by Yonat Hafftka
2008 Six Gallery Press, 60 pgs.
A Review by Barbara Goldberg
A quest narrative, the “journey,” traditionally stars a male hero. Not here. Yonat Hafftka travels from origins, to discovery, to investigation all the way to speculation, but her journey is an inward one, one that begins in the dark primeval chaos, a world of dank waters, snakes, hungry dogs. Yet this world also provides nourishment, meager as it is. It calls to mind Yeats’ “filthy rag and bone shop of the heart,” from which all beauty springs, but not just beauty – life itself. “Only those who can fly survive” (Old Waters), writes Hafftka, but flight is made more difficult because of the weight of the past: “The dead claim me./ When I learn to shake them off/ they are already rooted.” (“Out of Burnt Skin”).
While the waters of birth are murky, filled with invisible, menacing creatures, later in her journey Hafftka writes, “The water is as transparent as glass/ Revealing.” (“Transparent Water”). Here she has learned to confront those inner monsters and master them. In the same poem she writes, “The hippo just ten yards away/ Opens his mouth wide./ I at twenty/ Walk down his sloping tongue.”
Hafftka’s journey begins in darkness and it would be tempting to say it ends with enlightenment. But Hafftka discovers that enlightenment can be dark, too. In “An Unexpected Birth Re-Examined” Hafftka observes “We have passed the middle/ And suddenly we sense,/ Gravity puts the fire out.” Not everything is bleak. Here is “My Current Age”:
Unless a gun, a knife, or homelessness threatens me,
And if I strip my days of concern for the future,
Or of obligations to the past, then my day is a luxury.
I eat, I sleep and have pleasure.
A biographical note: Yonat Hafftka is a native Israeli raised in a kibbutz. She immigrated to the U.S. at age 22. Whether directly (a child of survivors) or indirectly, the Holocaust weights heavily on the Israeli psyche. That, and the tension of living under constant siege. The past – and the present – is complicated, indeed.
Barbara Goldberg most recent book is The Royal Baker’s Daughter (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the 2008 Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. She has also edited and co-translated two anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems of War and Peace (University of Syracuse Press/Dryad Press) as well as The Fire Stays in Red: Poems of Ronny Someck (University of Wisconsin Press). She is a senior speechwriter at AARP.