Material Visions: The Poetry and Collage of Leah Goldberg's Native Landscapes

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Material Visions: The Poetry and Collage of Leah Goldberg's Native Landscapes
   J  J I 2014, 7(1)  J 2014, 7(1) 163 M V: T P  C f L Gb’ Nv Lcp Barbara Mann, The Jewish Theological Seminary In a diary entry from 1937, Leah Goldberg, living in Tel Aviv, and gener - ally basking in the warm critical reception aorded upon her arrival in the city two years earlier, makes this oand speculation: “By the way,” she writes, “why have I recently stopped loving Jesus?” 1  Goldberg, a Lithuanian native, was a leading gure of the moderna  , the rst wave of Hebrew modernist poetry in Palestine, and also a prolic translator from Russian, German, French, and Italian; in addition to nine volumes of poetry, she published several novels, a number of plays, volumes of literary scholarship, journalistic essays, and a series of books for children which have become classics. These works, as well as her diaries, are replete with references to Dante, Petrarch, Dostoevsky, and Rilke, and to art from European museums; the umbilical connection between these exemplars of classical humanism and Christianity is clear in her work, while not always explicitly drawn.It may come as a surprise to some that a Hebrew poet such as Goldberg would note the discovery of her recent disenchantment with Jesus. What is more remarkable: the sudden self-awareness, revealed as if in passing, that she has “stopped loving” him? Or the logical inference that she had loved him in the rst place? Certainly the gure of Jesus played an essential role for modernist Jewish artists—from the more well-known work of Marc Chagall to the ubiquitous ctional and poetic renderings of Jesus in both Hebrew and Yiddish writing, such as the poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg, “ Uri tsvi farn tselem ” (Uri Zvi on the Cross; 1919), which appeared typographically in the shape of a cross. Greenberg’s poem- tselem  is an iconic text in both senses of the term: its visual form capitalizes on the substantive taboo regarding Christianity that still existed within both traditional and newly emergent secular Jewish cul - tures, and its content references how tropes of martyrdom could be produc - tively motivated within the Jewish national seing.Indeed, what has been called “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus” surfaced in numerous circumstances. 2  These modernists built on the groundwork laid by Moses Mendelsohn’s early invocation of Jesus as connected to Jewish teach - ings, as well as nineteenth-century distinctions between the historical Jesus who was closely identied as a Jew versus the theological Jesus, a Christian invention. In this context, therefore, Goldberg’s fascination, and subsequent  disappointment, with Jesus is part-and-parcel of the modern Jewish renais - sance, and anchors her aesthetic enterprise within other contemporaneous movements and trends. However, in her early poems, it is not Jesus who plays a leading role in the poetic rendering of the Christian-European landscape. Rather, this position is occupied, in multiple and evolving fashion, by the gures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Goldberg’s variation on the Jesus theme may be un - derstood not only as an exemplary instance of the modern Jewish “reclama - tion” of Jesus, but more essentially within the broader domain of the relation  between literature and the ne arts. 3  The relation between text and image was one of modernism’s abiding ten - sions. Historically, the tension between text and image, between the concrete and the abstract, found expression in myriad forms, with each medium seek - ing to borrow or mimic salient traits from the other. For example, modern - ist painting often contained bits of text and leers, while linguistic forms, such as cover art featuring the names of Yiddish literary journals, aempted to acquire the iconic qualities of pictures. An ongoing creative synergy was common among writers and painters living in the same geographic area or cultural moment; for example, Tsiona Tagger, a painter of the Tel Aviv School produced portraits of the poets Greenberg and Avraham Shlonsky in the 1920s. Furthermore, modernist literature often mimicked contemporaneous artistic trends such as impressionism or cubism in an aempt to produce the concrete materiality of painting in language, conventionally considered a tem - poral medium. International trends such as imagism and acmeism placed a premium on the poetic word as such, and on stylistic practices that somehow produced the eects of the plastic arts. 4 Goldberg does not seem to have been interested in the possibilities of lan - guage as paint  per se  , but she was a lifelong sketcher: the archival collection of her visual work includes six thousand catalogued items, 5  and several meters of archival boxes with unnumbered items. The collection includes more substan - tial works, as well as numerous simple sketches in a variety of techniques—watercolor, pastel, crayon, charcoal, and collage. Though many of these date from the 1960s, the last decade or so of her life, the possible relations between painting and poetry seems to have been a lifelong concern, from her early fascination with the art of the Italian renaissance during her student years in Berlin, through her edited series of pocket-sized books for Sifriat   Ha-po’alim devoted to painters such as Chagall in the 1940s, until the nal years, when a urry of intensely-wrought collages and paintings seems to have replaced, almost entirely, the work of poetry. In remarks from 1969, Goldberg says she came to painting out of “the temptation to do something with one’s hands, to make gures and not describe them in words.” She envies the painter’s precise vision: “[t]he writer says: blue, and every reader sees a dierent blue. But when I see Picasso’s blue, from the blue period, I knows it is that blue and no other.” Within these remarks about painting and poetry we may also note the presence of Goldberg-the-critic, the keen voice of judgment and appraisal that characterized her scholarship: “When you say to a writer: your language  J  J I 164 M V: T P  C  L G’ N L  is painterly, your style is painterly, it’s always a compliment. When you say to a painter: your drawing is literary, it’s almost always an insult.” 