New Poems in an Ancient Language

Approaching You in English book coverApproaching You In English
by Admiel Kosman
Zephyr Press, 2011

The contemporary Hebrew-language poet is entering a crowded arena. Psalmists, prophets, compilers of scripture, paytanim, and two thousand years of subsequent scholars, legists, rabbis, and poets—they’ve all been there before, they’ve all done it already. Where does one begin? So many ordinary words carry powerful ancient echoes, so many images or phrases are inseparable from their roots in the sacred texts. And meanwhile, other swaths of vocabulary stand out as modern coinages or foreign borrowings. To use a simple word like “wall” or “water” or “bread” is to summon ancient ghosts, who may or may not be wanted. And then, when the next word is “telephone,” a different kind of obtrusive echo occurs, and the problem becomes how to reconcile levels of language from radically different places, periods, and styles.

Using such a loaded language, a poet can hardly avoid taking as one of his subjects the tradition itself and his own fraught relationship with it. This presents certain obvious difficulties, such as: how does one write simply about ordinary life? But it also offers opportunities: for irony, wit, subversion, and the built-in dramatic tension that comes from juxtaposing ancient with modern, serious with vulgar (or playful, or banal). The struggle with the past is intrinsic to the language, so the struggle itself might as well be brought front and center.

In his new book, the Israeli poet Admiel Kosman shifts his voice adroitly between ancient and modern, while never seeming quite settled in either. There is a persistent restlessness; nothing is ever straightforward or taken for granted. The poems wrestle with God, spiritual practice, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the place of a poet’s work in society, the relationship between masculinity and femininity, and the baggage of tradition borne by the Hebrew language itself. Spanning Kosman’s thirty-two-year career, the book contains selections from the nine volumes of poetry he has published in Hebrew, and it brings them to English-speaking readers for the first time in translations by Lisa Katz with assistance from Shlomit Naim-Naor. Hebrew and English texts are presented on facing pages (or, should one say, opposing pages?).

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