Joanna Chen’s essay on Israeli poet Agi Mishol in the usually excellent Los Angeles Review of Books is an unfortunate snooze. Chen, who is Mishol’s current English translator, reports: “Since I first met Mishol, the stifling heat of summer has morphed into a sunny, mild winter, with precious little rain.” In addition to learning that Israel’s hot summer was followed by a mild winter, we learn that Mishol’s poetry is Israeli yet universal, that (like real estate) “location is key to Mishol’s writing,” that while her poems can be bucolic they also display “an awareness of the global interconnectedness that technology and social media has fueled,” and that while her poems necessarily deal with politics they are “anchored in the personal.”
If this pile of banalities tells you next to nothing about Mishol, she at least is not singled out. In trying to situate Mishol in her Hebrew literary context, Chen mentions a number of other poets in similarly generic terms. We have “Yehuda Amichai, who Mishol has called a ‘poet of the people,’ and Dan Pagis, both of whom wrote of war, the Holocaust, and the founding rock of the state of Israel.” We learn of one young Tel Aviv poet “whose irreverent poetry is making waves in the growing [?] poetry circles of this cultural metropolis” and another whose “highly lyrical words expose little-written-about subjects with blunt honesty.”
The essay’s cliches extend to its discussion of translation. “The act of translation is a complex one,” Chen informs us. “It involves rolling up linguistic sleeves and doing a certain amount of digging in order to reveal the multiple layers of meaning.” Unfortunately, despite the linguistic sleeve-rolling, the essay and the excerpts offered from Chen’s translations show her to be of the unfortunately popular school of translation in which the translator explains at length why her translation choices are clever, rather than rendering memorable verse.
And then some of Chen’s statements about Hebrew and poetry seem simply wrong. She tells us that “Hebrew punctuation . . . is always tricky since a system of dots under the letters is used in place of vowels.” Really? The dots of Hebrew vocalization are hardly interchangeable with punctuation marks, so this seems like saying that English punctuation is always tricky since we dot our i’s. There are other odd moments, such as the demonstrably false adverb in the sentence: “Every time there is an Israeli military incursion (and there are many) the cultural boycott against Israel naturally intensifies.”
A few useful items are found toward the end of the essay: mention is made of the not atypical criticism of Mishol as being derivative of precursors such as Yona Wallach, and we finally get some biographical detail about Mishol as well. But most of the essay ensures that to American readers Mishol will be a Generic Israeli Poet.