In an interview with Ammiel Alcalay in the excellent anthology Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing, the Israeli poet Tikva Levi describes how she was railroaded out of Hebrew University on account of her interest in Arabic literature. In her view, Mizrahi (Israeli Jews who claim Arabic origin) suffer from the political and cultural hegemony of Ashkenazi Jews, the marginalization of the Arabic language and its literature being an expression of this. Levi’s situation is not exceptional; following his publication of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), Ilan Pappé, in an interview with The Guardian, faced calls for the end of his job and threats to his life. For an Israeli to seek contact and solidarity with Palestinians, to question the state as it drifts to the right, poses the risk of exile from the cultural center and possibly from one’s family, friends, and/or faith.
Morani Kornberg-Weiss, an Israeli writing now from America, takes this risk in her collection Dear Darwish via a series of plaintive, lyric letters in the spirit of Spicer to the Palestinian cultural hero Mahmoud Darwish. These letters to Darwish begin with prosey lines that crackle in their directness: “Mahmoud, if I am an Israeli woman living in Buffalo and / you reside in IsraelPalestine on my bookshelf and I read and transform your poems, are we still telling the same story? Mahmoud, do I have the right to use your words? Mahmoud, would you grant me permission to do this? Can we work together to define it and its possibilities?” The frank enthusiasm of the prose is counterpointed with a more meditative examination of the finer difficulties of addressing “the Other”:
What if I stand above you
(in this poem):
Would you think it strange?
What if you
stand above me?
I don’t know how to share
this poem with you.
These lines, sorting out the micropolitics of syntax, dramatize the difficulty of Kornberg-Weiss’s project of simply addressing one man, which stands in for the larger difficulties of working out the relations between people whose mutual history is marked most visibly by traumatic violence, displacement, and dispossession. The minute scale of this struggle nearly grinds the lines to a halt. Yet their near exhaustion can also be read as wit or play. In fact, it’s the wonder of this collection that Kornberg-Weiss moves from heavy material, which would become leaden in some writers’ hands , to a series of provisional speculations and envois, seeking dialogue over sententious proclamation.
The collection doubles down the “poethical” stakes by exploring the possibility of a Nakba museum to accompany the world’s many Holocaust museums, a proposal serious in intent and sometimes, surprisingly, darkly humorous in execution: “I also love gift shops and hope there’s one at a Nakba museum.” “Nakba Museum” also includes some of the collection’s most provocative lines: “If the Nakba is still in progress / can we visit a museum.” To propose the ongoing reality of the Nakba is to affirm the fact of the systematic, violent program of displacement of hundreds and thousands of Palestinians. The sequence ratifies the reality of the Nakba while probing the ways one can define the boundaries of such a disaster; in doing so, the term Nakba becomes a lever by which one might re-examine the long decades of struggle between Israel and Palestine over land, material resources, ownership, access, and use. Yet because the figure of the Nakba Museum becomes a shadow Holocaust Museum, the sequence poses the relationship and struggles between the cultures on the terms of not just land but the production of historical memory, a drive for recognition and legitimation by both sides that ideally seems to not be mutually exclusive. This is heady reading.
Yet there is no Nakba museum, and the text, with a deft touch, wonders what it would mean to replicate the memorialization of the disaster in the model Holocaust Museums provide. Joan Retallack’s Poethical Wager sees this kind of open-ended querying as the lifeblood of any vibrant, experimental poetic practice: “Scientists, in what has been a characteristically masculine enterprise, strategically ask only answerable questions…But scientific logics of discovery aren’t going to help us make bridges between the complex nature of reality and the extreme sport of everyday life.” In this case, it is by sailing over an emptiness, a gap in the record, that a poem like the “Nakba Museum” might illustrate how such a bridge may or may not be built.
As a whole, Kornberg-Weiss’s impulse is to emphasize the relation of one’s purview of histories past and possible with the present moment. Just as Philip Metres anchors his Concordance of Leaves (Diode 2013) with the wedding of his sister in the Palestinian West Bank Village of Toura, Kornberg-Weiss notes that her poetry proceeds from her experience of being in Israel during the state’s 2008 attacks on the Gaza Strip and moves not toward memorialization but a new hailing, a constant proposing:
You don’t want to hear it. So let’s take it slow. Let’s take it very slow. Real slow. Let’s try to understand. Let’s begin. Here is a beginning. I need you to begin. Take this beginning. I really want you to begin. Let’s begin together. I know you don’t want to hear it. I’m going. I see you. You are here. Let’s begin. It’s okay. I’m scared too.
For Kornberg-Weiss, the past, the articles of its existence, are only useful to the degree that they allow her poetry to imagine a more expansive and just kind of being within the present, giving it the nimbleness to sidestep the quagmires of representing historical traumas (without ignoring their existence) in favor of a clear-sighted parsing of what it might mean to engage “the Other” in the present; or, to put another way, to engage the past in the production of new possibilities for engagement between the author and muse, author and reader, even people on opposite sides of checkpoints and walls.
About the Reviewer
Joe Hall is the author of three books of poetry: Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean 2010), The Devotional Poems (Black Ocean 2013), and, in collaboration with Chad Hardy, The Container Store Vols I & II (SpringGun 2012). He currently resides and collaborates with fellow poet Cheryl Quimba in Buffalo, New York where he is studying commons, waste flows, and poetics.