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Agi Mishol's "Woman Martyr" and Yehuda Amichai’s "Near the Wall of a House"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Agi Mishol

Agi Mishol

Introduction and Text of "Woman Martyr"

The speaker in Agi Mishol's four-versagraph poem, "Woman Martyr," reports a disturbing event in which a young woman feigning pregnancy walks into a bakery and blows herself up. In her published collection, Look There: New and Selected Poems, Mishol describes the genesis of the poem:

With that poem it was the suicide bomber's last name, Takatka. … Her name sounded like the ticking of a bomb—taka-taka like tick-tock . . . .

The poet appends an epigrammatic quotation from noted poet Nathan Alterman's "Late Afternoon in the Market": "The evening goes blind, and you are only twenty." About the act of writing poetry, Mishol has remarked,

Writing poetry is like swimming upstream, against the current — counter to all that noise and commotion, regardless of the political events and wars. It is like following an underground stream. Poetry observes what everyone sees, but in a different way.

While Mishol customarily avoids overt political confrontation in her poetry, she explains her situation as an Israeli poet living amid confrontational events. In an interview with al-Monitor, she was asked, "Have you been criticized by the left for not writing protest poetry against the occupation?" To which she diplomatically responded,

Being a poet in Israel is kind of problematic. If you don’t mobilize all your talent on behalf of political writing, you are accused of escapism. Come to think of it, it's a strange reality, given everything that is going on here, to write a poem about a bird or a flower.

I hear these accusations, and I myself feel it inside. Poets who live in other countries enjoy greater freedom. Essentially, it is the question of the guns and the muses — what happens to the muses when the guns roar? I don’t think it really affects the muses. Yet, there are times when it is indeed impossible to write.

Likely the poet was compelled to compose the devastating drama in "Woman Martyr" after observing the news reports that a young woman feigning pregnancy blew herself up and took along with her into death six other people, leaving several hundred wounded.

Beginning her poem with the image of a woman whose "first pregnancy is a bomb," she invites the reader to experience a truly horrific scene.

Woman Martyr

"The evening goes blind, and you are only twenty."
—Nathan Alterman, “Late Afternoon in the Market”

You are only twenty
and your first pregnancy is a bomb.
Under your broad skirt you are pregnant with dynamite
and metal shavings. This is how you walk in the market,
ticking among the people, you, Andaleeb Takatka.

Someone loosened the screws in your head
and launched you toward the city;
even though you come from Bethlehem,
the Home of Bread, you chose a bakery.
And there you pulled the trigger out of yourself,
and together with the Sabbath loaves,
sesame and poppy seed,
you flung yourself into the sky.

Together with Rebecca Fink you flew up
with Yelena Konre’ev from the Caucasus
and Nissim Cohen from Afghanistan
and Suhila Houshy from Iran
and two Chinese you swept along
to death.

Since then, other matters
have obscured your story
about which I speak all the time
without having anything to say.

(From Agni Mishol’s Look There: New and Selected Poems, translated from Hebrew by Lisa Katz)

Mishol reading "Woman Martyr" in Hebrew, with subtitles in Spanish

Commentary on Agi Mishol's "Woman Martyr"

A young Palestinian woman became a pawn in the murderous schemes of the Fatah/Tanzim. Recruited to carry out terrorist attacks, many women are now being blackmailed into exploding bombs among the Israeli public; it is thought that women can blend into the "Israeli street" more easily than young males.

First Versagraph: A Human Time Bomb

You are only twenty
and your first pregnancy is a bomb.
Under your broad skirt you are pregnant with dynamite
and metal shavings. This is how you walk in the market,
ticking among the people, you, Andaleeb Takatka.

The first versagraph describes the young woman, Andaleeb Takatka, who is only twenty years old. She is wearing "a broad skirt" to make people think she is pregnant, but her pregnancy "is a bomb"; she is "pregnant with dynamite / and metal shavings." She walks into the market "ticking among the people."

