Ravikovitch in the 1950s
When Dahlia Ravikovitch‘s first book of poetry, The Love of an Orange, hit Israeli bookstores in 1959, its potpourri of archaic diction and proto-feminist sensibilities created a literary sensation. So did its title poem — a riff on the Prokofiev opera, but with a fierce, deft twist.
Much of her oeuvre was never published in English before now. That literary oversight has changed with Chana Kronfeld’s and Chana Bloch‘s recently published Norton translation, Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch. The two translators read poems in Hebrew and English at the Stanford Humanities Center on Jan. 14.
“No other poet except [Yehuda] Amichai was so universally embraced by Israelis,” said Bloch, noting that Ravikovitch had been translated into 21 languages.
Those languages included a few unexpected ones, for example, Arabic and Hungarian, said Kronfeld. Her poetry has also been adapted to music. For a U.S. comparison, “imagine John Ashbery on the Hit Parade,” said Kronfeld. Her popularity is hard to comprehend in the U.S. — as Dana Gioia put it, a country where editors “run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.”
Ravikovitch was “enormously influential,” said Kronfeld, yet she was “barely able to make a living.”
“She appeared to be fragile but was nothing if not bold,” said Bloch.
She was also a relentless peacenik; a running theme through her poetry is “the concern with power and powerlessness,” said Kronfeld. Ravikovitch “frequently condemned messianic settlers” in Israel.
She battled clinical depression — one reason why her death, in 2005, was initially thought by many to be suicide. An autopsy revealed heart irregularities.
The title of the new volume is taken from one of Ravikovitch’s poems: “Hovering” is Israeli army language to describe helicopter patrols — “to hover” (le-rachef) is also slang for “to stay cool, dissociated from the political situation.” From the title poem:
I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.
I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.
But as day tends toward noon,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.
I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.