Ephemeral Reflections

Dennis Silk and English-language poetry in Israel.

Lonnie Monka reciting poetry at a Jerusalism event.

After deciding to make Aliyah, I began seeking out English-language poets in Israel. As an aspiring poet, coming from the US, I wished to find creative kin operating in my mother tongue. I slowly began to map out notable poets and some active groups. Then, my search led to a more interesting discovery: English-language poets have been active in Israel since the years following the founding of the state. Tracking down the writing of these historical literary figures, I felt like I was uncovering the lost notebooks of deceased relatives. By delving into their works, I hoped to initiate myself into an ongoing tradition of English-language poetry in Israel.

One of the earliest members of this tradition is Dennis Silk, and a review of his life and works offers a clear model to discuss the role that émigré poetry can play in Israel. Born in London, Silk immigrated to Israel in 1955 at the age of 26. After a year on a kibbutz, he moved to Jerusalem, where he was an active poet, playwright, and translator until his passing in 1998. Among his many projects, Silk expressed an ongoing interest in exploring and experimenting with the potential roles that English-language poets can play in Israel.

In “Holding Down the Dunes,” an essay he wrote for the Second International Poets Festival in Jerusalem in 1993, Silk displayed his exuberance when discussing the imaginative potential available to English-language poets migrating to the region. In the style of a manifesto calling for the uniting of English-language Oleh poets, the essay begins:

“Gingerly, maybe perversely, a cluster of English-language poets has rooted in Israel. Their muse, Whitman’s “illustrious émigré”, has migrated, not from Greece or Ionia to the States, but from Long Island and New Jersey, Manhattan and London, to the Levant.”

Silk draws a parallel, and perhaps a progression, between the mass migration to the US, which Whitman witnessed in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth-century migration to Israel that he, Silk himself, not only witnessed but also participated in. Silk’s second book explicitly responds to this desire to bring the Whitmanian to Israel by appropriating its title, Retrievements (1968), from a line by Whitman: “Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night.”

Even though Whitman’s work is often associated with first-hand experiences, Silk’s project embraced the command “to keep.” Having moved to Jerusalem, Silk played the role of the anthologist collecting writings, or retrievements, that are thematically linked to his new home. The pieces in Retrievements form a multi-genre anthology spanning over a thousand years; together, they form a prism, and each face becomes a window exposing very different perspectives of the city.

Many of the passages in Retrievements are translations from a variety of languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and German. Yet, the dominant language in the book is English. Reflecting on Silk’s own roots in England, the passages in Retrievements by British authors seem especially interesting. Most of them were written in the nineteenth century, by writers who had traveled to Jerusalem. These passages, dating back to Chaucer, emphasize the long-running relationship between Jerusalem and the English language. Finally, the last chronological passages by a British-born writer included in Retrievements are those of Silk himself.

By positioning himself alongside the other British authors, Silk seems to have situated his writing as the next step in an ongoing tradition of British writing relating to Jerusalem. Yet, focusing on the content of the different passages, it becomes clear that Silk’s Jerusalem differs from that of the others. Most of the English writers in Retrievements tend to address the city in a limited way. Whether descriptive, explanatory, or evocative, they hover within standard associations of Jerusalem in people’s collective memories. Turning to Silk’s own writing, though, we can see him develop a distinct form of address in the poem, titled “Tryphon,” which starts with these lines:

Because there is no river in Jerusalem
Do you think you are a mountain learning to swim?
You must swim past all the faces
And laugh at flint.

It is difficult to tell who is talking to whom in this poem, but it appears to present a dialogue between Silk and Tryphon, the ancient Greek grammarian. The allusion to water and fire hints at an apocalyptic vision, but the comedic logic borders on the absurd: juxtaposing a question and a command, a questionable syllogism forms around the proposition that Jerusalem lacks rivers. If we position Silk in the same tradition of British writers that he presents, then his work seems to present a turn into the surreal.

This defamiliarizing address of Jerusalem recurs throughout Silk’s work. His first collection of poems, A Face of Stone (1964), begins with a series of meditative, imagistic poems that make rare, passing references to place. Then the energy of the book spikes with the first poem not only to mention Jerusalem, but to address the city as its main theme: “Guide to Jerusalem.” Here, we can see the anthologist as a tour guide. Yet, Silk’s poem about Jerusalem probably challenges many people’s expectations for a guided tour. Reading the first stanza of “Guide to Jerusalem” we can peek into Silk’s bizarre vision of the city:

Jerusalem is a limestone cracked
by destitution, it is a beggar rattling
his tray for money or Messiah.
Here the past walks with a religious stoop at twilight,
talking to itself overmuch.
And the bawling prophets are all dead;
the pious in their conventicles
are not consumed by any rapid fire
fetched down by the former travelling angels.
No bush burns in streets narrow as doctrine.

