I was at a poetry festival in Israel, in Galilee, in the spring of this year, with participants from various European countries, as well as our hosts, poets of Hebrew and Arabic language from all over Israel and the Palestinian areas, including a few from Gaza. As you can expect, the poets’ camaraderie and communality was particularly warm – not totally without exception, though, given the well known tensions of that area. We were there to make a statement of friendship and understanding, a spontaneous statement about the potential of literature to communicate and heal. In that area of beauty and legend, remember, missiles had fallen some months before (from Lebanon) and the noise of more conflicts in the area was building up. I can only hope that, between the moment when I am writing this and our meeting in Vilenica, wisdom and peace may prevail.
The format of that festival was such that there was no systematic translation provided from the poems presented in Arabic and Hebrew. But poetry, as we know, has much to offer beyond litteral meaning, so, a heightened sense of observation, concentration and guesswork made us, European guests, grasp something in the music of our colleagues’ verse, and all of it was a rewarding experience. While listening to a young lady poet from Galilee, who was reciting a love poem in an intense and passionate way, I jotted down a poem in Romanian dedicated to her – which I then translated into English and I read it there, in M’ghar, as a farewell gift on the last day of the festival. Here is the poem as I have finished it afterwards, for a cycle in English.
LADY POET IN GALILEE
A black dress and a white scarf
your body buried in your clothes like an ancient city
- it is only your face that we can see
a wave of young light
all of you is this voice, that can change your country’s
rugged stones, flashing weapons and bombs
into soft gold dust
and spread it among peoples of bees
there is love love love in your voice
rolling over the fields of the setting sun,
Mount Tabor, beyond, is hardly a breath
caves reverberate beneath
A black dress, a white scarf
and your face: a wave of light moving in splendor
you speak : your vowels are an angel’s touch
your consonants grow into quick vertical flames
I have underlined the fragments where I committed deliberate self-censorship, as follows: as I said, I originally wrote the poem in Romanian, in which the second line (underlined) named the long black dress as a coffin hiding the woman’s body: through contrast, the poet’s words of love were even more paradoxically alive (that contrast in fact had sparked my wish to write the poem). When I read the English version of the poem there, in Galilee, I eliminated the underlined words entirely, for fear of being misunderstood, and of hurting some of our hosts’ feelings. I did that in spite of the fact that I knew I had my heart in the right place: I was indeed impressed, respectful and affectionate towards my fellow poet. Later, when I finished my poem in English, I softened the image of the coffin, as seen above: because I did not want my poem to sound judgemental.
It may still sound judgemental. That style of black garment totally covering a woman’s body is similar to a nun’s vestment in my Church (Eastern Orthodox): the significance of monastic clothes in my culture is that the nun’s (the monk’s) body is no longer alive, for, through being ordained, their body ritually/symbolically passes the threshold into death. The Muslim poetess I refer to obviously just respected the way to appear in public that is valid in her culture. Otherwise, her culture appears to be much more welcoming towards the body in their private space, than happens in the Christian tradition. In fact, in spite of our comparative freedom, the traditional Christian dichotomy between soul (good, godly) and body (inferior, burdened by sin) has had a deep impact on our world, more or less denying part of us (with all the reactions following from it); the globalized new millenium may come to balance that.