Memoriam: Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005)
by Chana Bloch and Chana
We mourn the tragic death of Dahlia
Ravikovitch, a much-beloved Israeli poet, widely honored for her
artistry and her courage, who took her life in Tel Aviv this
August at the age of 69. The outpouring of grief in the Israeli
media confirms her statue as one of the great Hebrew poets of
our time -- certainly the greatest Hebrew woman poet of all
Ravikovitch left behind a powerful body of
work: ten volumes of poetry, including the collection All
the Poems Till Now (1995), whose publication was a major
event in Israeli cultural life; three short story collections,
the latest published just months ago; several books of
childrens' verse; and translations of Poe, Yeats, and Eliot, as
well as children’s classics, into Hebrew. Her own poems
have been translated into many languages, from Arabic and
Chinese to Serbo-Croatian and Vietnamese.
Among Ravikovitch's many awards was the
Israel Prize (1998), the highest national honor. The
judges’ citation noted: "Her poetic style is distinguished
by its skillful synthesis of a rich literary language with the
colloquial idiom, and of her personal outcry with that of the
collective. This has made her the most important -- indeed the
most distinctive -- Hebrew poet of our time. She is the central
pillar of Hebrew lyric poetry."
Ravikovitch wrote of the self in a state of
crisis refracting the moral distintegration of the nation. Since
the early 1980s, when she emerged as the leading poetic voice
among feminist anti-war activists, her poetry has explored the
parallels between the plight of the Palestinians, the suffering
of Jews in the Diaspora, and the constraints on women in Israeli
and traditional Jewish society. Ravikovitch speaks with
authority for the forces of peace and justice, while
representing with preternatural sensitivity a woman’s
critique of patriarchy. The depth and subtlety of her artistry
enable her to treat these complex political and cultural issues
in works that retain their considerable force as poetry.
We are now completing our translation,
The Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, for which we have
received an NEA Translation Fellowship. Our article on
Ravikovitch's political poetry will appear in the November issue
In one of Ravikovitch's best-known poems,
Hovering at a Low Altitude, the female narrator
presents herself satirically as witness to the rape and murder
of an Arab shepherdess, watching from the safe distance of "a
low altitude" and doing nothing. The image of "hovering,"
rechifa is a brilliant double-take in Hebrew,
conflating the language of army bulletins ("Low flying
helicopters in hovering formations patrolling over Southern
Lebanon") with Tel Aviv slang (le-rachef means "to be
cool by staying detached from the political situation"). As
Robert Alter has written: "The image of low-altitude hovering
over an atrocity is an . . . effective emblem of the situation
of the ordinary Israeli, knowing but choosing not to see certain
terrible acts perpetrated by other Israelis, or even in the name
of the nation; more generally, it is a parable of the moral
untenability of detached observation in [the] political realm."
This parable is more timely now than ever.
HOVERING AT A LOW ALTITUDE
I am not here.
I am on those craggy
streaked with ice
where grass doesn't grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
with a herd of goats,
from an unseen tent.
She won't live
out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.
I am not
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and
flickers in that gorge.
And the little one
rose up so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn't walk
with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
adorn her eyes with kohl.
She doesn't ask, Whence cometh my
I am not here.
I've been in the mountains many
The light will not scald me. The frost cannot touch
Nothing can amaze me now.
I've seen worse things in
I tuck my dress tight around my legs and
very close to the ground.
What could she be
thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
on the back of her hands.
She seems distracted, but no,
fact she's alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that's hardly the object of my meditations.
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.
The girl is right there, close by,
another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out
there's no place to hide in the mountains.
I'm above those savage mountain ranges
farthest reaches of the east.
No need to elaborate.
single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the
speed of the wind,
make a getaway and take comfort in
I haven't seen a thing.
And the little one, her
eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a
when a hard hand closes over her hair, grasping
without a shred of pity.
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance
for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
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