In Memoriam: Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005)
by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

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 time.

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 of Tikkun.

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.


I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn't grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
from an unseen tent.
She won't live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
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.
She doesn't adorn her eyes with kohl.
She doesn't ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I've been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scald 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 could she be thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hands.
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,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, close by,
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,
make a getaway and take comfort in saying:
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 closes over her hair, grasping her
without a shred of pity.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
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