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.
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In her finely crafted debut collection, Dear Darwish, Morani Kornberg-Weiss offers readers a graceful synthesis of domestic imagery and political life. By challenging the boundaries between public and private spaces, and between public and private types of address, the poems in this deftly rendered first book show us that a morning cup of coffee, a dish, and a darkened room can serve as a point of entry to questions that are global in scope. Presented as a series of letters to the iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Kornberg-Weiss's poems suggest that the traditionally feminine realm of the home remains at the very center of much larger political and ethical conflicts, presenting us with a perfect matching of form and content all the while.
With that in mind, I find it fascinating that Kornberg-Weiss engages with the epistolary tradition, as letters are frequently categorized as part of the private, and hence domestic, realm of discourse. As the book unfolds, Kornberg-Weiss politicizes this seemingly feminine type of writing, revealing the myriad possibilities for activism within the epistolary tradition. Consider "Dear Mahmoud":
Many poems are
to other writers.
The indication: a 'for.'
I wonder about these offerings.
Do they begin with the addressee in mind
or does the gift-receiver appear midway?
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EXCESS AND ASCESIS: TWO FEMINIST VISIONARY POETS
VOW, BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING
THE BLUE RENTAL, BY BARBARA MOR
-“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Timothy 11 -12, The Bible, King James Version
-“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”
(“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back”)”
-Horace (65-8 BC), Epistles I.X.24
Kristina Marie Darling created a domestic drama that unfolds in white space, an emptiness surrounded by a commentary in the footnotes. It is a text without text, a Beckett-ian “texts for nothing” literalized. Barbara Mor created a panorama, a historico-politico-paleontological rant against collective and individual injustices. It is written with chthonic excess, with Whitman-esque long poetic lines set amidst the painted landscapes of the American Southwest. Both Mor and Darling represent visionary feminist poetics; one spare and skeletal; the other a surrealist logorrhea.
Vow is about a marriage. Rendered in short lines and esoteric marginalia, the bride faces the slow reduction and negation of her identity. Unlike Mor’s work, The Blue Rental, Kristina Marie Darling’s work isn’t a frontal assault on violent male idiocy and its institutional tentacles (the state, the military, the corporation, etc.). Darling works through small meditations on relics and debris.
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A book worth reading for the life lessons it recalls, in spite of the ironic fact that the protagonists of this story, by nature of their privileged circumstances, seemed to have been largely exempted from the initiations of life’s burdens and responsibilities at this point in their lives. It’s the reader’s own hindsight that completes this portrait of an era, set in the summer of 1969. The story revolves around the emotions, observations and uninhibited interactions of a group of young and casual socialites that come together in the Hamptons-Sag Harbor scene and end up hashing out their attractions, impulsive philosophies of man-woman relationships, daydreaming and experimenting with a degree of urgency.
The notion of any memoir of what it was like to be young and engaged in the summer of 1969 gets confused with the grandiosity of myths about the counterculture. But here, the author assures us that being an unformed romantic youth, full of yearning and naïve aspirations, self-indulgent and ardently single-minded, was no different then, than it is now. Friends give you trouble instead of companionship and family seems indifferent to your real métier.
The narrative flow in this novel reminded me of watching an Eric Rohmer film! Here are the quotidian moments of hanging out on the beach but contemplating the attainment of being elsewhere, moving around at vacation pace, but psychologically sprinting. They strain to be intelligent and articulate, winning over the admiration of their peers, but they frequently fail to live up to their own desires to connect with each other. There is the contrast between what the characters say and what they are actually doing, and how things turn out, that fuels the drama.
I gave it 5 stars because it’s a great study in social collisions, one which perfectly describes why the baby boomers were also wistfully dubbed the me generation.
— Jane Stevenson
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