Second Versagraph: A Detonating Pregnancy

Someone loosened the screws in your head
and launched you toward the city;
even though you come from Bethlehem,
the Home of Bread, you chose a bakery.
And there you pulled the trigger out of yourself,
and together with the Sabbath loaves,
sesame and poppy seed,
you flung yourself into the sky.

In the second versagraph, the speaker psychoanalyzes the young woman, referring to the common phrase of craziness as having a "screw loose." Her brainwashing is the result of "someone loosen[ing] the screws in [her] head."

Then the speaker observes that even though the young woman was a native of Bethlehem, "Home of Bread," she chose to enter a bakery in that city to commit her foul deed, and so she detonates her "pregnancy," and along with the "Sabbath loaves, / sesame and poppy seed," she exploded herself "into the sky."

Third Versagraph: Names of Victims

Together with Rebecca Fink you flew up
with Yelena Konre’ev from the Caucasus
and Nissim Cohen from Afghanistan
and Suhila Houshy from Iran
and two Chinese you swept along
to death.

In the third versagraph, the speaker catalogues the names of the victims of this so-called woman martyr: her six victims are Rebecca Fink, probably a Bethlehem resident, Yelena Konre'ev of the Caucasus, Nissim Cohen, an Afghanistan citizen, Suhila Houshy, an Iranian, and two Chinese.

Although not mentioned, the reader realizes that along with those who were killed there must have been numerous others who suffered critical injuries. The fact that this killing involves a number of citizen from all over the world adds an additional level of poignancy to the drama.

Fourth Versagraph: Meaning Remains Undetected

Since then, other matters
have obscured your story
about which I speak all the time
without having anything to say.

In the final verse paragraph, the speaker concludes that since that fateful day, additional details have continued to obliterate the underlying story of the young woman. The speaker admits that although she also continues to speak of the crime, she really has little of importance to say about it.

The speaker leaves the reader realizing the unspeakable nature of such an act, and at least for the speaker the story is unexplainable. Even though she talks about it, she feels that she really cannot say much with meaning.

Brief Life Sketch of Agi Mishol

Born in Hungary to Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Agi Mishol was four years old, when her family relocated to Israel. She and her husband still live in Israel on a farm. She earned her BA and MA degrees in Hebrew literature from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Currently, she serves a writer-in-residence at Tel Aviv University, and she teaches creative writing at Alma College in Tel Aviv. About poetry, Mishol explained in an interview with Lisa Katz:

. . . poetry as I experience it is usually born out of quietness, nothingness. That's poetry's natural background. I often think about it as the image of a fish in water: living in it, the fish doesn't notice the water. Poetry too lives inside this nothingness. Inside the quiet.

The poet was awarded the Prime Minister’s Poetry Prize in 1995; in 2002, she was the first poet to have been a recipient of the Yehuda Amichai Prize for Hebrew poetry. She has brought out over a dozen collections of poems.

Sources

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai

Introduction and Text of Yehuda Amichai’s "Near the Wall of a House"

In Yehuda Amichai's "Near a Wall of a House," the speaker realizes and celebrates the immensity of a divine experience, in which he received "visions of God." This twelve-line poem, which offers many of the qualities of a versanelle*, masterfully increases its scope as it progresses through each tercet.

*Versanelle: a short, usually 12 lines or fewer, lyric that comments on human nature or behavior, and may employ any of the usual poetic devices (term coined by Linda Sue Grimes)

Near the Wall of a House

Near the wall of a house painted
to look like stone,
I saw visions of God.

A sleepless night that gives others a headache
gave me flowers
opening beautifully inside my brain.

And he who was lost like a dog
will be found like a human being
and brought back home again.

Love is not the last room: there are others
after it, the whole length of the corridor
that has no end.

Reading of Yehuda Amichai’s "Near the Wall of a House"

Commentary on Yehuda Amichai’s "Near the Wall of a House"

This versanelle expands its focus through a divine realization, one begun in utterly humble circumstances.

