by Gabriel Levin
Poems from the Diwan
by Yehuda Halevi/Translated from Hebrew by Gabriel Levin
Sleepers of Beulah
by Gabriel Levin
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|The Shepherd of Stones: From Ha-Levi to Ha-Levin
by Eric Ormsby
When the ancient Athenians voted to banish someone, they scribbled their votes on fragments of pottery, or ostraca. Such potsherds were thus intimately connected with ostracism, with exclusion from a community. Unearthed from middens, the ordinary discards of a daily life we can only imagine in fragments, ostraca disclose the past in unexpected glints, in faintly deciphered scrawls, in the abrasive contours of their hard-fired clay. I like to think of the ostracon as a metaphor for memory; what has been banished from present consciousness reappears in jagged mementoes, brought to the surface by a sudden shoe or the glance of a spade. Out of such shards, out of such discarded hints and slivered whispers, we construct ourselves; at rare moments, if we're lucky enough, we can even reassemble the bits and pieces into some remnant of wholeness, a wine-pot or a lamp shining with oil.
The Israeli poet Gabriel Levin, who writes in English, practises this decipherment. His poems coax entire landscapes out of fragments. He is a kind of epigrapher of lacunae, of those gaps in inscriptions which we have to fill by means of imagination and intuition. In "Egeria's Travels", from his collection, Ostraca, he writes:
You who trudged into the arid interior,
and out again, unruffled, though certainly humbled,
like the dew-soaked lily. Remember me
echoes in the dry torrent beds
where tumbleweed once raised brittle fists
and the sandstorm obliterated the space
around you who put down for your reverend sisters
in the west "in plain words,"
all that the keen eye sees.
As Levin explains in his notes, Egeria was a fourth-century pilgrim to the Middle East who composed a journal in Latin for her fellow devotees back in Europe; the journal was lost and re-discovered only in the 19th century. The poem is thus a double recovery, both of the lost journal and of the woman in the ancient landscape, of which she has over time become a ghostly but living part. But of course the poet himself, like some Bedouin tracker, registers "all that the keen eye sees" in following Egeria's traces. However arid, dry or brittle the landscape, it is vivid with presences.
It is entirely typical of this subtle poet that the most varied voices coalesce in his poems; not only a Christian pilgrim's voice pleading to be remembered but the distinctive accents of early Arab poets, of the Greek poet George Seferis, of GTrard de Nerval, Yehuda Halevi, and a multitude of others. Sometimes these voices are submerged, at others they ring boldly out; in almost all cases, they are interwoven with a chosen place: Djerba, Pamukkale, Alexandria, Smyrna, Jerusalem. Levin's voices are never disembodied; each one clings to some outcropping of the past, like a cricket on a shard. Here, for instance, is how he conjures up the shade of George Seferis in "As the Winds Veer":
The poet from Smyrna
Returns to the boarded-up home
Of his childhood; returns
Like the endangered monk seal
To the hideaway cave of his boyhood.
- Voices from the bottleneck
ports, garbled in the wind,
blurred and pumiced in the spindrift
like the Marine Venus dredged up
from the old harbour in Rhodes
in the shadow of the swallow-tailed
battlements). The sea unrolls
its granular voiceprint on the shore,
and the poet from Smyrna watches
four men struggle to lower by rope
a worn-out commode from a back-
street balcony. Here is decay,
he writes, without resurrection.
- Ships upon ships. One city
is torched, another raises its phalloi
in the cinders. But look hard
in the light of the everlasting fire
that flares and dies, and you can
trace the Greek letters on the quayside
as stevedores unload the holds
in a perpetual coming and going.
