ON THE SURFACE OF SILENCE: THE LAST POEMS OF LEA GOLDBERG Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back Hebrew Union College Press and University of Pittsburgh Press 2017, 296 pp, $25.00
On the Surface of Silence, the final collection of legendary Israeli poet Lea Goldberg, is a book of splendor in more ways than one. With its large 10x10 format, a beautiful cover photo of a desert landscape, a selection of mystical pen-and-ink drawings by the poet, and the haunting poems themselves in Hebrew and English on facing pages, as if afloat in a world of silence ("Silence the fence around wisdom? Perhaps"), it draws the reader into a state of meditation a bit like what we might feel reading passages of the Zohar. As Zohar means splendor or radiance and points us to something beyond words that speaks to our intuitive understanding, so do Goldberg's poems, composed near the end of her life, speak to us of something wordless yet radiant--that we almost understand.
One of the best-loved and most important Hebrew poets of the 20th century, Lea Goldberg grew up in Lithuania, began studying Hebrew as a child and was already an accomplished scholar and poet when she immigrated to Palestine in 1935. At the age of 15 she had written in her diary, "The unfavourable condition of the Hebrew writer is no secret to me... Writing in a different language than Hebrew is the same to me as not writing at all. And yet I want to be a writer... This is my only objective." Knowledgeable in seven languages and author of poetry collections, plays, literary criticism, novels, translations of Russian, German and Italian classics, as well as children's books that are still favorites, she is that rare creature, a woman of letters equally vital in literary and popular culture. Many of her poems have become popular songs recorded by Israel's most famous singers. The plaintive "And will they ever come, days of forgiveness and grace," sung by Chava Alberstein, is played every Memorial Day. The joyous "Boi Kallah" ("Come, O Bride"), sung by Ahinoam Nini (known as Noa), today accompanies many brides to the chuppah. Goldberg is also a figure of mystery, not least because, at the time of her death from breast cancer in 1970 at the age of 58, she was composing poems startlingly different from her previous work
For most of her life, Goldberg was a formalist, fashioning sensuously elegant lyrics in traditional patterns, sonnets and terza rima in particular. Unrequited romanti-c love was a frequent...