Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces the work of Karen Alkalay-Gut, whose first poem appeared in the Forverts when she was 10 years old.
A remarkable Israeli poet and professor at Tel Aviv University, Karen Alkalay-Gut is the author of numerous poetry collections, including “So Far, So Good” (2004). She writes almost exclusively in English, though her writing career began in Yiddish. When she was just 10, her poem “Mein Koter” was published here – in the Forverts.
Born on the last night of the Blitz in England to a Yiddish speaking family, Karen immigrated to the United States and grew up in Rochester, NY, before moving to Israel in 1972. As she facetiously claims, her style has not changed much since “Mein Koter,” which we’re happy to feature here, in the original as well as in the author’s own translation.
Following is a more recent poem about a mystical encounter with Koter’s Israeli cousins, Tel Aviv cats, from “So Far, So Far Good,” as well as “Bathsheva” from the collection “In My Skin” (1999), and two poems that are previous unpublished. What has remained consistent in Alkalay-Gut’s writing is the depth of Jewish experience and the defiance thereof, a sense of irony, and pertinent questions about gender, which appear extensively in Alkalay-Gut’s later poems. Her air of casualness and speech-like cadences, which one may think to attribute to the influence of Williams Carlos Williams or the Beat writers, actually has its roots in this charming, talkative childhood poem.