This excerpt owes a lot not only to Seferis's own journal of 1950 but to several other presences, chief among them perhaps the medieval Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi, whose great hymn "On the Sea" Levin has himself beautifully translated. But I also detect the traces of St. John Perse in such lines as "The sea unrolls/its granular voiceprint on the shore" (Levin is trilingual, in English, Hebrew, and French, so this wouldn't be surprising), as well as of Eliot's "Mr. Eugenides, Smyrna merchant/Unshaven". More importantly, though, the whole poem-it is, I think, Levin's finest achievement to date-represents the meticulous, but sometimes brutal, fitting together of the most disparate shards. This is no lofty and grandiose evocation of the past (remember that commode being lowered from the balcony), but a mosaic of commonplace, sometimes grubby, details:
Swimming shoreward, I leisurely scan
the near-empty beach where bladderwrack
is raked into low mounds and a scruffy mutt
runs circles round a woman in mauve latex.
No one has bothered to untangle the tight-
lipped deckchairs stacked near the kiosk.
Even here, "on the road to Asklepieion", while he evokes Theocritus, the poet also notes that
the cows low in the meadows,
like brokers sobbing into their pillows.
But this is no lament in disguise for the lost world of the ancients. Quite the contrary. Levin seems to be intimating that it is only through such ostraca that we might reach a fresh glimpse of what endures, and he has the toughness of mind to call it the soul. His vision occurs, fittingly enough, after the descending commode:
Approaching with her familiar
easy smile and good looks, her figure bifurcated
like a river rounding an outcrop of rock
into two identical bodies, so that at first
I thought I was seeing double and vigorously shook
my head. Nothing changed, each separate self
strode forward, as though wading through
a spring meadow. I couldn't take my eyes off
the two, and gasped again as one of the figures
proved diaphanous, melting into whatever
stood in the way. So this is the soul,
I told myself, catching my breath
- wise and dry as a beam of light.
These few excerpts give a good idea of Gabriel Levin's gifts as a poet: language at once hard and evocative; a refined command of cadence; a sure instinct for the phrase both pungent and incisive; and perhaps most impressive, mastery of a surprising array of registers, from the bluntly colloquial to the singingly lyrical. His chosen themes lend themselves to grandiosity but he resists that temptation. The world of the Mediterranean from antiquity to the present, which he has made his stamping ground, might have misled him into some pumped-up afflatus. Instead, he favors the skeletal strumming of the cicada; the desiccated instead of the lush. This is a style that owes more to Cavafy and Seferis and The Greek Anthology than to such great modern Israeli poets as Bialik, Tchernikowsky or Uri Zvi Greenburg (though he has certainly learned from such masters as Dan Pagis or T. Carmi). This is a poetry of hints, not merely in its themes but in its accents; Arabic poetry, particularly of the early centuries, haunts Levin's style and his way of seeing. (He has recently completed a brilliant translation of the "suspended ode" of the greatest of the pre-Islamic poets, Imru'l-Qays, the "wandering king", soon to appear in Parnassus.) The pre-Islamic poets also were decipherers of ruins which for them were peopled with remembrance; no fire-stone or riverbed, however deserted, was without its ghosts. "There are traces yet of Khawla in the stony tract of Thamad," wrote Tarafa, one of the greatest (and one to whom Levin makes pointed reference). And Labid, another shepherd of stones, envisions the landscape itself as a scribe whose pen-strokes the poet must elucidate. But this isn't made obvious in Levin's poetry; it is a tacit accent yet one that gives his work a vibrancy unusual in contemporary English poetry.
These virtues were apparent even in Levin's first collection, entitled Sleepers of Beulah. There, some of his characteristic motifs (which he has since refined) come through just a bit too bluntly, as in "Tarshish":
Bramble tongue, not really but nearly.
All said and done you're just so far
from what we utter in an ordinary way:
crimp-breathed bird shaking its feathers
outside my window, with nothing
but evening shadows under its wings.
Rain-lashed tongue. The last eviction notice
snagged in the tree, the grand tableau
peeling viridian in the sun.
I have been getting it wrong a good part
of the day, meaning to speak along the ledge
where the cowl-hooded sparrows
stun the air. Must the slow evacuation
now begin, propped here among the evening soft
A sapling against your rude spine.
This is exquisite; perhaps too much so. The "bramble tongue" of the later work is no less barbed but it has become more slyly sheathed. Instead of announcing itself, as here, it becomes a humble instrument which permits the bramble (or the shadows or the sparrows) themselves to speak and is all the more powerful for that.
