For Yom Haatzmaut: The poet Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back photo by Stephne Chaumet

Rachel Tzvia Back photo by Stephne Chaumet

My friend, the Israeli writer Rachel Tzvia Back, sent me a link this week to two of her recent poems published on World Literature Today.  These poems are from her new collection, entitled What Use Is Poetry, the Poet Is Asking. I will be among the first to order it. Rachel lives in the Galilee where her great-great-great-grandfather settled in the 1830s. Though I’d published her poems and other writing in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal for two decades, I only met Rachel in September 2014 when she came to Ann Arbor to give talks on a collection of her translations from Hebrew to English, In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner.

I’m thinking of Rachel during this week of Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day). From an essay of hers on Israeli poetry, here is a translation of an untitled poem by Lea Goldberg (1911-1970), from Rachel’s collection of translations of Goldberg:

And will they ever come, days of forgiveness and grace,
when you’ll walk in the fields, simple wanderer,
and your bare soles will be caressed by the clover,
or wheat-stubble will sting your feet, and its sting will be sweet?

Or the rainfall will catch you, the downpour pounding
on your shoulders, your breast, your neck, your head.
And you’ll walk in the wet fields, quiet widening within
like light on the cloud’s rim.

And you’ll breathe in the scent of the furrow, full and calm,
and you’ll see the sun in the rain-pool’s golden mirror,
and all things are simple and alive, and you may touch them,
you are allowed, you are allowed to love.

You’ll walk in the field. Alone, unscorched by the blaze
of the fires, along roads stiffened with blood and terror.
And true to your heart you’ll be humble and softened,
as one of the grass, as one of humankind.

I read this poem as a celebration of Israel’s independence.

As I was writing this post, I came across another of Rachel’s writings, an opinion piece in the Forward from August 2015, “For Each Day of the Gaza War, These Jewish Women are Fasting.” In it Rachel says, “For many of us, last summer’s war was the breaking point — our first experience of having a son in combat, of sitting hours and hours by the news, hearing reports of each new horror, the names of the boys who would not return from the front, the numbers of unnamed Gazan civilians killed.” And yet, now, she has a new collection of poetry. Of hope. Today, on Yom Haatzmaut, I hope you will join me in celebrating Rachel Tzvia Back.