Avraham Ben Yitzhak (1883-1950) was one of the most enigmatic, reticent and solitary figures in modern Hebrew poetry. He was an aristocrat of the spirit who cultivated silence and published a total of 11 poems during his lifetime. All of them are astonishing. His output may have been meager -- he never published a book and stopped writing poems by the age of 45 -- but his accomplishment is unquestionable.
I first heard of Ben Yitzhak in Elias Canetti's memoir of the 1930s, The Play of the Eyes. Who was this mysterious figure who was born Abraham Sonne in Galicia (Poland), spent much of his life in Vienna and eventually settled in Jerusalem? Canetti remembered that Sonne, who was also close to the novelist Hermann Broch, "inspired an addiction such as I had never experienced for any other intellectual."
"Sonne knew a great deal by heart. . . . [H]e had memorized the whole Bible and could quote any passage in Hebrew without hesitation. But he performed these mnemonic feats with restraint and never made a show of them. . . . His way of reciting and interpreting certain short chapters came as a revelation to me; I realized that he must be a poet, and in the Hebrew language."
Sonne was a curious kind of Hebrew poet, though -- a figure who seemed worthy and in some ways comparable to his primary German models, Holderlin, Rilke, Trakl and Hofmannsthal, but was also with a painfully small oeuvre. "My heart/ has been eaten by lightning," he would confess in one fragment. "As their thoughts circled a man was bitterly seeking," he wrote in another. One thinks of him as a refined, charismatic and reclusive figure ("He had the same method in dealing with persons and things," Canetti recalled, and conceived "of individuals as distinct fields of knowledge"), a man of tremendous intellectual curiosity, encyclopedic learning and lethal silences. I like Lea Goldberg's story of how a friend once joked to him, "Nu? Perhaps we can be silent now about something else?"
It is now possible to read Ben Yitzhak's Collected Poems -- his 11 canonical lyrics, a rejected 12th poem and a striking group of drafts and fragments -- in an edition expertly edited by Hannan Hever and brilliantly translated by Peter Cole. There is a rare purity and even nobility in Ben Yitzhak's work, which, as Hever points out, is deeply rooted in scripture, in what the poet called "the voice of ancient song." Cole captures the biblical rhythms and allusions with terrific dexterity. He finds a voice for Ben Yitzhak's modernist psalms, his 20th-century lamentations, his prophetic silences.
Here is Ben Yitzhak's last published poem, "Blessed Are They Who Sow and Do Not Reap . . . " In The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, Dan Pagis, Hebrew poet and translator, argues that it "affirms the poet's conviction and confidence in silence as the only true mode of self-expression."
Blessed Are They Who Sow and Do Not Reap . . .
Blessed are they who sow and do not reap --
they shall wander in extremity.
Blessed are the generous
whose glory in youth has enhanced the extravagant
brightness of days --
who shed their accoutrements at the crossroads.
Blessed are the proud whose pride overflows
the banks of their souls
to become the modesty of whiteness
in the wake of a rainbow's ascent through a cloud.
Blessed are they who know
their hearts will cry out from the wilderness and that quiet will blossom from their lips.
Blessed are these
for they will be gathered to the heart of the world,
wrapped in the mantle of oblivion
-- their destiny's offering unuttered to the end.
(All quotations are from Avraham Ben Yitzhak, "Collected Poems," edited and with an afterword by Hannan Hever, translated by Peter Cole. English translation Copyright © 2003 Ibis Editions.)