Tuesday, 31 March 2015

A Prize for Hebrew Poetry?

Erez.BitonThe latest recipient of the Israel Prize for Hebrew Literature and Poetry says he represents "Hebrew poetry and not the Jews of the east".

Algerian-born Erez Biton, sometimes referred to as ‘the blind bard of Lod’, has lived in Israel since he was six. He was blinded aged ten by a hand grenade during an incident in which he also lost his left hand.

But  personal tragedy never stopped him fulfilling careers in social work,  psychology and journalism  before his first collection of poetry  Mincha Marokait (Moroccan Gift), published in 1976, established him as the founding father of Mizrachi (eastern Jewish) poetry in Israel. Biton has since won several prestigious awards and presently edits the Hebrew literary journal, Apirion.

The poem I post below as illustration of Biton’s output was translated from the Hebrew by Czech-born Tsipi Keller who was raised in Israel but now lives in the United States.

Keller’s notes explain that Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes (Rabbi Meir the miracle maker) was a Talmudic sage while Rabbi Shimon bar-Yochai is regarded as the author of the Kabbalistic work, The Zohar.



“My Father Gave the Neighbours

“On the wounded night
my father gave the neighbours
a wine feast and a variety of pastries
while my mother
unravelled both her eyes to the ravens.

“And on tiptoe the neighbourhood wives
come and go, lighting candles
to Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes
and to Rabbi Shimon bar-Yochai.

“And I
toss and turn all night
soliciting my mother’s eyes
to calm my father.

“And the women continue
to come and go
to revive me
with nard and turmeric
until morning arrives
sealing the time
of darkness”.

© Natalie Wood (31 March 2015)


Monday, 30 March 2015

Giving a Dissident Poet More Space

The radical German writer Wolfgang Borchert died almost 68 years ago but his legacy is so tightly woven into the fabric of present-day German life that one of his most popular works appears in a reference guide and school text books.

I discovered this after learning about him via the Irish poet, Terry McDonagh who has spent much of his own working life in Germany.

McDonagh, whose poem In Hamburg reflects Borchert’s similarly titled piece, Hamburg! explains: “I have long since been a great admirer of his life and work. His play, Draussen vor der Tuer (The Man Outside) is a protest scream in the face of a brutal dictatorship. He is a household name in Germany ... particularly in Hamburg. Sometimes great dissidents like him do not get enough media space”. Terry.McDonagh

Here I try to help correct that omission by sharing some of what I have read and conclude by posting an English translation of Borchert’s poem alongside that of McDonagh which appeared in the April 2015 edition of Live Encounters magazine.


Wolfgang Borchert, born to liberal  parents in Hamburg in 1921, is viewed as the founder of German Trümmerliteratur  (‘literature of the ruins’ or ‘rubble literature’) which depicts the Wolfgang.Borchertphysical and spiritual state of Germany immediately after World War II.

He was  an actor, poet, short story writer and playwright whose work was influenced by both his experience of dictatorship and his time fighting in the Wehrmacht during the war. His father, Fritz Borchert was a teacher while his mother, Hertha was a writer.

It is said that Borchert loathed his enforced time with the Hitler Youth, from which he managed to resign but he was briefly arrested and then released by the Gestapo, the Secret State Police. He contracted hepatitis while serving on the Eastern Front and was rearrested and placed in isolation when his superiors accu   sed him of attempting to evade military service by self-mutilation. 

After suffering other wartime privations, Borchert's fragile health deteriorated rapidly and in 1946 he was given only a year to live. This warning effectively spurred his artistic endeavour and he went on to act,  write short prose and  a collection of poems Laterne, Nacht und Sterne (Lantern, Night and Stars). In January 1947 his play, The Man Outside was published and performed to much acclaim on radio. But later that year he entered a sanatorium in Basel, Switzerland, where he continued writing fiction. He completed his anti-war manifesto, Dann Gibt Es Nur Eins! (Then There is Only One Thing!) shortly before his death.

*Trümmerliteratur, also called Kahlschlagliteratur (‘clear-cutting literature’), is a literary movement that enjoyed a short life in Germany from the end of the war until about 1950. Its primary concern was the fate of former German soldiers and POWs who returned home and were forced to confront the physical ruins of their homeland and personal possessions as well as the rubble of their ideals. American short stories served as the model for the genre in which simple, direct language was used with economy of space, narration  and characterisation to describe the destroyed world without evaluation. It was also an attempt to cleanse the German language perceived to have been defiled by Nazi ideology.


From: The Regions of Germany - a Reference Guide to History and Culture by Dieter K. Buse, Greenwood Publishing Group, Jan 1, 2005:

“In 1959 the state printed a book for school students which began with a poem by Wolfgang Borchert. Though the fear of survival is gone, the poem may still express important elements of regional identification in just being and having a home port in a stormy world“.


by Wolfgang Borchert

That is more than a pile of stones, roofs, windows, carpets, streets, beds, bridges

and street lights.

