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but first i call your name by Hadassa Tal Translated by Joanna Chen (Shearsman Books)

but first i call your name by Hadassa Tal Translated by Joanna Chen (Shearsman Books)

The collection is composed of seven short parts each with incantatory titles that together could create a poem of their own:

within the whirlpool of your loss

run away, leave the poem

one instant – you’re gone

I will not be able to lift you

the one with no name

torso

the purple rose of Tel Aviv

Poems in ‘but first I call your name’ are elusive and ambiguous and based on paradox. Loss hovers between the binaries of beauty and pain: ‘apart from everything/nothing has changed’ says the epigraph on the opening page. The spirit of the lost ‘you’ wanders along ‘in the opposite direction/to laughter’. There are motifs of silence, birds, roses, music and dreams but pain is ‘nailed’, one title is ‘lacerations from an unsent letter’ and there is reference to ‘the crimson bond of blood’ while angels are warned to ‘take caution/with a slaughtering knife’. ‘Silence’ is a key word in these poems but, in the nightmarish ‘finito la commedia’, Pierrot cackles ‘A bird will scream tonight’.

Poems about loss – but the reader is offered no further information. There are references to motherhood with ‘nipples and honey’ and to a child, ‘a girl running in a field’, to a ‘morning star and a girl’ falling,  ‘scattering through the air’, but details are not intended for the reader, loss is conveyed through images, there is no name and the lost one is always referred to as ‘you’ or, symbolically, as ‘beauty’.

Poems in this collection are filled with yearning. One is titled ‘how much yearning does time weigh’ and begins ‘You yearn from within me/passing a shadow over my words, pushing/towards the source of light.’ We have the description of ‘running along stone platforms/ chasing you’ (‘Crumbs’). In ‘leave these words’ the narrator runs ‘like a broom through the city streets’ asking ‘Was it my yearning that created the rose you gave me/in a dream or was it yours –‘. In the poem ‘baby, you’ve got a snow-white coat with blue-red stripes’, yearning is described as ‘wafting like a wind,/whirling’. ‘Hold, let me hold you’ is the plea, ‘don’t slip away’.

This is a deeply philosophical collection. Time, as the instigator of grief, is interrogated throughout.  The ‘you’ has been ‘emptied of clocks yet time happens’. In the poem ‘silence’ Time is personified when he hears his own words and looks up ‘startled’ only to repeat the dreadful word ‘Nevermore’. In ‘twist’ we are offered this:

there’s no death, she said.

the spirit doesn’t die, is not born.

the sternum, a cage

of ribs, life before and after, all is one.’

Earlier I mentioned paradoxes and binaries and an essential one exists in the swing between the sublime and the void. In ‘but first I call your name’ the void is ‘emptiness/filled with itself’. The lost voice jingles in a bell ‘polished by the void’ (‘that’s that’). ‘o g-d’ begins ‘imagine voiding yourself: visibly absent./no present no sign. nothing. all shuttered … white recedes into darkness.’ The most chilling line, or fragment of a line, ends the wintry scene in ‘silence’:

‘Rain lashing a willow branch will be the only tune,

the world tethered to these words: you are no’

And the sublime? The poem ‘guesstimate’ offers some consolation perhaps, or at least a slight movement towards resignation:

they say your loosened curls are the wings of the bird of fate

that you were already who you would be

that you wouldn’t have been eternal

if you hadn’t been transient

This is an outstanding collection of poems, exquisitely written by Hadassa Tal and translated with empathy and delicacy by Joanna Chen. The book is haunting, in every sense, lyrical and innovative, both enchanting and painful. 

The poems end with a promise: ‘at daybreak I’ll release you to dawn’ and with an image of ‘the purple rose of tel aviv’ which the narrator, with pain holding her hand, will ‘dream into being’.

Mandy Pannett 23rd June 2022

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