Book review: Personal and political

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The phrase “the personal is political” is one of the better known mottos of the 1960s Feminist Movement. Two recent books of poetry brought that statement to mind, since even the very personal aspects of the two poets’ lives have political connotations. It can be hard to separate the two in Israel as proved by “Twenty Girls to Envy Me: Selected Poems of Orti Gidali,” translated, edited and introduced by Marcela Sulak (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin). The same proves true for Julie R. Enszer in “Avowed” (Sibling Rivalry Press), whose intensely personal works about life as a lesbian in the United States also have a political dimension.
I don’t always read introductions before the rest of the work, so the scholar or commentator doesn’t influence my reaction. Fortunately, I read Sulak’s essay before reading the poetry. She not only places the works in historical context, but gives information about the poet’s life. That made many of the poems far easier to understand. For example, readers unfamiliar with Israel would miss the meaning behind the poem “Did You Pack It Yourself?” That sentence is political – El Al Airlines asks this question of every passenger to prevent terrorism – but Sulak explains how the Hebrew used can also mean something very personal. Gidali’s short reaction to the question makes more sense when readers know she didn’t have a spouse or a lover at that time.
To understand the poems that make up the “Songs to a Dead Woman” cycle, it helps to know that Gidali’s husband had been married before – to a woman who died by suicide. For example, in “Your Husband,” the poet writes, “Sometimes in the morning your name is spoken, / rushing our speech so as not to tread on you by accident. / Most of the time you are lying there, quiet, / a room that hasn’t been swept.” Even when Gidali is speaking of the personal, she can’t avoid the political, especially when writing about her children who will someday become members of the Israeli army. In “Boy,” seeing a blind cat makes her “suddenly imagine my son in uniform / in such an hour in the morning, he doesn’t know when / the evil will open on him, more than the evil that he / has already done (camp refugees equal refugee camps, / heaps of what we will become if we don’t stand strong).”
The collection includes the original Hebrew for each poem so those who are bilingual can compare their translation to that of Sulak. These works contain many biblical allusions; Sulak’s notes at the book’s end explain most of these references. The poems are challenging to understand due to not only cultural differences, but the need to know details of Gidali’s life. However, those who like poetry will find the effort worthwhile.
While I struggled at times with Gidali’s poems, Enszer’s prose-style poems were much easier to understand, although some readers may be put off by the very explicit sexual nature of some of her works. The poet speaks often of her life as a lesbian, partly in terms of the fact that she and her long-term partner have finally been able to legally marry. At first, this change doesn’t resonate with Enszer. Her feelings then shift, something she notes in “At the New York Marriage Bureau”: “Weeks later, I whisper, / I was wrong. It was transformative. / The public declaration / of love, previously private, / intimate. Not the license, not / the ceremony; the state.” That makes this very personal ceremony a political statement.
Enszer also uses biblical imagery in several of her poems. For example, in “Testing Abraham,” she discusses a phone conversation she had with her sister after they discover their father has been sleeping with men. After telling her sister she had no idea this was occurring, Enszer writes, “I told her I was angry / that she read our father’s e-mail, / which I was, and that begat / a familial schism of Biblical proportions / in which I was just a scribe / who will bury this book and deny, / deny, deny all knowledge.” In other poems, Enszer uses biblical characters to inform the way she approaches her life. The poem “Eliyahu Ha-Navi” shows how, after re-evaluating the prophet, she connects him to her father: “I imagine Elijah a middle-aged castrati / until I read and find him to be young, virile/ like Ajax – the strong man of the Heebs.” Then, like the prophet, her “father will walk through the desert / of public gyms, bars, quiet dinner clubs / until he reaches the mount of Horeb.” By the poem’s end, Enszer accepts her father as he is and notes, “I could want no better.”
Many of the poems explore the idea of marriage and fidelity. In the very moving “Distress,” Enszer wonders if her spouse will someday meet someone else: “will the day come / when we rehash the well-trod -line, / this is the best day of my life, / as it becomes the worst of mine.” There is also the beautiful poem “After Fifteen Years,” which asks the question, “what is a marriage?” The poet writes about daily life after marriage and of all the things that can still go wrong, but ends with the wonderful thought that “marriage changes none of this, / but it does make it / more difficult / this Monday morning/ at 4 a.m. / to wrench my body / from our warm bed.” Enszer’s skillful use of language and emotion made these poems thought-provoking and a pleasure to read.