Rachel Tzvia Back’s Verse Confronts Devastating Loss

Poet Brings Us With Her as She Aches Over Loss of Loved Ones

By Sarah Wildman

Published October 23, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A Messenger Comes
By Rachel Tzvia Back
Singing Horse Press, 110 Pages, $15

uri nevo

Mourning propels us. We are, none of us, immune. It is the first thing children fear: loss — of a parent, a friend, a sibling, a grandparent — and the first lie we tell them, or half-truth we impart, as parents, promising, as vaguely as possible, that we will always be there.

Poet Rachel Tzvia Back, an American by birth, an Israeli for the majority of her life, palpates the edges and depths of grief and mourning — in anticipation of, in the moment of and in the teary months after — the deaths in one year of her father and older sister. The text in her latest book of verse, “A Messenger Comes,” is unflinching and raw. We are under the covers with her, outside and inside the hospital room, at the edge of the grave, in her subconscious, in her sleep, in her dreams; we ache with her as those she is losing and has lost abandon her once again upon waking.

Back’s previous books weren’t light. In “On the Ruins of Palestine,” she narrated the years of suicide bombings in Israel in stark language — “when we no longer care /who or how many/are dead/our own/running through sprinklers /in the still/ablaze/afternoon” — and graphically described the heavy losses endured, on both sides. But even the deaths of her countrymen and women; even the deaths of others’ children, painful and bloody and horrifying; even her own political wrestling can’t quite come close to the experience of loss so personal, so profound.

In “Lamentation (For my Father, on his dying),” Back’s season of mourning has begun, as we witness her father dying slowly, shrinking from the man she’d known into a patient, a child. But as painful as these pages are, it is the last poem — “Elegy Fragments” — dedicated to her sister Adina, that will unravel even the hardiest of reader. “My sister died/in mid-summer, in the middle/of the night, in the middle/ of her life.”

In these verses, we see the bewildering cessation of a sibling bond, far earlier than anyone of us ever dare to whisper can be possible: “We were just three/girls from Buffalo… When you left the childhood home/I slept in your room/In your bed/I imagined I was you.”

Back tries to understand losing her sister, rages against it, even as she holds onto her memories, desperately, impossibly. “Fugitive dreams — Steal you back home to me… Then day breaks into terrible light/Sleep’s mercy denied.” She toggles back and forth, later recalling a moment of her sister’s lucidity at the end, suppressed, otherwise, by palliative care. “In a morphine sleep for long days when you/open your blue eyes suddenly to see/us all gathered around you/smile weakly while we/call for the others to come quickly to/not miss a moment with you we are/Elated/ to have you back. /Afterwards, when everyone leaves/you whisper to me/in your new/unused hoarse voice — How moving that was.”

Back is not alone, though she feels as though she is; her daughter jolts her from the depths of her mourning. “My daughter hovers near/Watching closely from quiet/corners from under covers/from the curve between my/shoulder and breast where she/rests her head as I/ weep/thinking she sleeps/ One day she wants to ask/ a ‘theoretical question’:/did I think one could/run out of tears?”

This elegant, slim book of poetry is heavy in its loss, in its impact; we are among the mourners of Zion, with Back as she struggles. Other mourners — that is, all of us — would gain much from reading this beautiful fist to the sky.

Sarah Wildman is a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins. She is currently working on a book for Riverhead Press.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.