisite translation by Joanna Chen.
Mishol’s evocative poems arouse memories – both sad and wondrous – of final months with an ailing parent, and it was that which first drew Chen to the Israeli poet’s work as she accompanied her mother “on her last journey.’’ In one of the poems from this thin book, taken from a previous collection, Mishol describes a visit with her mother in a way even those lucky enough not to have lost an elderly relative can relate to.
And we stroll,
your arm strung through mine,
and we play once upon a time I
was your mother,
and now you are mine. (32)
“Agi’s words spoke to me, and as I read the poems and read them again, I began to hear the English behind the Hebrew,” Chen told me in an interview. She reached out to Mishol with examples of how she heard her poems in English, and the poet liked them so much, she invited Chen to her house and sent her away with “a big pile of books’’ of her poetry to read. A true partnership was born. The two writers began meeting every couple of weeks to talk about the translations and to “hammer out the last few bits and pieces.” As they proceeded, Chen began sending out individual poems for publication. Eventually, she realized they had a collection.
For those whose grief is fresh, Chen’s translations of Mishol’s poems unleash choked-backed tears to enable a moment of complete catharsis. Others may sink into a vicarious mourning that may prepare them for when bereavement knocks at their door. Yet it is not only sorrow these poems bring lurching to the surface of the reader’s consciousness. Some bring a smile, albeit a dark one, to the reader’s face:
I didn’t have to snitch to 999
I could have smuggled you
off to my veterinarian
could have put you to sleep
away from here
Could have cradled your head and whispered good girl good girl….. (33)
There are other poems that remind us that life is not only about bereavement and loss, but also song, emphasizing that sadness can give way to joy, however subtle. Mishol uses place and animals, words, letters, and the colloquial to make her language work, and Chen turns Hebrew into English in breathtaking, seemingly effortless transformation. A grin is insuppressible when reading poems about a turtle who ends up on his back, legs flailing in the air after a “pleasuring,” or the description of the creation of the ostrich, a bird made “of leftovers” and “at the end of a particularly difficult day” whose creator compensated it with “(totally defying protocol) the metaphor of the head stuck in the sand” (67, 42-3).
A joint love of nature and animals also deepened the author and translator’s relationship as dogs, cats, and even chickens padded around the kitchen, while Mishol and Chen put together this collection on the floor. “There was something warm and loving about the whole process,” said Chen, whose own lyrical essays imbibe the reader with the smell, sound, and taste of the forest near her home. The affinity “was a very strong pull for me, and although I do not believe you should always work with poets that work like you do, in this case it worked for me.”
And it works, too, for the reader, who need not have visited Israel to picture the scene in the poem below:
Now the sun is behind you although better to see it
filling the wing mirror with orange. As you cross
the Sorek river at the magical hour of photography,
of feather clouds and scented creepers, your mood
Like Chen, I read Less Like a Dove just months after watching cancer devastate my mother’s mind and body. Mishol’s poetry spoke directly to me, and allowed me to release a tremendous burden of trapped grief, after which I could wallow in the beauty of the everydayness of poems like “Rabbit”:
trapped in the glare
dazzled by the beam –
For you I will switch off the headlights
and drive in darkness. (68)
Mishol’s poetry is like a needle to the heart, pricking at emotions packed away to be dealt with another day. Chen’s translation is succulent, offering the readers words so tender, they are almost frail. In her introduction to the translated book, Chen writes that she sought to “open Mishol’s world to others.” That she has. And what an amazing world it is.
Mishol, Agi. Less Like a Dove. Tr. Joanna Chen. Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2016.
Interview with Joanna Chen, 15 October 2017.