A search for God and for love is riddled with doubt and phrased in a language that borrows from the old and makes use of the new; poet and scholar Haviva Pedaya might be considered Israel’s contemporary Emily Dickinson.
A rather special weave creates the poetic fabric of Haviva Pedaya’s From a Sealed Ark. This book presents to its readers a poet who faces many existential problems and often feels that she is on the edge of frustration and hopelessness. However, it should be noted that Pedaya does not immediately block all the openings to hope, and that she does provide a way out from the moments of crisis and despair in her poetry, and also an escape into meaning, if slightly forced, through her connection to divine transcendence, as evidenced by the closing lines of the book:
One thing have I asked and it I seek
your dwelling in me your giving me a spirit
one thing I cried when I remembered myself
for then when I prayed I lacked nothing
and now that I desire nothing
everything is trampled in me please be gracious to me and pity
bless my days purify them
raise them like a daughter crying over the apple of her eye
please if you can.
From a Sealed Ark is composed of 28 untitled poems/sections, only a few of which are descriptive. The majority are monologues or conversations in which the poet addresses a lover or God, who in response poses questions or answers. The second thread running through Pedaya’s poetry is the suffering caused by love and the longing for it:
and here there’s no delight not hidden within me
and there’s no tear that I don’t hold back
and here there’s no word that I am singing
in love I split open
I irrupted and then I’m weeping.
Pedaya’s longings as expressed in her poems can be seen as individual prayers, a collection of arks built of words, sometimes open, visible and completely comprehensible but mostly sealed, and always profoundly connected, in form and content, to the Hebrew poetry of the middle ages. This can be seen from the opening line of the book: “Crack the Sun and it is red.” [tr. AG] Her work also exhibits deep ties to ancient Hebrew, and, on the other hand, to a Hebrew poet of our time, Ella Bat Tsion.
From a Sealed Ark is, like Bat Tsion’s book, God’s Dreams a manifestation of the poet’s strong desire to draw closer to God, which would also bring her closer to love and to goodness, something which hangs in the balance:
if from yearning’s intensity
a season shall come
I shall not expire
not because I haven’t touched
king king of angels
crown of groaning and weeping
their lives before you a crystal made firm/ only master master
they scatter as from a container
they dive and descend in such melting.
Pedaya is revealed in her first book as a poet who excels at expressing the power of tormented love: “The wailing flesh sometimes implores/ as a ravenous dog in a kennel”. [AG] Many of her poems focus on the unrequited lover-worshipper’s frustration:
one who speaks to the absent
how deep his conversation . . .
the constant lover
is never loved
in his dream he is remembered
and when he opens his eyes
no one comes.
Pedaya’s poetry contains hints of the sources she draws on for her style. Just to name a few, The Song of Songs, Kabalistic literature, medieval Hebrew poetry and the New Testament are reconfigured according to the poet’s own reading of the texts and then blended with her own particular life experience. Her assertions are sometimes reminiscent of statements, which, despite their originality, seem to have been taken from sacred writings:
happy are the tried ones
in taking flight of others from them splitting and ascending free
they’ll be coming to the heavenly kingdom
and those who escape will always descend to Sheol.
Pedaya mixes well-known literary quotations with expressions from spoken Hebrew. Her language draws on earlier forms of the language, sometimes ancient Hebrew, and therefore she can be difficult for those whose linguistic knowledge is superficial. Haviva Pedaya’s first book is witness to the talent of a real poet, to her deep knowledge of the Hebrew poetry that preceded her, and to her ability to create a brilliant combination of form and content somewhere inbetween old and new.
Translated and reprinted with permission from Haaretz, 7 March 1997. Re-edited for PIW. Quotations from Pedaya’s poetry have been translated by Aubrey L. Glazer (marked AG) or Harvey Bock (marked HB). All poems are untitled, the first and fourth poems quoted can be found on PIW as ‘please with gentleness’ and ‘one who speaks to the absent’.