Yonatan Berg’s first collection of poems to appear in English is Frayed Light, translated by Joanna Chen. Drawing from Berg’s three Hebrew books of poetry, Frayed Light offers more than just English renditions of the poems. This unique selection tells the story of Berg’s development as a poet. As the book moves from reflections on personal experience to imagining the lives of others, we witness the maturing poet turning his gaze outwards, away from himself, as he is drawn backwards, into history.
The first few sections of Frayed Light feature autobiographical poems. Beginning with memories of a childhood in Psagot, many of these poems present the firsthand experiences of someone who grew up in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. With all the weight of the “conflict” hovering beyond the same barriers that bound a strict halachic lifestyle, these poems offer the refreshing innocence of restrained descriptive language; instead of commenting and judging, Berg captures and reports these experiences. From the fear of violence at the Shabbat table to a school bus carrying Jewish students through Ramallah, Berg embraces memories of a complicated childhood.
These autobiographical poems mature along with their author as he begins to address his service in the IDF. Compared to most of Frayed Light, the poems representing military experiences become more intense especially as they represent the details of trauma. Death does not arise in the abstract, but through corpses that need to be moved and the erratic behaviour triggered by the death of a friend. The restraint of this descriptive style exhibits how its author did not arrive at adulthood through living these experiences but through exploring how to write about them. With the two poems featured below, we are introduced to a mutli-faceted brutality; lived trauma and its after-effects can transcend those directly affected, they can tease those who only read about them into a piercing wonder.
Moving away from his own experiences, Berg turns to the lives of others, focusing on those who influenced him. Attempting to reach outside of himself, these biographical poems begin with reflections on the lives of his parents. He then moves on to present a genealogy of figures from Jewish history. This ambitious project of mapping out a personal history of Jewish lineage comes from his last book, Histories. Beginning with Adam and Eve, he includes characters such as Job, Jesus, Rosa Luxemborg, and Golda Meir, before arriving at, or perhaps returning to, his own parents. When addressing this array of influential figures, Berg mixes lyrical accounts and persona poems. He leaps between the first, second, and third person, as he cycles between embodying these figures, talking to them, and relaying commentary about them.
Also included below is the poem about Hannah Arendt, imagining her reaction to Eichmann. Given what Arendt wrote about the Eichmann trial, this poem grapples with the complexity of Berg’s project. Commenting on the testimony of his military activity, Arendt noted that Eichmann was unable to speak without recycling clichéd language. “The longer one listened to [Eichmann]” she wrote, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of someone else.” Arendt’s insight sheds light on Berg’s development from autobiographical to biographical poems: this interest in representing historical figures exhibits his efforts to develop the ability to think.
Yet, Berg deviates from the real Arendt as he puts implausible words in her mouth. In his poem, we read Arendt saying: “I forgive him, forgive them all for my own sake.” With this apology, Berg negates Arendt’s condemnation of Eichmann and, seemingly, of “all” collaborators in Nazi efforts. This historical exploration experiments with a fabrication for “the sake of a new beginning.” With the fashioning of this phrase for Arendt, Berg shares in the distance that many readers are likely to feel when voicing his autobiographical poems for themselves. Poetry does not need to be historically accurate, but perhaps it should be personally true. Furthermore, reflecting on these brutal details ought to help us think differently — that is, think beyond ourselves.
With this translated collection, Berg’s poems can now reach a new and much larger audience. As the variety of English readers voice the words of this Israeli writer for themselves, we will witness what they see and say.
AFTER A NIGHT IN THE ALLEY OF WORSHIPPERS
The point is not the frayed light of six a.m.
or the barking of dogs, half-crazed by the scent
of blood, who we drove away.
Nor the fatigue from a night spent deep
in death, the network that only now falls
silent, the shouts from the platoon above, identifying
bodies, the reflex that all this was to be expected.
The point is not how they lay there, after
the dogs lunged into them, their faces
distorted their wounds festering, strewn together,
black-garbed, the dirt of the road stained darker
by their blood. One held the glimmer of a smile,
not wicked or revengeful, just lost.
The point is, I volunteered, and Vish, the officer,
was my friend. But when we got there I could not,
I simply could not. To this day I see Vish and a soldier,
shoving them into the armoured truck. They are dropped,
are dragged, I don’t have a better image for all this:
the bodies dragged, dropped,
over and over.
It was that night, 2006. We went down there
shouting, opening bottles with our teeth,
mixing drinks. Raz wandered off to get dope,
whatever he could find. The pupils of our eyes were huge
from hunger, too. We dropped into a bar and then another one,
raucous and laughing. No one meant it, afterward,
in the bathroom. We licked the edge of a credit card, left cigarettes
burning. The street of Allenby, then Herzl. I arrived at your place,
a room shaded like a sketch. Necklaces and bracelets hung off a peg
on the wall, miracle of shapes and colors. You did not ask
why, you brought water. You sat next to me. We had sex,
not with any great fervor, not with humor, but with the instinct
of survivors, hoping that something
might come of it, in the body, in the closed room.
Your shoulders, the silence, the weak light of the lamp, I left
without saying a word, to the sea at Jaffa. I drank a beer
and then another one, and facing the rising sun as it struck
the sand, I realized what happened in Hebron.
HANNAH ARENDT, JERUSALEM 1961
The chill. His face through the glass.
I forgive him, forgive them all for my own sake,
the sake of a new beginning, an emptying
of the letter box. Devoid of a place to call
home, a place to undress, to lie down in.
Late in the evening Jerusalem is covered in mythical logic.
Afraid, until we are ready to do anything.
I await the last parade past ancient stones.
The borders remain,
the passports, the dogs within and without.
The night remains too, the lamp, the pages.
They march outside my window, trampling the grass,
shouting to fill the air, not to hear
their own emptiness. The stench of burning rises from
the other side of nineteen forty-five.