This poem differs drastically from most of the other Jerusalem-related writing included in Retrievements. These are not the words of the traveler recounting his experiences after visiting Jerusalem. These religious references have little connection to the theologian contemplating the pious symbolism of the Holy City. Moreover, Silk does not construct the cheerful narrative expected from a tour guide hoping to inspire an influx of visitors. If it is not meant to drive people away, perhaps Silk’s depiction of Jerusalem is fitting for members of a goth subculture. Yet, alongside the gloom, a playfulness emerges. Silk shares a joy in the jarring day-to-day life of Jerusalem.

The “Guide for Jerusalem” became an ongoing motif for Silk. The final section of his second book of poetry, The Punished Land (1980), is titled “Guide to Jerusalem (Second Edition)” and includes a poem with the same name. The nine sections of the title poem leap between seemingly random observations and different locations in the city—such as the Dome of the Rock and the Mahane Yehuda market. The third section of the poem shows a slice of this quirky tour through Jerusalem:

He’s just a marijuana boy
delaying in Jerusalem.
The sibyl telegrams him: Come.
In saffron and yogi sandals
On marijuana
sailing toward and receding from Jerusalem.

Here we see the city through the vague description of a pot dealer. Some unidentified man, whose inebriated state complicates his spatial movement relative to the city, beckons to the calls of the local female prophet. This spirited figure evokes questions about its place in a guide poem. What kind of tour are we on? What, if any, is the significance of a pot dealer in Jerusalem?

Then, in Silk’s third poetry book, Hold Fast (1984), the final section is similarly titled “Guide to Jerusalem” and, among its many poems, there is one called “Guide to Jerusalem (Third Edition).” The different sections of this newest edition of the guide poem includes an experimental “do-it-yourself” sonnet, which only lists the ending rhymed words of each line, as well as odd observations of Jerusalemite behavior. For instance, the third section, titled “Proxy,” consists of only two lines relaying the following observation:

These muslim shopmen—they are very busy—
send their shoes to pray at the mosque.
The seventh section, titled “Hygiene,” shares a rhyming, imaginative transformation of associations when looking at the local flowers:
Better Pan
among the bougainvillea than
a rifleman.

These poems present the tour of a guide who indulges in his own aporetic experiences in the city. The oddity of religious observance is juxtaposed with the playful trauma of imagining riflemen hiding in the urban landscaping. Overall, Silk continued to construct eccentric representations of Jerusalem throughout the different editions of his guide poems.

This role of the poetic guide writer seems the inevitable outcome of being an English-language poet living in the Middle East. Surrounded by Hebrew and Arabic as the dominant languages, the opportunities for local English-language community to develop are limited. Especially given the role of English as the lingua franca, English-language poets living in Israel are practically compelled to consider addressing the wider world. Yet, even if this role of the guide poet seems forced onto the poet, he or she can still choose how to embody it.

Most tour guides educate and entertain, deepening people’s understandings and appreciations of the places that they visit. Moreover, guides are expected to be grounded in history, and to uphold a standard of accuracy. Instead, Silk mixes piercing realistic descriptions and flights of fancy, challenging people’s expectations while playfully forcing them to reassess their understanding of the city. By embracing the role of the guide, Silk can subvert its power to mediate people’s experiences and memories of Israel.

Returning to the essay “Holding Down the Dunes,” we can see Silk explaining why English-language poets in Israel have the potential to develop these subversive defamiliarizing powers. He writes: “Maybe experience here, or at any rate some experience, is best retrievable in a language standing to the side of dominant Hebrew and Arabic. English distancing effect helps, it is like the polished shield of Perseus, you avert your gaze to get at the monster.” This “distancing effect” offers bold new perspectives of one’s surroundings. It transcends the act of translating—whether linguistically or culturally—and aims to form new insights. Furthermore, Silk expresses ambitious aims when noting that these insights might assist people battling the local monsters, whatever they may be.

Silk continues his argument, claiming that this “distancing effect” can grow stronger the more English-language poets draw on the history of English writing that has touched the region. He never mentions the book by name, but does list some of the authors that he included in Retrievements, claiming that they offer a deep reservoir of idioms to draw from and reflect upon. Yet, he also differentiates these new English-language poets from the tradition that they find themselves in; accordingly, the new émigré status of Olim has created a distinct phase of the relationship between native English-speakers and the region. Thus, Silk sketches a distinct role for English-language poetry being written by Israelis. Those who live in Israel and write in English can serve as hyper-realistic mirrors, offering imaginative perspectives rooted in lived immigrant experience.

