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Life Sketch of Rachel Tzvia Back: Poet, Translator, and Critic

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back

Introduction

Rachel Tzvia Back was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1960. At age twenty, she relocated from the USA to Israel. She often travels back to the United States to give poetry readings. Her grandparents left the Holy Land and came to America in the 1920s, and she has traced her family back seven generations in the land of Israel.

Back studied at Yale University and Temple University in the USA and then completed her doctorate at Hebrew University in Jerusalem focusing on postmodern American poetry.

She is currently serving as a lecturer at Oranim Academic College near Haifa and also teaches in the MA Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, the Israeli city that touts the honor of being the greenest city in Israel. The poet resides in a small village in Galilee with her husband and three children.

A Sense of Community

Back considers herself most at home in Israel. She is particularly comfortable with small village life, where she and her husband are raising their three children.

About that small village life in Israel, Back has explained, "Everything [in Israel] is structured to promote and sustain family life. Family time in Israel is sacred, while the culture in America doesn't promote it."

Back says that in America there is much talk of family, but in practice family life gets short shrift. She explains that her siblings who are raising their families in America are envious of that cultural difference.

Back offers some details to exemplify that difference. She remarks that everyone is expected to be home at 6:30 p.m. to enjoy dinner together with family: "You're supposed to be in your family and in your community, both together."

To encourage this family custom, no outside activities are ever scheduled for that hour. She also asserts that her children remain more independent than their American cousins. Back's children can go everywhere by themselves, and she therefore has no need to take them to their activities:

There's a bus that takes them back and forth from school, and they're completely independent. My six-year-old takes herself to and from the bus and to her after school activities. I don't ever pick them up. These things do not seem to happen here in America.

The Poet

Rachel Tzvia Back began writing poetry when she was still quite young. Poets she admires include Emily Dickinson, Joy Harjo, George Oppen, and Charles Olson. Susan Howe, who is an experimental poet often grouped with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry, was the subject of Back's dissertation.

Back turned her dissertation into a monograph titled Led by Language: the Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe. While she composes most of her works in Israel, Back does often travel to the USA to offer poetry readings.

When the poet phones home, her husband tells her, "Wonderful things happen when you go away." She takes that news in a positive light as it gives the children the opportunity to become even more independent.

Back understands that reading poetry aloud while paying attention to line breaks assists readers' understanding of the poem, leading to greater appreciation. The poet has opined, "I believe in poetry as music."

Her published collections of poems include Azimuth (2001), The Buffalo Poems (2003), On Ruins & Return: Poems 1999–2005 (2007), and A Messenger Comes (2012).

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Back's poetry often delves into the experience of violence that permeates the age-old and continuing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Her work has appeared in a volume that focuses on such struggles titled After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events (2008).

About the political focus of her poetry, she has remarked that while it is political it always originates, "from the most personal of places, from the heart, from the home."

Translator and Critic

Back's work also includes translation to English from Hebrew. For her translation of Lea Goldberg's works, appearing in Lea Goldberg: Selected Poetry and Drama (2005) and On the Surface of Silence: The Last Poems of Lea Goldberg (2017), she was awarded the PEN Translation Prize.

In 2016, for her translation of the poetry of Tuvia Ruebner, which appeared in In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner (2014), Back was presented with the TLS Risa Dobm / Porjes Translation Award; she was also a finalist in the National Translation Award in Poetry competition.

Other prominent Hebrew writers that Back has translated include Haviva Pedaya, Hamutal Bar-Yosef, and Dahlia Ravikovitch. Back served as the lead translator for the anthology With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry (2009).

In addition to her own creative writing and translating, Back has published a volume of criticism titled Led by Language: The Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe (2002). This book offers the first full-length study of the poetry of Susan Howe, as it refutes the notion that Howe's works remain incomprehensible to a wide swath of readers.

Back shows how to understand Howe's works through language experiments, historical themes, reference to memoir, as well as visual experimentation for the page innovatively employing various fonts and images.

Back's focusing on Howe's methods demonstrates how readers can effectively employ autobiographical information to gain access to a poet's works. Back shows the importance for Howe of historical figures such as Mary Magdalene and Herman Melville.

This study remains a vital and useful one for students and any readers who wish to understand and appreciate contemporary poetry, as well as theory in literature and even culture in general.

