Four Poems by Maya Tevet Dayan
(Translated from the Hebrew by Jane Medved)
Once I believed that time was an object,
that could be thrown away
together with loneliness: I could toss out
all those years
where there wasn’t even one girl
who wanted to play with me in the afternoon.
I lay on the bed in my room and counted the minutes
until childhood would end.
And when it did, I threw that bed out.
I left home. I moved in with a guy.
I cut my hair short. I studied the nakedness
of my body through the hands of another. I ate
voraciously. I danced all night and slept all day.
As contrary as possible, as different
as different could be, I extricated myself
from the elevator of childhood
through a narrow crack of opportunity,
its doors almost shutting me in.
In the middle of this, I also left behind
my mother, forty-six years old,
still menstruating, still falling in love,
her long hair gathered in a sloppy hair pin,
making family dinners –
for everyone their favorite omelet,
except for me, whose chair was always empty.
I only visited on weekends, to tell them about my nights.
I treated my father and her as day-people.
How she tried to understand me, to find out
what I was eating, how I spent my time.
Her questions rang bells of danger in my head,
those elevator doors gaping open like a maw.
I wouldn’t even celebrate my birthday with her.
Nineteen years old, in lipstick and high heels,
childhood was so close I could hear it crashing
like a hungry ocean on the breakwater,
heading back for me.
I walked into my childhood room, careful
not to look into the mirror.
The dress was spread out on the bed,
black, brand new, without gift wrap or ribbon,
thin as skin, as if just now emptied of a body,
ready to be worn, like the clothes
my mother once laid out for me
every morning before we left for kindergarten,
hand in hand, sewn one to the other,
before we were split like a mourner’s shirt.
In the note she had written
Best of luck, my child
in whatever path you choose.
Years passed before those words reached me.
In that moment, shoving the dress into my backpack,
I am sure I read:
Come back. Be my child again.
My father had one arm
barely hanging from his shoulder.
A piece of shrapnel had left a crater
there, deep as a bite from an apple.
Others had plastic legs
attached with straps, metal hooks
instead of fingers, and glass eyes
gaping open in surprise, as pretty
as my marble collection.
I loved to examine them
on the grass, at the edge of the pool
they release the straps,
arms and legs are left behind,
as they limp into the water,
and swim stripped of their form –
I held a secret competition between them:
how many limbs can you take apart
and still remain a person?
The country’s heroes, their pupils
sown with gun powder, foggy smiles
and faraway battle fields. In this place
they were a mathematical equation:
disability was the entrance requirement
for this fabulous sports center.
My father had twenty-one percent –
like the weight in grams of a soul,
like the age at which he lost his friends.
The spirit of the Lord hovers over the face of the waters,
and the waters are a rehabilitation pool. From here one doesn’t
go forth to war. The war comes after you,
hungry, tearing apart memories,
full of dread. We went with him every Saturday,
my father’s handicapped card a sparkling
sky blue, attached with a safety pin to his bathing suit.
We ate “Little Missile” sundae cones and played
on the firing range, eliminating entire people
made out of cardboard.Once, upon hearing a round
of bullets, one of the other men burst into tears.
My father laid his jagged arm
on his shoulder. The man said,
I don’t know why I’m crying –
about what was, about what is,
or about what is yet to come.
Wherever We Float
My daughter rests her head on my stomach,
as if listening to a large conch shell.
She hears inside me the murmur of ancient winds
and looks for clues.
Not long ago, she left this stomach
cast out by the waves.
Now I am the giant raft,
and my daughter sleeps on me.
I am the turtle upon which the universe is placed,
and the universe is my daughter.
I am the great body, substance and bones,
and my daughter carries a thousand dreams.
Beneath us and around us
is an ocean made of love,
and the soft glow from the hallway
is a lighthouse.
Wherever we float,
My Daughter is the Gateway to the Night
My daughter is the gateway to the other night.
Skies pour like dark, sweet milk.
Silky breaths drift into clouds.
An eyelid of moon appears above.
From the depth of the leaves, dreams are blown to us.
We are not awake. We are not asleep.
The sips of my daughter pulse
like a heart. At one end of this night: the dances
we spun in the evening. At the other end:
the stories we haven’t told yet.
All around us, the transparent generations
of mothers and daughters who rose
and slept their lives between light and darkness,
from sleep to awakening to sleep,
they birthed one another and were forgotten.
My daughter is the gateway to the soft dawn,
unto everything I was born
to remember once again.
I first met Maya Tevet Dayan in a crowded café in Tel Aviv. I had translated a few of her poems, but I wanted to see if we had enough chemistry to make a longer project work. Surrounded by the hiss of espresso machines and conversations, we read poems back and forth to each other. Maya read the Hebrew version. I responded with the English translation. The cadence, the rhythm and the intensity of the words all fit together. We were speaking in two languages, but with the same voice.
One of the challenges in translating Hebrew, is the richness of biblical and liturgical allusions coded into the language. Some things simply don’t cross over. But the overriding themes in Maya’s work: loss, death, motherhood, family, alienation and belonging are universal. What we embarked on was a collaboration where we translated, edited and at times rewrote the original work.
The title of “Rehabilitation,” for example, in the original Hebrew was “The Fighter’s House.” In Hebrew, the phrase plays off of multiple cultural and semantic associations that are almost subconscious to an Israeli reader. In English, and especially to Americans, it has different associations. We decided to forgo the original, in order to have more clarity in the translation.
The following selection of poems are taken from Tevet Dayan’s full length manuscript Wherever We Float, That’s Home (published in Hebrew in 2017). Maya and I do not come from an identical background. But, as we worked our way through her book we discovered, on the open field of the poem, differences evaporate, and experience becomes the same.