Theodor Adorno famously wrote: “To still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric and it corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” For me, his dictum has always meant that poetry about the Holocaust is inadmissible — being, a priori, inadequate — and what’s the use of poetry if it can’t deal with matters of such caliber?
At this point, the same question can be posed about current realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How can one write about the situation without cheapening the death and suffering that goes on there, to write without marring the intent with political agendas, sophistry, subjectivism?
Welsh-Israeli poet Jasmine Donahaye takes the Middle-Eastern conflict as the subject of her poetry collection “Self-Portrait as Ruth” and fulfills Adorno’s dictum in a wholly unexpected way. She writes poetry that is itself barbaric — sophisticated, complex, informed, yet at its core, barbaric. The imagery is shockingly physical, often sexually violent, and the poetic structures themselves are more akin to those of primal myths than contemporary literature. The layers of meaning are twisted into a single landscape, which denies its readers a possibility of a coherent uniform interpretation, evoking, instead, a sense of disoriented confusion that borders on schizophrenia.
In “Thirst,” Donahaye summarizes her stance:
You, Moshe, Mashiach, with your macho
promise; you, chayal, with you sullen refusals,
raising a slow thumb from that gunmetal chest;
you, poet, still believing
your language can be something absolute,
that it can absolve you —
violate me, let me love
What you say about us is untrue. It begins with
thirst, when you shout all right, you want water,
I’ll give you water, and you strike the rock.
We’re near the salt impossibility of that fake respite —
can you blame us? From the rock a thousand streams
ejaculate. Yes, it starts with our thirst
and resentment, and then your disgust, and for such
petty rage, your right of return
has been revoked, so why blame us
for the exile?
Who is Moshe? Clearly, he’s the biblical figure, the archetypal Jewish leader. He is also the soldier (chayal) and the poet — that is, the poet who composed the Torah perhaps as a soldier might, blindly believing in concrete truths. “Absolute” and “absolve,” positioned here side by side, bear much more than auspicious consonance: Each is the other’s echo; each is at the core of the stanza’s conflict. Consonance proceeds, linking “absolve” with the “violate-love” pair. Donahaye begs, yearns to be violated by the absolutes, raped into blind belief; she wants to be free of the guilt — yet surely she cannot.
The end of the second verse is shocking: Moshe is described as the one whose right of return is revoked — as it surely is in the Torah. But in the context of this poem, is he then also a Palestinian refugee? And who is asking for the water? Is it the Jews, wandering in the desert, or is it the Arab population of the West Bank who literally depend on the “soldier” as their source of basic supplies? Whose exile is being discussed? Why is this water, finally extracted from the rock, equated with forced ejaculation? The image is obscene and blasphemous, mocking the effort, mocking the images of the biblical narrative and the psalmist’s dream of “honey from rock.”
Finally, why is Moshe also called Mashiach, the Messiah: Is this bitter irony or grim and desperate prophecy? The layers of meaning intrude upon one another, knotted and bound together in a way that makes conventional interpretation impossible. Yet this very entanglement of stories and narratives evokes the entangled fates of Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
Donahaye’s poetic representation of the situation is compelling but not entirely free of didacticism. Her pleas for the “absolute” are hard to perceive as sincere. There is, perhaps, an earnest movement of thought, traces of decision-making, but the poem itself already resides past the final registers of any such process. The pleas therefore, are no longer sincere but are a didactic jest, if not a straight-up manipulative one. Among the chaos and entanglement of factors and reasons, this one message is clear: Moshe, the archetype of religious beliefs, is the violator.
In her best moments, Donahaye transcends such finger pointing, advancing the image of incomprehensible entanglement, as in “The Seamline”:
How we desired her,
and now we have her, how we
love her. We followed Rilke’s advice,
patrolling the borders of her solitude.
In private she takes off the scarf, the snood,
the clumsy wig. We touch her lustrous hair that only
we may see. She undresses for us alone,
revealing her secret places and pleasures,
her wound. The scar won’t ever fully heal,
but it had to be done, this stitched seam from pubis
to breastbone. Caressing the weal with the ball
of the thumb, we forget so easily how the join was made,
forty years ago, clumsily, hastily, without
thought, without anesthetic, by an army doctor
still in his boots after a short sleep on the tent floor
on the seventh day of the six-day war.
The Rilke reference here is to “On Love & Other Difficulties”: “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude….[itals added]” In this context, guardianship and “other difficulties” have an especially ominous ring. The woman — the wife — is, again, a compilation of conflicting images. She is religiously observant, choosing to cover her hair. Both observant Jews and Muslims share this practice, so which one is she? And is she the land or the people? It seems that she is both Israel and Palestine together — a body torn apart and badly sewn back together in 1967.
The details are brutally suggestive. Why does the scar extend from pubis to breastbone? Is this perhaps a butchered pregnancy? The imagery of new life is undeniable: Six days of war are compared to the six days of creation, and the battered woman is creation’s grand finale, stitched together on the Sabbath, the seventh day. Was she torn apart giving birth, or was she herself born, scarred, under the surgical knife?
Yet, the most disturbing question is this: Why is the woman’s wound equated with her “secret places and pleasures”? Is the poet saying that “she” takes pleasure in this violence? Talking about this scar of historical trauma as a pleasure, is a sickening, fearsome, yet convincing equation for readers hung up on the competing political arguments of victimhood. As in “Thirst,” “we” is the trigger word. Who is watching and taking pleasure — Israelis, Palestinians, the world, the poet, or is it the reader herself? “We” is the interchangeable variable, a stand-in for the one in the position of power — toxic and abusive power.
Images of desire, rape, and mutilation permeate the collection, repeatedly traumatizing the reader. As with any victim, the reader may grow appreciative of such “blurring,” particularly in the moments when the poet chooses to be lucid, as she does in “A Stoning,” which speaks for itself all too well:
Hebron by new neighbors,
insisted nevertheless on paying 400
Old Israeli Shekels.
In the ruins, a farmer rises
from the ochre soil
after the febrile women
knocked him down,
but still my people are throwing stones,
and he stands, swaying;
then his legs slacken
and fail. Silently he drops
like an empty sack.
Listen to poet Jasmine Donahaye read her poems out loud in this Forward podcast:
Jake Marmer writes about poetry for the Forward.
Poems in this review are from the collection “Self Portrait as Ruth,” by Jasmine Donahaye (Salt, 2009) and are reprinted with the kind permission of the author