Jason Mashak on Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch

Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, trans. Chana Bloch & Chana Kronfeld, W.W. Norton

Dahlia Ravikovitch’s more than a half dozen books, released between 1959 and 2006, together in one volume, are not only rich with imagery, but serve also to liberate her audience from complacency in regard to social injustice. Her poems enlighten readers about major ongoing social issues (e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poor attempts at parenting, or depression), but in a way that is far more journalistic than didactic.

Intentional or not, the title Hovering at a Low Altitude evokes the English idiom “flying under the radar,” a metaphor for living one’s life against the grain. Ravikovitch (1936–2005) clearly witnessed the aftershock of the Holocaust, and so her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone is enough to understand how, for a Jewish poet living in Israel, she might be among the minority for her almost prophet-like admonition of atrocities committed by her own countrymen in the years that followed. Ravikovitch’s first two books, which read like poetic rabbinical responses, would not seem out of place in the Old Testament, somewhere between Psalms and Ezekiel, two books that provided her early inspiration.

In one of Ravikovitch’s more complex highlights, “A Jewish Portrait” (from her 1987 book True Love), the raw delicacy with which she uses to describe another person seems also to be a self-portrait, and the translators’ footnotes explain that the original Hebrew contains ambiguity that allows the image to be interpreted as that of either a Diaspora Jew or a Palestinian refugee. In “Adloyada in Manhattan,” she writes, “and the Arabs wanted to throw us into the sea / as usual / and we took away their land / as usual,” maintaining an objective view of a conflict that has ravished her homeland for far too long.

In her work, a sort of biblical-style repetition combines with lyrical sensibility, prophesy, and erotically charged images that can at times remind one of Leonard Cohen’s work. Consider the implications of the final stanza of “And Sympathy is All We Need, My Friend” (1987):

Everyone’s thirsty for love
and whoever won’t pour a glass of water for the thirsty
is doomed to gag on his own spit
to the end of his days.

God is love, after all, and Ravikovitch’s is a verdant world, where “There’s a god hiding behind the rain,” and love and desire are often represented in relation to water. Yet, the freedom that comes from sailing into such an ocean of potentiality comes with a price, as these few lines from the title poem in her posthumous (2006) book Many Waters suggest:

The bread grows stale.
A plague erupts inside her.
The sail is torn.
Fresh water’s gone.
Maybe a native canoe will come
bearing maize
or something to chew on[…]
She’s gone astray.
This ship
is the Dahlia Maria.

The title of the poem (and book) references lines in both Psalms and Song of Songs, the latter suggesting the poem’s allusion to love. Though adept in her biblical imagery and character studies, Ravikovitch’s poetic strength tends to manifest in her own experiences and observations. She returns often to a landscape of ships/sea/fields/birds/fire/wind, and her own experiences are more evident when she starts to describe more than her own homeland. When she portrays Hong Kong, Australia, Chad, Cameroon, etc., and mentions topics well known to Czechs (marionettes and a character from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which debuted in Prague), she seems attuned to more complex patterns in the world.

Ravikovitch’s battles with depression are evident in such poems as “The Beginning of Silence,” where she uses verbs from one of Ezekiel’s visions to describe ‘silence’ moving across objects in the room, finally to envelop both land and sea. Eventually, she notes “the silence shrieks inside me / and I shriek inside it,” and the reader may wonder if her bouts of depression could have been caused in part by obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as lines from “Poem in the Arab Style, Perhaps” seem to indicate:

Even the smallest thread on the floor can rob me of rest.
No way to maintain a sense of order.
[…] the defects are right there before you,
and that’s what disturbs the eye,
dispels any rest.

Translators Bloch and Kronfeld, both Hebrew scholars, extensively footnote, providing a rare and interesting glimpse into the complexities of translation in general, as well as a tangential study of both ancient and modern Hebrew culture and linguistic transformation that often grants countless layers of depth to Ravikovitch’s work. As well, they inform readers of Ravikovitch’s (sometimes subtle) references to other poets she admired, such as Leah Goldberg, Yona Wallach, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Remarkably, Dahlia Ravikovitch seems to have envisaged a greater overall literary window for her work – timeless (without ephemeralities) – than many other poets of her century, and this is precisely why her work will continue to resonate long after any particulars that she wrote about are gone.