Silk clearly believed that immigrant efforts to write in English could become an engine of hope and rumination. Accordingly, the intended audience of Silk’s guide poems expands beyond—or perhaps, more accurately, retracts within—the world outside of Israel. Surely, not all guide books are designed for outsiders. Just as field guides can reveal new insights in familiar spaces, Silk’s guide poems can transform a native’s perspective of Israel. The question, then, is which other Israelis would dare peek at this vision of Israeli life, framed by the polished shields of Olim?

Reflecting on Silk’s own publication history offers interesting insights in response to this question about readership. A major impetus for Silk’s literary recognition developed out of a meeting with an American writer—the soon-to-be Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow. In 1975, Bellow toured Israel, meeting many academic, political, and literary locals, including Dennis Silk. Bellow’s travel book, To Jerusalem and Back (1976), recounts his experiences and includes a number of passages about his time spent with Silk. Then, in 1980, Silk published his first book with a major US publisher, Viking Press—the same press that published Bellow’s travel book four years earlier.

Bellow appears to have helped ignite international interest in Silk’s work.
Silk’s next two books were published by Viking’s parent company, Penguin. Finally, another US publisher with especially strong ties to Israeli authors, Sheep Meadow Press, released a collection of Silk’s theater writings before he passed away in 1998, as well as his collected poems after his passing. This success story becomes bitter-sweet when considering Silk’s very different publication history in Israel.

Silk’s only book released by a major Israeli publisher was Retrievements (1968), which was published by Israel Universities Press, an earlier, government-owned iteration of today’s Keter Books. Additionally, two short books of his work were published a few years before his death, by the now defunct Jerusalem-based Ibis Editions Press. Besides publishing books, Silk contributed regularly to the Jerusalem Post, featuring the work of fellow English-language poets. In a certain light, these accomplishments within Israel seem dwarfed by the international distribution offered by his American publishers. With his growing success, Silk’s publications seem to have veered away from the local audience, for whom he sought to ignite hope, towards an international readership.

Reviewing Silk’s work relative to his publication history stands as a clear example of the inevitable marginalization of English-language poetry in Israel. When written in English, even the most imaginative and insightful poetry seems destined to be ignored by the Israeli society in which it was produced. Yet, it is interesting to note that Silk formed his clearest statement promoting English-language poetry in Israel later in his life. “Holding Down the Dunes”—the essay quoted above—was written for an international poetry festival hosted in Jerusalem in 1993.

By the time of the festival, Silk had been publishing with renowned presses in the US for over a decade. As odd or frustrating as it may seem, Silk must have understood that the marginal status of English-language poetry is, in part, a source of its strength. With the backdrop of the International Poetry festival of Israel being run in English, it becomes clear that not every foreign language has the ability to take root in the same soil where the dominant languages of Hebrew and Arabic flourish today. However, with the realization of this marginal strength arises the awareness of its eventual expiration. Barring unforeseen developments, migration to Israel probably peaked in the twentieth century. Thus, the percentage of Olim—both in general and especially from English-speaking countries—will only decline in the coming years.

Parallel to the consideration of the role of the English-language poet in Israel, Israeli poets of all backgrounds and languages have a special relationship to English—their mutual desire to be translated into it. Surely there is a pleasure and honor of having one’s work translated into any language, but English is often the most desirable. It’s no surprise that the prospects of widening one’s potential readership, as well as more easily participating in international conferences, would evoke enthusiasm. Among the many motivating factors for this desirability, the obvious fact that English remains the lingua franca ignites the imaginations of today’s poets with a particular flame. The ideological fetters of developing a national character seem to be dissolving, as Israeli writers—in any language—grow increasingly interested in participating in a global literary world.

Not only do Israeli poets of all languages want to enter the international world of poetry through English, but their tastes are heavily influenced in response to English-language literary trends. For instance, it is no surprise that many newer voices in Israeli poetry follow the identity poetics trend that has been developing for a longer time in the United States. Given these English-language influences and aspirations, Israelis are probably not much different from many poets across the world. Yet, not every non-English speaking country has a unique relationship to English, which has flourished into an ongoing tradition embedded, in its marginal state, into the national ethos. Thus, as the literature of Israel continues to develop, English-language poetry proves how a marginal activity can play an integral, though ephemeral, role.

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