That is more than factory lights and cars honking

More than gulls’ laughter, street car screeching and the thunder of the railway

That is more than ships’ sirens, cranes’ cries, cursing and dance music

Oh, it is endlessly more

It is our will, to be.

Not anywhere, not any way,

But here, and only here, between Alster lake and Elbe stream

And only to be, as we are

We, in Hamburg.



In Hamburg

by Terry McDonagh

To the Memory of Wolfgang Borchert

In Hamburg is the Elbe. Every morning
Heinz will go down to the river to work
and he will hardly see the water, but he
knows it's there, and when he crosses over
in a boat, he knows that fresh and salt water
collude in a sweet and sour tangle, a bit
like the dream and reality in his heart.

In Hamburg is the Alster. Every spring
longboats, yachts, masts and flags will
be freed from winter sleep, and they cannot
sense the water, but it is there because
Heinz and his wife will pull lines and sails
between the city and Winterhude, a bit
like taking tears away in summer months.

In Hamburg is the light. Every day
the sun will come up to some degree
as if it did and didn't care, but Heinz's wife
knows from the ship's sirens and Heinz
at the front door, it is there. Later she will
walk by a closed up Russian bookshop, a bit
like a bunch of broken roses from the Volga.

In Hamburg is the dark. Every night
the day will be freed of rules and regulations
and the open spaces will close up
to leave room for unbridled whispering
alongside the foot-tramp of the solitary, while
Heinz and his wife buy two bus tickets, a bit
like two words trying to find the right poem.

© Natalie Wood (30 March 2015)

Thursday, 26 March 2015

His Name Now Carved in History

King.Richard.IIIThe more I have read of the short, troubled reign of  England’s King Richard III the more I am sure that he was at least as much ‘sinned against as sinning’.

At best, his modern detractors forget that while the last Plantagenet monarch was a product of a very violent age, he was an extraordinary modernist, laying the foundations of the British legal system in areas like bail, legal aid and the end of trade restrictions on book printing. My own knowledge is too limited to provide a contemporary equivalent, but readers may be able to provide one!

I think it is most appropriate that his legacy is such that the present Queen described his reinterment at Leicester Cathedral as “an event of great national and international significance” while the popular actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, discovered to be a distant second cousin, was invited to read the poem, Richard written for the occasion by Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Carol.Ann.DuffyHer piece has been described as “a meditation on the impact of the discovery of the king’s remains under a council car park in 2012, and the legacy of his story. The line, 'grant me the carving of my name', refers to carvings on his tomb which read 'Richard III', together with his symbol, the white boar”. She said: “It is a privilege to be involved, in a small way, in this unique event”.



“My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,

a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,

emptied of history. Describe my soul

as incense, votive, vanishing; you own

the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie

a broken string and on it thread a cross,

the symbol severed from me when I died.

The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –

unless the Resurrection of the Dead …

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath

in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;

or sensed you from the backstage of my death,

as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

© Natalie Wood (27 March 2015)

Sunday, 8 March 2015

How They Worked It Out

Paul.McCartney.Linda.McCartneyTo mark International Women’s Day 2015, I’m sharing a snippet about the late Linda McCartney, first wife and eternal soul-mate of musician, Sir Paul.

The received wisdom insists that the former Linda Eastman was  related to the George Eastman family of Eastman Kodak fame.

But the truth is that her father was Leopold Vail Epstein,  the son of Jewish Russian immigrants to the USA who changed his name to Lee Eastman.

What else is undeniable is that related or not to the Eastman Kodaks, Linda was an ace photographer. It is also said that Sir Paul, who has a soft spot for nice American Jewish girls,  still holds a candle for Linda, who died from breast cancer in 1998 aged only 56. His present wife, Nancy Shevell, is well aware of this.                                                    

He says of Linda’s work: “Who was the most important photographer covering the sixties' rock and roll music scene? I can think of no one else whose work was so comprehensive and who captured the essence better than Linda”.

I’ve been moved to re-post this  news as I read it after returning home from last week’s monthly Karmiel Folk Club session which included a Beatles’ tribute.

So I end here with a piece from McCartney – a great one for musicians and poetic writers – with sagacious and optimistic advice for women everywhere.

We Can Work It Out

Paul McCartney

“Try to see it my way
Do I have to keep on talking till I can't go on
While you see it your way
Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone
We can work it out
We can work it out.

“Think of what you're saying
You can get it wrong and still you think that it's alright
Think of what I'm saying
We can work it out and get it straight or say good night
We can work it out
We can work it out.

“Life is very short, and there's no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend
I have always thought that it's a crime
So I will ask you once again

“Try to see it my way
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong
While you see it your way
There's a chance that we may fall apart before too long
We can work it out
We can work it out.

“Life is very short, and there's no time
For fussing and fighting my friend
I have always thought that it's a crime
So I will ask you once again

“Try to see it my way
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong
While you see it your way
There's a chance that we might fall apart before too long
We can work it out
We can work it out”.

© Natalie Wood

(first published 08 March 2015; edited 14 March 2015)