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Rachel Tzvia Back
On Ruins and Return
reviewed by Andrew Mossin
103pp. Shearsman Books. 9781905700370 paper

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Andrew Mossin and Jacket magazine 2008.

Against Witness as Such


In Gaza on Friday, Hussein Dadouna, 50, was burying his son, Omar, 14, killed while playing with his friends by an Israeli strike aimed at a rocket-launching team. ‘I couldn’t identify the body of my son,’ he said. ‘It was very hard until I found the head of my son. I’m against these rockets, but I am afraid. What can I do? If I protest they will hit me, they will kill me.’
                    — The New York Times, Sunday, March 2, 2008

paragraph 2

Avi Katz, was one of the first volunteers to enter the yeshiva [after the shooting] as part of a medical help organization that gathers body parts for burial.
    He was shaken by the sight. ‘I’ve seen terrorist acts before, but never like this,’ he said, breathing shallowly. ‘We came to the library and saw two bodies at the entrance on the floor, and it was very bad. There were bodies and Jewish books all over the floor.’ He and a colleague tried to save one student’s life until ambulance workers came, he said. ‘It’s not just the symbolism of the yeshiva,’ he said. ‘They were shot one by one.’
                    — The New York Times, Friday, March 7, 2008


We (Israelis) are ignorant. When the first riot erupts, we fail to understand. Fires reach our doorstep, and still we fail to see. In the rage and flames, the ripped-out street lamps, the young boys shouting in the village square, the roads blocked with burning tires, the riot police shooting into the crowd–in the rage and flames, I remember the buffalo. By riot’s end, thirteen (Palestinian-Israeli) Galilean boys are dead. So the second uprising begins. The streets are soon bloody. The ledgers are quickly filled with the names of children.
                    — Rachel Tzvia Back: On Ruins and Return, ‘Until we all see buffalo’


To attach the term, ‘poetry of witness,’ to this work by the Israeli poet Rachel Tzvia Back, would seem on firsthand appropriate. With its passionate interrogation and representation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, her work has its basis in personal, observed experience of a conflict that appears to be without end. On Ruins & Return continues the journey of her earlier volume, Azimuth (Sheep Meadow Press, 2001), to inscribe in a poetry of psalmic intensity and astringent care the geographic, political and po-ethical realities of present-day Israel.


Yet Back’s work suggests if anything the problematic context of a term that has been used to celebrate the first-person notion of testimony: of witness as itself a kind of isolated act of seeing. The poems from Back’s On Ruins & Returns remind us in their measured and fractured materiality that witness is not subjective nor a position that can be easily transformed into poetic statement. Rather, Back suggests, the problem is that witness is gone; all that remains is ‘evidence / of what was’ (47).


The book opens with an apocryphal sighting of a buffalo in the hills above Jerusalem:


I watch it. I wait for it to move (which it does not). I want it too look a me (which it does not). Cars behind me speed their way to the capital, but I do not hear them — I am immersed, deep in a silent embrace, in the space and stillness between us, in everything it carries in its unwieldy shape: dark peace and darker pain.

I watch it — this wandered-from-far buffalo — for a minute or an hour, until the muezzin calls, until the baby turns, until the last light slips away and I can no longer distinguish its form from the black hills, or from the burnt valley. (11)


The buffalo — at once metaphoric, historically actual, mytho-poetic, extinct — exists in this landscape as both birth-rite of a landscape that now exists only in the poet’s memory (Back grew up in Bufffalo, New York) and as fictive medium through which Back translates the grief-stricken actuality of present day Israel, her adopted homeland. It is from here that she writes:


On American plains there were once
                                                  sixty million, here
           there were none

           though now I see him    here
                                 as though returning

                               (dark thick-tongued ruminant
                                 massive beast of crowded herds)

                                               his solitary ruins
                          to this narowland
still brown body
             in still and dry heat
                                          suspended (16)


The buffalo as hunted-down, slaughtered beast of the American West, appears in Back’s reconstruction as a figure enmeshed in multiple topographies at once: as symbol of the western plains where buffalo once dominated the landscape; as instrumental referent to the poet’s own journeying away from homeland to homeland, adopted land to adopted land; as emblematic figure of historic suffering, spanning that distance between the genocidal killings by western settlers of Native Americans in  the 19th century and present-day Jerusalem:


                     her open squares covered
                with rocks tossed hurled  
pitched at moving targets the ground on which
        we would stand unevenly stitched
                   patchwork of protest
and prayer frenzy (29)


Working in a variety of forms — from couplets and prose fragments to the field poetics of the above — Back re-locates a lyric core at the center of what remains a vaticly disposed, experimental idiom. As in Susan Howe’s work, Back’s historicist consciousness manipulates poetic form to establish a new ground of seeing: language as material and psalmic address; as univocal appeal and pluralist evocation of the Diaspora. If  the haunting cadences of ‘Song of Solomon’ provide the dominant tone, the flat informational language of newspaper and military accounts anchor these poems in a context that remains visually unbearable, psychically wounding, historically devastating.