First Tercet: Contrasting Claims

The speaker opens with a stirring contrast of claims. His somewhat unlikely location has offered him "visions" of the Divine. This inauspicious place is near a gray house with a wall.

While not reporting the actual building material of which the house is contracted, the speaker does want his listener to know that the house's paint gives it a rock or stone-like appearance. The claim of seeing a divine vision against such rough material is jarring in its contrast.

This particular contrast between the artificiality of the house's appearance and the profound experience of intimations of the Divine could not be more intense. The claim resonates in the reader's consciousness as an enigmatic presence that begs resolution.

Like a mystery story, it urges the mind to both contemplate and question simultaneously.

Second Tercet: Insomnia and Flowers

Unlike other people suffering long, dark nights of insomnia who have been left only with "a headache," this speaker avers that he was blessed with "flowers / opening beautifully inside [his] brain."

His sleeplessness forced his mind to contemplate the "visions" and instead of leaving pain, these divine images transformed into natural beauty in the speaker's mind.

"Flowers," of course, is a metaphor that compares the fragrant beauty of envisioning the Celestial Reality to understanding and appreciating Its natural counterpart. A flower is a nearly perfect metaphor for God because it is also a nearly perfect symbol representing the Divine.

Third Tercet: Intuitive Appreciation

The incident of Divine Visualization has filled the speaker with the intuitive appreciation that human mercy exists, even in a place where a human being may become lost "like a dog."

Although the human experience may sometimes ape that of the lower mammals, the knowledge that the Divine Presence may appear at any time, because eternally omnipresent and omniscient, uplifts the human soul to hope, love, and faith: what was lost will be found "and brought back home again."

Fourth Tercet: Soul Expansiveness

The speaker then summarizes the importance of the divine visitation: despite the magnitude of human love, the speaker now realizes that it "is not the last room": the human soul does not stop at human love.

The soul in its expansiveness presents other "rooms," that is, other possibilities. And the most crucial awareness that the experience has afforded the speaker is that the soul, because united with the Divine eternally, is like "the whole length of the corridor / that has no end."

Life Sketch of Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai's poetry grew along with his adopted country. The poet left Germany as the Nazi power was rising. As an Israeli citizen, he became a freedom fighter.

Israel's best known poet, Yehuda Amichai was born in 1924 in Wurzburg, Germany. His family moved to Eretz Israel in 1935. After completing his high school studies, he served in the British Army's Jewish Brigade in World War II and with the Palmach unit during the War of Independence in 1948.

The poet studied at Hebrew University, majoring in literature and Biblical Studies. After

completing his university studies, he taught at several different academic institutions in Israel and in other countries, including the United States, where he was visiting professor at the University of California in 1971 and 1976.

Amichai was also a visiting poet at New York University in 1987. It is thought that Yehuda Amichai has been "the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David."

Amichai's influence was strong in the United States, where his readings drew large audiences. His style is considered accessible like Robert Frost, while also including the use of many poetic devices in Hebrew that are untranslatable.

The activist poet began using a colloquial style in the 1950s that broke with the more traditional, classic verse and proved to be highly successful for the poet's career.

Influenced by W. H Auden and Dylan Thomas, Amichai became a true craftsman, employing the unique resources of the Hebrew language including its sounds, idioms, levels of diction, and word associations.

But the poet also took full advantage of the long Hebrew literary tradition of almost three thousand years. His life and poetry were both strongly influenced by Israel's struggle to existence.

Amichai has remarked, "My personal history has coincided with a larger history. For me it's always been one and the same."

Amichai's poetry had wide influence from students to world leaders: Yitzhak Rabin included in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech lines from the poet's widely noted poem, "God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children."

Amichai was awarded many prizes for his poetry, including the 1982 Israel Prize. His literary reputation rests primarily on his more than eighty collection of poetry.

Sources


© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes