Аги Мишоль в статье “Линии характера” (на английском языке). Фото поэтессы

Agi Mishol is quickly and surely becoming recognized as a great poet. It has been quite some time since we have had a poet that has gained such extensive popularity. She is quoted as often as the late Yehuda Amihai. Her poems are clipped from the newspapers and stuck on refrigerators. Some have awakened public debate. Literature professor Dan Miron calls her a “comic sibyl,” referring to an oxymoron of sorts and signifying that she is a comic prophet. But because prophecy – albeit not political prophecy, although her poem, “The Olive 2002” has become the most widely read poem at left-wing activities – is mixed with humor and irony, and because in her work, the sublime goes hand in hand with the mundane, Mishol is a delight for all Hebrew readers.A large literary crowd arrived at Beit Bialik in Tel Aviv last month in honor of the upcoming publication of a collection of her work, “New and Selected Works” (Bialik Press, Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing). The publication of the “complete works” of a living poet is quite a rare event. Even rarer is that fact the first edition, with 1,500 copies, was immediately sold out.

“Agi Mishol as a poet is at height of her strength, at her poetic high noon,” wrote Prof. Dan Miron in an essay that appears in the book. “She clearly belongs to the dynasty of great Israeli women poets,” he adds. “Her poetry,” he writes in another place “is among the clearest of the flames.”

“She is really an extraordinary poet,” says critic Ariel Hirschfeld. “She is a very sensitive person with extra-fine sensors, but one that has managed to become popular in the best sense of the word. People read her at ceremonies, they like to study her, young people quote her. She also publishes many poems in newspapers and these poems most certainly reach a very wide audience. Her work – her poetry and writing workshops – and her influence on young poets are very important.”

The idea to publish all of Mishol’s works germinated in the Bialik Press about three years ago and Mishol says that through her work on the book, she encountered her “ultimate reader,” as she calls him, Dan Miron, professor of Hebrew literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem (one of several ultimate readers, who will be discussed here).

“Of course, I knew him from before,” she recalls, “because once, over 30 years ago, I took a course with him at Hebrew University, but now, we sat down and chose the poems together. His theoretical as well as psychological understanding made me feel that I was sitting with a particularly clever and close girlfriend. I once told him that his womb was in his mind. His mind is like a womb; it opens up in order to make room – and that is very rare – for my poems. At the end he wrote the entire essay (over 150 pages) about my poets in two months. I asked him how he managed to write such a long essay and he told me that he had immersed himself in my poems for two and a half years. I asked him, `Like a tea bag?’ And he said, `No, like a prune.’ I like that very much because a tea bag empties itself into the water, and a prune is just the opposite; it is filled up by the water.”

Mishol writes about everything – about the trees in her orchard, about nail polish and about an olive tree uprooted in order to be replanted: “They’ve stuck it among three coconut trees / on a bed of reddish stones / in the middle of an intersection / that overnight has become / a roundabout.” With the same momentum of vision and expression, on the other hand, she could also write about “Shaheeda” (a female “martyr”): “You’re only twenty / and your first pregnancy is a bomb …”

No less amazing is her ability to create love poems that are both touching and infused with humor. “Abduct me desperately,” she says in her heart to her beloved, who is “illuminated from within like a mocha lampshade.” And later, when she has a headache, she is “thinking in aspirin.” “This combination of poetry and humor, as in Mishol’s work” is quite rare not only in Hebrew poetry, but in poetry of the world, too,” says Hirschfeld. “Think about poets like Natan Zach or Dahlia Rabikovitch – where do you see any humor there? For me, Agi Mishol’s poems are one of the best reasons to live in Israel, a place where language can be such a precise tool.”

Embraces words

She is a beautiful and resilient-looking woman, having none of the mannered artificiality of poets. She makes friends easily and prefers the company of women to lyrical melancholy. While the focus of her social life is Tel Aviv, she lives with her husband Giora Fried in a large house on a 70-dunam farm in Kfar Mordechai. Six Thai workers also live on the property, in two trailers.

Two weeks ago, in honor of the publication of her book and just because it is summer, dozens of her friends converged on Mishol’s house for a party, held in the yard overlooking the family’s persimmon orchard.

Her children no longer live in the house: Maya, now 29, is a jazz singer who is currently studying music therapy; Uri, 27, is studying physical therapy. Mishol and Fried had another child: Their firstborn died at the age of two months at Hadassah University Hospital “due to a medical error,” as Mishol puts it without going into details.

With four dogs and five cats, she says she can’t live without animals. Every day at nightfall, after what she has dubbed “the widow’s hour” – when the single women take their evening stroll right in front of her house – Mishol walks the fields, thinking up poems. “I have two personas,” she says, “the country persona and the city persona. I am definitely a country mouse but I go into the city with a big bag, collect material and go back for my peace and quiet.”

Several hours before we met, Mishol closed the deal, selling her late parents’ home in Gedera. “I sold my childhood home,” she says, “but I did not feel exceptionally sorry. I do not dwell on the past.”

In that house she lived with her parents from the time she arrived in the country with them from Hungary at the age of four. She was born 56 years ago and named Agnes, the only remaining child of Holocaust survivors. She has “one very large memory of the arrival in Israel – of a round window, like a porthole on a ship, with ocean waves inside. For some reason, that is the only memory I have of immigrating to Israel.”

Of her childhood in Hungary, she recalls a boy with six fingers and contracting a rash from the poison ivy in their back yard. Before they were sent to Auschwitz, her parents had had another daughter. Mishol says she doesn’t remember her name and that she was one year old when she died in the death camp. Mishol’s mother had a sister who fled Europe before the war and settled in Gedera, and after the war, her parents followed her there.

“It is very difficult to be the only child of Holocaust survivors,” she says. “Some of my writing somehow stems from the fact that I am supposed to be their ultimate answer to the world. I had to dance and sing for guests and in some sense, that is what I am still doing – singing for guests. To be a poet is to sing for guests, isn’t it? You can’t tell parents that are Holocaust survivors anything bad, either. With me, everything had to be perfect. I remember as a child all the refugees that used to hang around the house. Strange types with all their talk about the lager, which is apparently a camp in Hungarian. Everything was suffused with the lager, along with my mother’s depression.”

Her parents had a grocery store and they lived in a one-room apartment in Gedera until Mishol was 15. At home, they spoke Hungarian. She learned Hebrew at kindergarten and in school. “My mother tongue isn’t my mother’s tongue,” she says. “I can speak Hungarian, but not about abstract things. I speak the Hungarian of a child, and my parents’ Hebrew was very basic. This meant they were never able to understand what I write. When you think for example about what shapes a person, I think about the fact that I grew up in a home in which there were no books at all. But I think that I was a poet even before I was born, because the fact of my being a poet did not come from my biography; it is a kind of destiny, the way you are born. After all, there is nothing in my biography that should turn me into a poet. I didn’t inherit it and more or less until the army, I didn’t read anything except what we read in school. But I always wrote things to myself. But even before I was a writing poet, I had the entity of the poet.”

What is the entity of a poet?

Mishol: “It is a kind of way of looking at the world that is always a little from the side. I never truly assimilated into my surroundings. I think that that is the essence of the poet’s entity – to observe without becoming assimilated. For me, that feeling was very strong as a child and I always loved words very much. Words were my `Lego.’ Words have something chilling about them. There are words that give me goose bumps. This week it happened with the word `owl.’ Words have a very physical effect on me.”

Ultimate readers

Mishol relates that she began writing poems in high school, but because she had never read anything, she didn’t know anything about poetry. “My ignorance was simply amazing. You can’t write without reading.” After the army, she studied literature at Ben-Gurion University and was married for a very short time. At the same time, she published her first book of poetry completely on her own. “It was very important to me to feel the pleasure of touching a book on which my name was printed,” she recalls. “But when I started to read it, there were poems in it that I had written as a teenager and I understood the extent of the shame. I went to all the shops and collected all the copies and even stole the copy in the National Library and burned them all. I always tell people that the first edition completely sold out.”

She got divorced from her husband and moved to Jerusalem. “I stood at Givat Ram and looked out at Jerusalem,” she says, “and I felt like Rastignac in Balzac’s `Papa Goriot,’ who says when he looks out on Paris: Now we will see each other face to face, you and I. I had a very strong feeling that I had arrived at a place where I would do something. I was divorced and young with a strong inner momentum.”

