Aharon Shabtai’s new poetry collection War & Love, Love & War (New Directions, 2010) is, as its title suggests, a book full of reversals and inversions. These poems are richly textured and contain diverse voices. In Peter Cole’s hands, these verses are elegantly rendered into English; the translation succeeds in keeping intact Shabtai’s candor, his surrealistic imagery, audacity and inspired wordplay.
“These creatures in helmets and khakis, / I say to myself, aren’t Jews,” declares Shabtai in his opening poem, “Rypin,” a work that takes on political realities in Israel and Palestine today. Shabtai’s poetry demonstrates how the political may become personal without the personal becoming political, to paraphrase Cole’s astute observation in an essay on the topic. Often with dark humor, Shabtai evokes specific political events or conflicts with an economy of words and images that nonetheless leaves room for the imagination. What makes this dark humor appealing in his poetry has something to do with voice: it radically changes from an exalted pitch to a sarcastic or interrogative one, often without any modulation in between. It may surprise—or shock—critics who prefer a singular—or more “coherent”—voice.
Perhaps the key to appreciating this unique polyphony is to separate this voice from the person of its author (from Shabtai himself), and instead to situate it within the largest possible social context—in short, to hear it as an echo of a broader cultural cry. This is especially important for the political poems in Part I, written between 2000 and 2008. Addressing daily confrontation with the military, civilian deaths, bombings and racial hatred, these writings are resolute, though far from solace. At some point, even the poet himself struggles to accept that life is something of an “illusion.” In “Sharon Resembles A Person,” for instance, he wastes no time in illustrating how unreal—yet real—was the peace his society knew when Ariel Sharon was prime minister:
Sharon resembles a person,
and the imminent peace resembles peace,
and the paper reporting with fanfare
resembles a paper,
and teachers resemble teachers,
From the window of bus #5
I look at people along the sidewalk,
accompanying them in my mind,
and all of it only confirms
that they resemble people—
the shoes, the falafel, the mouthful,
At the grocer,
with trembling finger
I check the potatoes,
and they too, they too,
Listing a series of resemblances, this poem presents a catalogue of people and objects that are, or can be, just as they seem. And yet, evidently they’re not—or at least there is some reason to doubt that the thing named is actually what it resembles. The act of naming carries suspicion. Why the trembling fingers if one expects anything else other than a potato? But in this ambiguity is Shabtai’s chilling strength; a shuddering realization (that reality is not absolute) mixes with the thinly veiled sarcasm suggested by the opening line, the barb that Sharon “resembles,” but is not simply, a person. Conversely, whether Sharon “resembles” a person after all remains equally dubious. If he indeed resembles a person, why the necessity to state it so explicitly?
For Shabtai, imagination in poetry means survival, resistance. There is a push beyond the printed page, a desire to transcend the mechanics of the poetry at hand. Shabtai calls this desire “the ongoing need for ethical reorientation (to distinguish, to decide, to move, to oppose).” The ethical drive behind the poems of this collection elucidate Shabtai’s observation that there is a difference between a poet and writing a good poem. In his discursive piece, “On Being a Poet: Some Notes for a Talk,” which appears as an afterword, he thinks out aloud: “I preferred the critical sense, humor, hyperbole, an idiotic simplemindness, everything that was alien to ‘poetry’ and removed the quotation marks around it. A poet first of all has to know how to stop being a poet, to go out into the street, to look at cars, to understand that a poem in reality isn’t important, that it’s hypocritical to overvalue verse.”
Fearless and unambiguous, his way of depicting political realities proves to be disarmingly swift and effective. Whether to mock, provoke, or criticize, even when playing the partisan, he is unflinching, employing metaphors that evoke the basest banalities and vulgarities of human existence. His “Elections: Israel, 2001” was published in Ha’aretz just prior to the election between Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Writing such a poem is in itself a risk. At once scandalous and hilarious, the poem, however, never compromises its seriousness of intention. Its theatrical mise en scène undermines the power and stability of a so-called democratic system, trivializing its grand promises in a time of war and terrorism:
I’m for Peepee,
long live Peepee!
Peepee’s mission is civilized,
Peepee makes sure
the blood flows smoothly—
cleanly, and for a good reason.
Therefore, thanks to Peepee,
words give off a pleasant scent.
Not for nothing do the
leading writers and professors
express their support for Peepee.
I’m for Caca.
earth that swallows
the choice words
stuck to the brow
what Peepee does,
but—with greater boldness,
The truth in fact stinks,
but it’s beautiful in its solid state.
Therefore, I’m for Caca.
Long live Caca!
Poems in Part II contain a different feel in terms of composition, although politics remain a core subject. A long poem “Education” offers us glimpses into the daily school life within a kibbutz community. It precedes a twenty-eight-page-long excerpt, “Begin,” which chronicles the resistance efforts and life of Menachem Begin, the Jewish underground veteran in Palestine and conservative politician in Israel. Presented in two vertical parts, the text is created—as well as interpreted—in the midrash tradition. Other poems draw their inspiration from their author’s erotic experiences, sexual fantasies, first marriage and divorce, as well as from the more erudite subjects of Greek mythology and philosophy.
In the concluding section of the book, Aharon Shabtai finds himself oscillating between love and loss, mourning the sudden death of his second wife, Tanya. Bare yet enigmatic, these nineteen love lyrics are composed with a detachment and distance that bespeaks nostalgia. What makes these love lyrics unusual is that they do not indulge in the image of Tanya as the perfect Muse. From time to time, reality jarringly announces itself:
“Tanya was gorgeous”
I tell Moishe
and he raises his head
over the bowl of bean soup
and just as he did ten years ago
he looks at me and says:
“Not everyone thinks so.”
The simplicity in these last poems allows for silence to be heard between the words. Utterly unlike the explosive utterances—the sarcasm and ironic bombast—of the political poems in Part I, they also draw one’s attention back to the title of the entire collection: War & Love, Love & War. Is love meant to reflect something of war, and war of love in Shabtai’s work? While the title seems to present “love” and “war” as twin concepts, the poems refute such conciliatory suggestions. Their eclecticism, the diversity of their sources and forms, complicate and intensify the emotional stakes in this title, until finally each word has burrowed into the other. A brilliant collection, it contains specific moments of emotional complexity that are rarely found elsewhere, like the vertiginous experience that Shabtai evokes when describing life without his wife:
You’d like to know
how it feels to live without you
Like a man falling
from the hundredth floor
who sees, in a window,
a beautiful woman undressing