The desire to be held in heaven’s arms

Rami Saari

On Ella Bat-Tsion’s God’s Dreams

Ella Bat-Tsion continues to be occupied by a search for God and a longing for divine love in her new book. The subjects, style and structure have changed a bit compared to the poems she has published over the last twenty years, while her lyric voice reaches new heights of clarity and power.

The title seems to reveal the book’s contents but only a few poems indeed make the somewhat precious attempt to depict God’s dreams. Rather, most of the poems deal in one way or another with the writer’s dreams and her world. One basic experience in the book is expressed in the poem “Overcome by religion, I search for God” – the prayer of a sick person who asks God for a cure, for purpose and faith.

The way she links religion to sexuality, mostly through dance or with images uniting sexual and religious ecstasy, links Bat-Tsion to many contemporary [Israeli] poets who combine erotica with faith. The wish to devote one’s self to “our Lord” paradoxically exhibits the poet’s desire to battle the doubts gnawing at her heart; her poems provides refuge from uncertainty while at the same time expressing it.

Bat-Tsion’s agonized desire for God stems only partly from her struggle against evil and darkness; her conception of the individual’s relationship to God also flows from ideas which may be easily linked to different religious texts – to the Old and New Testaments, to Kabbalistic mysticism, and even to Sufi Islam – in which a purifying experience is the underlying assumption. The longing for visions and the yearning for apocalyptic images are the reasons the poet wants to connect to the shepherd who became a king and the carpenter’s son for whom the skies opened. Apparently it isn’t the intellectual pleasure of reading but rather the opposite, the desire to experience illumination that brings Bat-Tsion to wonder about the dreams of God, which at the same time brings her nearer to Christianity, and the need to find redemption, rather than simply the desire to dabble in Talmudic debate.

Christian elements are numerous in these poems. Bat-Tsion mentions the Galilean, the Holy Spirit and the Prodigal Son. She writes about a new heart and a new song, and her own uneasy covenant with God hints at an attraction to the new covenant as well. In some of these poems, the speaker is God; in others the poet speaks about the lack of dialogue between them, which sentences her to a lonely existence.

One explanation of the obsessive attempts to reach divinity, to achieve the soul’s correction or perfection, and to decipher heavenly dreams, may be found in the poet’s own apparent personal distress. The depictions of Paradise recurring in so many of her poems paradoxically emphasize its loss, and the presence of a consuming fire. It is obvious that the preoccupation with big issues like God’s dreams helps to distance the poet from the tribulations of daily life.

Bat-Tsions poems are engaging because of, among other things, their great force, a sizeable portion of which stems from a sense of arrested violence. Sometimes this violence erupts and while it seems external, it in fact expresses processes taking place inside body and soul. One of the best poems in the book, “The orange exploded in my hand,” deals with this combination of violence and power. The orange, like the pomegranate, is on the one hand an erotic symbol, but on the other embodies violence—like a “blood orange” or a “Clockwork Orange,” etc. For Bat-Tsion the orange is where love resides, and when love gives birth to a monster, the orange explodes in one’s hand, and the heart explodes too, and bleeds. Repression that attempts to mislead itself with pastorality suffers a miserable failure, and the poem exposes the poet’s nightmare, until it quiets down once again.

Most of these poems purposefully maintain their distance from minor sorrows; melodrama’s sharp fingernails poke beyond the dream world the poet succeeds in constructing. God’s Dreams is also the poet’s diary of isolation and a chronicle of her withdrawal. Her willing departure from the human world leads her to identify more with animals and plants than with her fellow human beings, and after she turns herself into the seed of a fruit and into an animal she calls on foxes and wolves to come and accompany her.

The book’s lyricism is at its best in the mini-texts, in poems whose lines number only a few, and which offer original and innovative images. The poems in God’s Dreams excel in their simplicity and clear formulation. Precisely and sensitively, they convey the desire to be held in heaven’s arms, and convey too the voice lost in the broad expanse of night, the voice of a foreigner in the land of the living.

Excerpted from a review in Ha’aretz 2 December 1994

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