The appeal of all Back’s work here is toward a renewed recognition of the socio-political consequences of a conflict that continues to weigh heavily on the daily lives of all who dwell ‘on the ruins of Palestine.’ On Ruins and Return takes on a heroic and necessary task: to make this war public in the Arendtian sense of the term. Back describes the conflict in genuinely non-sectarian terms, mourning Palestinian and Israeli deaths alike, folding them into a compact of moral inquiry that situates the killing of innocent civilians as part of ‘normal’ life.  In this entangled death dance, war as such is an everyday occurrence, an intercultural reality:


                                 the blue-eyed father moving
south on a besieged road to bring
                                 his soldier son home

drives into a daylight ambush   death
               rises from the roadside shadows
he can see it   race towards him

             between first bullet and last
                                          son home hope
            are left waiting

there is no bringing him back

there is no bringing them back (44)


Back’s critique is not, then, of one aggressor or the other, but of Israel and Palestinian forces alike. Here, and throughout this work, Back decries the multiple traumas inflicted against the body-politic of an entire region — and of the dispassion and dullness and sheer fatigue such violence generates among those forced to live it day after day:


when we are too weary
                too hot too bored
                             to read even
one more name or
          that day’s favorite

two teenage daughters dead in a day

two bodies on two stretchers
                               and their mother
      fallen upon them    her mouth
                                              mangled in open agony
as she strokes their lovely long legs
             now covered in flags

                                  one more bomb
in a season of many (38)


Like Oppen’s astringent particularity that refuses to confuse objects with the language that gives them meaning, Back’s language here suggests an asperity, a careful and ethical understanding of the real as fictive, fragmentary, barely readable: ‘the weight of the unwritten truth / at well-bottom’ (42).


Back’s meditative urgency both relinquishes and re-establishes hopefulness — not the reveries of sentiment or elegiac entitlement — exactly through its patient and nearly transparent voicing, scored to a page that threatens at any moment to vanish, all traces gone:


Herd a heap heard the whole
loss lost

To bodies left in the rain
rot in the sun

Will no one cover console
carry them away

They are evidence
of what was

Here home school street
what has

Obscured the beloved’s face
and I hear a heart

voice like my own

is asking:
How fast can you bury your dead? (47)


The gesture here is toward those yet to be killed, those yet to die, and those still ‘left in the rain’ to ‘rot in the sun,’ like the carcasses of buffalo killed a century and a half ago on the western plains of the United States. The victims of genocide, of famine, torture and mass exile exist in Back’s poetry as inchoate yet legible phenomena of political, cultural and subjective catastrophe.


As Back’s book repeatedly suggests, children remain at the center of this vision of ritual violence, cyclical killing. As in the images of the blown-up limbs and bodies of boys killed in a strawberry field in Gaza by Israeli forces, these poems register and re-enact the blistered dullness of repetitive trauma, imitative eventfulness. The violence is repeatable, the same destruction again and again: ‘strands / of a story stolen away’ (61). An arc of anguish that is divested of meaning almost as soon as the cries can be heard:


...the children

in flannel pajamas with coats thrown over
                               thick in layers too loose and bulky to hold
      sweet calves baby buffalo    their feet pushed
        into shoes without socks  their small fingers bone cold
                    as clay brittle in their parents’ hands   their
         still soft in sleep but eyes waking would be
                 eager or earnest now pulled to screeching jeeps and
                       wild searchlights scattering sharp-cut
                like diamond treasures dreams in the dark
megaphones calling out calling names cutting
                     silence into strips and coloring their racing hearts
crayon black

in the middle of the night

in the rain

in the range

of snipers

the children

thinking they dream (66)


‘The sadness of something lost / nothing that was mine’ (77), Back writes in the next to last section of the book, titled, ‘What is Still Possible (6 Love Poems)’. Poetry in extremis can do little else, Back suggests, but record, faithfully, with conviction and sincerity, the overlapping claims of histories that exist, like those of the buffalo or the wailing mother in Gaza or the Israeli soldier kneeling in the sand and gathering body parts, as essential elements of public imagination and discourse. Failing this, Back concludes, we do worse than falsify the record; we imperil those acts of faith that make language possible:


One must have memories

he wrote, and then
one must forget them. One must

have vast patience
until they come

again, and when
they become blood

within us, glance and gesture,

it may happen
in a rare hour

the first word of a verse
the first

pulse of a heart
opened ardent

for another
may arise (96)

Andrew Mossin’s poetry, reviews and criticism have appeared in Conjunctions, Callaloo, The Journal of Modern Literature, Hambone, and other publications. His new collection of poetry, The Veil, has just been released by Singing Horse Press. He teaches in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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