For our series Poets on Poets, we’ve asked writers whose work has graced our site to share with us the poetry that moves, challenges, inspires, or awes them. Here, Laurie Lamon, whom we admire for the “fascination with the closely observed, hauntingly familiar distinctions of our daily lives,” discusses an Israeli poet’s heartsickness at humankind’s passivity in the face of evil. —Ed.
Laurie Lamon on Dahlia Ravikovitch
In her poem “The Window,” Dahlia Ravikovitch places the speaker in an interior space, secluded from the active world of engagement and conflict. The poem is a quiet critique of passivity. The body of her work urges us to live not as spectators but as creators: empathetic, responsible, and truth-seeking.
Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936–2005) is one of the most important poets in modern Hebrew literature (indeed, I would say in world literature), in part because of the beauty, starkness, and authenticity with which she writes about love, female identity, and her most defining subject: power and powerlessness.
Ravikovitch was 23 when her first collection, The Love of an Orange, was published in 1959. She quickly became one of the leading voices in poetry for Israel’s 1948 statehood generation. Her poems have been deeply loved and respected, integrated in all parts of Israeli cultural life: theater, film, dance, and art exhibits.
Hovering at a Low Altitude
By Dahlia Ravikovitch
I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.
I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.
And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.
I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.
I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
Whatever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land,
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.
But as day tends toward noon,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.
I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the east.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.
“Hovering at a Low Altitude,” from Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch. Copyright © 2009 by Chana Bloch, Chana Kronfeld, and Ido Kalir. English translation copyright (c) 2009 by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company.
In “Hovering at a Low Altitude” (1987), Ravikovitch witnesses to the way we can be politically and socially detached from that which we think doesn’t affect us directly. The verb itself, hover, means to be in the stasis of going neither forward nor backward, neither up nor down. The speaker is both physically detached from the unfolding crisis and emotionally detached: “I am not here.”
The moral relativism of the line “I’ve seen worse things in my life” shows the speaker’s sense of guilt for not intervening. (What was that girl thinking, being out there alone?). Yet in two lines the tone is maternal and soft. The child’s beauty and poverty penetrates her defenses and she is moved; she sees intimately: “Her cheeks soft silk,/frostbite on the back of her hand.”
The terrible unease of the repeated assertions “I am not here” and “I haven’t seen a thing” becomes the true narrative. The speaker has found a strategy to pull back from brutality and injustice, but in the process she is self-deceived. There is nothing tenable about her moral position, yet the child has become human to her; she experiences a moment of empathy. The poem speaks to us about the times we have hung back, even though we know we should have acted.
The poem is a moral triumph because Ravikovitch doesn’t state what we don’t need to be told, that it is evil to kill a child. The poem is like a parable: the speaker’s getaway is an illusion, a trick of language. How can we witness suffering and not act?