The spirit of the Andalusian Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi has hovered over Levin's verse for some years now and it seems especially fitting that he should have set about translating a selection of his poems; there are strong affinities between the two despite the distance of centuries. Halevi was born in Spain, probably in Tudela (though some claim him for Toledo), around the year 1075 and he died, after a dangerous voyage from Andalusia to Egypt, sometime around 1141. A doctor by profession, like so many other medieval Jewish and Muslim savants, he wrote his poetry in Hebrew, his prose, including his private letters, in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script); Arabic was the lingua franca both for everyday communication and for intellectual discourse. (A few decades later, Maimonides would write his philosophical and exegetical masterpiece The Guide of the Perplexed in Judaeo-Arabic too.)
Halevi wrote poems in a variety of genres and styles, all of them reflected in Levin's selection: satires, epistles, love lyrics, hymns and devotional poems, riddles. Most of the secular poems are dominated by the prevailing Arabic modes of the time; the subject matter, the prosody, and many of the tropes reflect long-standing Arab practices. Arabic then enjoyed tremendous prestige; such that even Hebrew grammar, first systematically developed in Muslim Spain, borrowed its paradigms from Arabic (e.g., such mnemonic devices as the designation of verbal forms-pi'el, hitpa'el, hiphil, etc. copied not only the patterns but the very model verb-fa'ala-of Arabic grammar). Halevi's diwan (an Arabic-originally Persian-term denoting "register" or "collection of poems") contains many examples of Arabic influence. This is not to say that Halevi doesn't introduce his own spin to the genres. In one of his wine songs he writes:
For you I'll rouse my songs day after day
and to the pungent juice my lips taste,
"Brother," I call out to the wine-jar you've sent,
as from its mouth I sip the essence
of its fruit, until my friends, seeing me flushed
plead: "Haven't you had enough?"
And I: "The Gilead balm before me, how
can I not drink to cure my ills,
and how refuse another glass when I haven't
even reached the age of twenty-four!"
This might have been written by Abu Nuwas, in ninth-century Baghdad, except, of course, for the reference to Gilead. But, as Levin notes, Halevi also rebelled against this Arabic legacy, working to escape its intricate meters; this effort came to realization only later, in his great biblically inspired odes. For his part, Levin curiously shadows his earlier master. Halevi resisted the Arabic modes even as he triumphed in them; Levin in his own verse repeatedly invokes them, alludes to them, mirrors them. It is as though he is discreetly completing a circle whose circumference first began to be traced almost a millennium before. In his little lyric "Walid Ibn Yazid" (referring to the Umayyad caliph and brilliant poet), Levin writes:
Summoned from the desert's Empty Quarter,
Ma'bad, your favourite singer, unwinds
his turban to reveal the Seven Golden Odes
embroidered on its surface.
he whispers in your ear, "of the linen cloth
which hung on the wall of the Ka'aba."
But the precious headgear crumbles to dust
the moment you reach for it,
like the powdery Apple of Sodom. Most
reluctant of Caliphs, poet and marksman,
the white oryx leads you to its lair,
tucked in the white marl hills,
and laves your body with its tongue.
Bon vivant, waylaid in the thickets-
camel-thorn and stinkwood-of the Jordan.
Levin's translations of Halevi's poems are certainly the best I've read; he (wisely) makes no attempt to duplicate the rhymes or rhythms of the originals but he has the music of Hebrew and of English in his ears and deftly plays on them both. As he puts it in his poem "These Be the Words":
Read on, in mother tongue and father
tongue, half-and-half, in the coarse mix
and weave, like wool and flax. Everyone's here,
sifting the evidence, poking at the dead
weight, dreaming up the lurid finale,
before joining the column of celebrants
winding into the gorge pricked with shrubs
and rockrose, and the wild pistachio
emitting a faint scent of turpentine.
Eric Ormsby is the author of five collections of poetry, the latest of which is Daybreak at the Straits (Zoo Press).