Sources

  • Editors. "Rachel Tzvia Back." Poetry Foundation. Accessed July 19, 2021.
  • Anders Dahlgren. "Rachel Tzvia Back." Mediterranean Poetry. March 6, 2013.
  • Rachel Tzvia Back. "Essays." Rachel Tzvia Back Official Web Site. Accessed July 19, 2021.
Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back

Review of Rachel Tzvia Back's Poetry Collection, A Messenger Comes

Each human heart that has suffered has something to teach other human hearts; Back's poems represent a master teacher.

Introduction

Rachel Tzvia Backs A Messenger Comes features a speaker who reluctantly delivers her message of human suffering. Her reluctance is expressed in the books epigraph from Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier:

A messenger comes to the mourners house. "Come,"
says the messenger, "you are needed. "
"I cannot come," says the mourner. "My spirit is broken."
"That is why you are needed," says the messenger.

The broken-hearted, dispirited, lonely, downtrodden, and long- suffering of the world have important news for humanity, and the messenger comes to awaken the motivation to examine and report on that news.

The speaker in Back's A Messenger Comes has heeded the advice of the messenger by dramatizing her own message of pain and sorrow. Such reportage fulfills the expectations of poetry that gives back to human beings their own felt experiences.

Movement 1: "The Broken Beginning"

This reluctant messenger starts at the beginning, but this beginning is broken, that is, God breaking Himself into pieces and then that Creator "retreating / to make way / for the perfect human // imperfection."

The appearance of Adam and Eve on a world stage that was not yet broken allowed the First Pair to dream of a world that, in fact, was not yet broken. As the Creator moved over this creation, "his heart / was breaking." But God knew what He was doing.

In order to have a creation that seemed to be apart from Himself, He had to cause a clash of duality.

His "separated / self" became the world that His human children would know through the senses; thus, from the "beautifully / unarticulated" of the spirit realm, God allowed his heart to "shatter[ ] like shards falling / in a torn-light hail / of violets gold."

The speaker's innovative interpretation of the Judeo-Christian creation story, which appears in Genesis of the Holy Bible, moves on under the following titles: "Stars," "A debate," "The giving of names," "Angels," and "From the beginning."

All sections focus on the same theme of brokenness—separation from the Divine Creator that inflicts all of humanity with suffering.

The speaker's truth in reporting makes it abundantly explicit that even after the human mind has acquired the exact knowledge of the temporary separation, the human heart continues to find it difficult to endure that pain and suffering.

Yet the sufferer, if he is to be of assistance to himself and his fellow human beings, must find the will and the courage to report his feelings honestly and openly.

Movement 2: "Lamentation"

One reason for this speaker's pain and sorrow becomes clear in the movement titled, "Lamentation," which is prefaced with the epigraph, "for my father, on his dying." Again, the speaker reminds the reader of the nature of life as broken when she laments, "we exist / in a shattered vessel / shards at our bare feet."

The speaker continues to report sorrow upon sorrow even though she knows, "the spoken stands / with bare spindly arms / around // its unspoken brother." Again, her reluctance becomes evident, but her determination to continue her report will not allow her to remain silent, even though, "what you do / speak is always / poor and pale."

Addressing her father, she speaker confesses, "You are dying, // But you do not say so / we do not say together." The father went on "researching / options thick / folders of studies." The speaker experiences a slow, gathering dread, watching her father attend to the illness that will eventually take him from her.

Movement 3: "Last Morning Poems"

After the death of her father, the speaker offers a poem in which her father was still alive, attending the funeral of his brother which happens to be the last funeral her father would attend.

In the poem, the father along with other mourners stands at the gravesite in stocking feet. They chant and offer their customary prayers, and then upon returning to the mourners' bus they learn, "a small boy / has run off with their shoes." This scene is the only place in the book that will bring smile because of its humor.

Movement 4: "Elegy Fragments"

In "Elegy Fragments," the speaker again confronts death, that of her sister. And again, the theme of brokenness is evident in the title. The break from the world by the sister leaves the speaker feeling that "the crowded world / emptied."

The speaker again testifies to the feebleness of words to express such sorrow: "in the vastness of your / absence / we are solitary threads now and know: Silence tells it better."