She signed up for a writing workshop given by Yehuda Amihai (later, she would be the first to be awarded the prize named after him following his death). At Hebrew University, her teachers were Dan Miron and Dan Pagis, and David Winfeld was the first to “discover” her. She met and then married Giora Fried and they have lived together in Kfar Mordechai (“Nobody ever finds this place – it is somewhat esoteric but I love it”) for 26 years.

When they moved there, she wrote her book, “Plantation Notes,” which was published by Keter and edited by Winfeld. “Winfeld was my first ultimate reader,” she says, “and he is the same to this day, along with Dan Miron and Ariel Hirschfeld and a whole slew of other ultimate readers, my best friends, without whom I could not imagine my life at all.”

“Plantation Notes,” which won critical acclaim, reflected her life in Kfar Mordechai and the manual labor there. “We did everything alone,” she says. “Today everything is commercialized. After we stopped working alone, we had Arabs work for us and after that, Chinese and now the workers are Thai. We have the entire history of the Jewish people in our yard. A few days ago I saw this scene: In my yard, I have two Chinese men, one Thai man and Mohammed, who has been around for a long time working for us, and they were talking among themselves and then suddenly, I hear the `Toccata and Fugue’ coming from Mohammed’s mobile phone. The Thai worker was wearing a T-shirt with the words `We will ascend to Jerusalem’ on it and Mohammed was talking in Hebrew about [Prime Minister] Sharon and the checkpoints, and everything was happening in one single yard in Kfar Mordechai.”

She writes on legal pads using a pencil. “Nobody can intrude. From the moment my children could understand, they knew that when Mother, during her first coffee, lit up her first cigarette and opened her notebook, she should not be disturbed,” she says.

“When I write, during the writing itself, I don’t write to anyone, because I want to be as precise as possible,” she explains. But afterward, the question of “Who am I working for?” hovers in the air.

“For years, I wrote for my ultimate reader, David Winfield,” she says. “In recent years, I identify more readers because I suddenly feel that there is such a thing as an audience. People call me up and respond, they write me letters. It’s very strange and very pleasant. I feel I am talking to a lot of people and that makes me happy because in my view, poetry should be communicative. I don’t believe in elitist and obscure poetry.

“Poetry is a way of conversation between people. You know, people are always eulogizing poetry and saying that there is no longer any poetry and that poets are not the same as they used to be and so on. I am very much against that type of talk because it builds itself up, with wild inertia. And that’s not right. I see it in the audience and I see it in my work with young poets. There are a lot of young people that take an interest in poetry and many young people who have the gift to write poetry. This matter of young poets is very important to me. I am crazy about them.”

Mishol runs poetry-writing workshops at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, at the Alma College for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv and within the framework of various programs for gifted children. “I love working with people that are just starting out,” she says. “I know that trembling place of taking the unknown path. I, who know too much, am so envious of that primal place, and I know how to help them get the poetry out of themselves – if it’s inside them. But of course, not everyone has poetry inside him or her and no poet becomes a poet because of a writing workshop, and there are those who are fated to hover afterward in a kind of limbo. Because in order to turn into a poet, you have to want to do it very much and to commit to it your entire life. You can’t be a Saturday-morning poet.”

Which poets do you like to read?

“I have a hierarchy: There are books in the living room, in the bedroom and next to my bed, and the ones next to my bed are always the most important – there I have Rilke and also Walt Whitman, who both contrasts and complements him. I like Leah Ayalon very much because she is a poet of the language, and I loved Yona Wallach, and I think she paved the way for poets like me. However, I don’t like what is known as `women’s poetry’ in its ovarian sense – in other words, poems with words like `emerald,’ `placenta,’ `longing.’ I really liked it when someone said about me that I have a woman’s ass and a man’s head.”

And you don’t write women’s poetry?

“I’m not saying I write like a man. Of course I write like a woman, but what interests me is the spirit, and the spirit has nothing to do with a man or a woman. The tool is the body, but poetry comes from the spirit. What interest me are people, and not my own private ovary. I love poems that come from the root of the soul. It is something emotional and is not related to judgment as to whether the poem is good or not. When I read Dahlia Rabikovitch, for example, I am aware of the fact that she is a great and excellent poet, but she does not emanate from the root of my soul. When I read someone that does touch the root of my soul, it spurs me on to write, too. It is like chemistry between people.”