Rachel Tzvia Back's A Messenger Comes exceeds the human heart's grasp for self examination. It gives readers back their experiences, reminding them that grief and sorrow will always occupy an important shelf in the bookcase of life. When the messenger comes, the poet of insight, daring, and caring will always respond with a full report.

Dr Rachel Tzvia Back Temple Solel 02.23.18

Sample Poem of Rachel Tzvia Back's "Her Hands"

Contrasting with so many post-modern poets, who seem to want to obfuscate and confound, Rachel Tzvia Back's poem communicates clearly, even brilliantly, yet retains the uniqueness that the postmods seemed to covet.

The sample poem, "Her Hands," offers an example of Back’s style and choice of subject matter for her poetry.

Introduction and Text of "Her Hands"

The form of Rachel Tzvia Back's "Her Hands" does reveal the influence of the poet's having studied the likes of Susan Howe and other post-moderns and even avant-gardes, especially the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, with whom Howe is usually associated.

The poem plays out primarily in tercets or three-line groups of words. The two opening movements of the poem consist of no complete sentences, instead feature only phrases.

It concludes with a couplet or two line stanza. In all, there are 18 three-line tercets and the final couplet or two-line group. However, the poem does easily split up nicely with upper-case letters signaling groups one, five, and eleven.

Her Hands

Her hands
open on her lap
empty and

motionless
palms facing up
as in

prayer
pale lines leading
nowhere

and a ragged
lifeline
that tells

one great lie
Littlest
spirit she

carried and
could not
protect

from what
from whom
in the darkened

warm room where
baby breaths
hovered

promising
themselves
in the narrow and

precarious
world
suddenly

gone
The debate
as to how

or if
one recovers
raging in whispers

in every corner
beside the empty
stroller above

the empty
crib
within

emptied and
terrified hearts
and she

is as
small
as still

and silent
as the baby girl
who was

tenderly rocked
to sleep
and then

never
woke up

Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back

Commentary on "Her Hands"

This uniquely structured drama offers a brilliant example of what postmodern poetry can accomplish in the hands of a genuine poet.

First Movement: Fragments of a Grieving Mother

Her hands
open on her lap
empty and

motionless
palms facing up
as in

prayer
pale lines leading
nowhere

and a ragged
lifeline
that tells

one great lie

The speaker begins in fragments managing to communicate that a mother is sitting with her hands upturned on her lap. The mother appears to be praying, but unhappily, a "great lie" is being yielded through the mother's "ragged lifeline."

Second Movement: The Shock of Death

Littlest
spirit she

carried and
could not
protect

from what
from whom
in the darkened

warm room where
baby breaths
hovered

promising
themselves
in the narrow and

precarious
world
suddenly

gone

The second movement reveals that the mother had a child but she could not protect the child from death. She could not guard the child against "what" or "whom," referring to the mysterious agents who may have acted in the baby's "darkened" chamber, where the baby lay sleeping.

The child appeared to be sleeping peacefully as its breath was hovering in the "warm room." However, the world being what the world is, a "precarious" place that is averse to keeping promises, the baby's soul slipped from that little body and all of a sudden, was "gone."

Third Movement: Facing Emptiness

The debate
as to how

or if
one recovers
raging in whispers

in every corner
beside the empty
stroller above

the empty
crib
within

emptied and
terrified hearts
and she

is as
small
as still

and silent
as the baby girl
who was

tenderly rocked
to sleep
and then

never
woke up

The third movement opens to a discussion on "how // or if / one recovers / raging in whispers." This debate offers up the mysterious question of whether any father or mother can ever be capable of recovering from the loss of a child.

The baby's stroller now remains empty. The baby's crib also remains empty. Thus the hearts of the parents and other relatives will remain empty. They all must face all of this emptiness.

The mother, it is revealed, had rocked her baby to sleep, but the infant failed to wake up. The poem's only complete sentence is one that proclaims the grief of the mother, who "is as / small / as still // and silent / as the baby girl."

There are no indications that account for the death of the baby except the phenomenon known as "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" (SIDS), also called "crib death."

How the infant succumbed is of no real consequence to the theme of this poem: the only issue that matters is that this mother's life has been drastically changed by the emptiness she now must experience.

The fragmentation of the mother's life has been displayed by the rhetoric of fragmentation in the poem. Her grief will cause her thoughts to break into pain and sorrow for an untold period of mourning.

Presentation by Rachel Tzvia Back

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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