6 In this essay, I will compare the meaning of visual motifs in Goldberg’s early work with the belated reiteration of the visual in the collage and paint - ing of her nal years. Any evaluation of Goldberg as both poet and painter, and the connections between these two branches of her work, should also take into account the broader meaning of the historical tension between text and image, especially within the context of Jewish culture and its normative prohi -  bition on iconic forms. 7  Therefore, we will also pay aention to the presence of another interlocutor, an intervening force which often mediated and shaped the meaning of the visual in Goldberg’s work—this third party is Christian - ity, especially its potent visual imagery and its elevation of the iconic. As we shall see, visual references in Goldberg’s work are often mediated by Chris - tian imagery and certain features of the New Testament, especially in her rst  book of poems, Taba’ot Ashan  (Smoke Rings). Published in Tel Aviv in 1935, the same year the poet immigrated to Palestine, these poems were wrien while Goldberg was a student in Berlin and Bonn, newly arrived in the me - tropolis from the pastoral and petit bourgeois provinces of Jewish-Lithuanian Kovno. While completing her doctoral degree in Semitic languages in Berlin, Goldberg aended courses in art history; it is in these classes, and within the wider seing of the city’s museum culture, that Goldberg seems to have been exposed to artistic depictions of Christianity and its icons. The book’s title refers to the cigaree-smoke-laden caf é s in which many of the poems are set. In the poems, the relation between painting and sculpture, on the one hand, and certain icons of the Christian Church, on the other, is embedded within  broader cultural topographies that constitute the poet’s native landscape. 8  By “native landscape” I mean those physical and spatial terrains that are in some way tagged as “home” in Goldberg’s work, as well as the less tangible domain of culture that, for Goldberg, found its highest expression in European art and literature. Thus, the leave-taking of the European landscape is also imagined as a leave-taking of European culture, including its representative Christian institutions, for beer and for worse.Critics such as Tuvia Ruebner have largely followed what seems to have  been Goldberg’s own assessment of the poems in Taba’ot Ashan  as a kind of immature and unripe stage. 9  In his major article on the volume, Dan Miron argues that Goldberg’s early poetics are more properly understood within contemporaneous Hebrew poetry in Europe and the United States, a kind of “diasporic modernism” 10  which shirked the transcendental narratives of na - tion and territory and focused instead on the mundane details of everyday life. In Miron’s view, the “promise” of Taba’ot Ashan —despite the poet’s later success and central role in Israeli Hebrew leers—actually went unfullled, to a large degree, after Goldberg’s immigration to Palestine, lost in the poet’s own need to survive within the normative poetic trends of the day. It could  be that Goldberg herself internalized these norms and modied her work ac - cordingly. However, the poet revisited the Christian themes of the early po - ems in compelling fashion in a series of collages in the last years of her life. B M J 2014, 7(1) 165  Rediscovering the poems, both on their own and in relation to this late body of visual work, which has until now gone largely unnoticed, 11  will shed light on Goldberg’s poetics and her treatment of landscape both local and abroad. 12  For Goldberg, the diverse guration of Mary in these early poems was one way of dening herself as a poet—a European woman, and a Jew, writing in Hebrew—against both her native Lithuanian landscape and the broader cul - tural landscape of European art and tradition, to which she was passionately devoted. The reemergence of these themes in her late work, and in relation to her adopted native landscape—the Palestinian Yishuv and later the State of Israel—points to modern Hebrew writing’s ongoing engagement with native - ness and landscape, and its indebtedness to diasporic forms, even in a new, territorialized condition. I consider here a series of poems   that oer two distinct versions of Chris - tianity— in the impoverished landscape of Eastern Europe and the elaborate, ornate world of the Italian Renassiance as represented in museum collections of ne art 13 —each of which in some sense informed Goldberg’s poetic-psycho - logical world. Throughout, the poems draw on diverse bits of the New Testa - ment related to female gures; we will track the evolution of these references to Mary and Mary Magdalene, to wooden Madonnas, and nally to nuns, and a version of the poet herself in a sacricial seing. The speaker in these po - ems is both drawn to and repelled by these gures, using them to distinguish herself as a kind of local stranger, an ambivalence captured in Goldberg’s de - scription of Lithuania as “that abandoned homeland which does not mourn for me.” 14  The poems represent an aempt to inhabit the world of the other, and to appropriate it for aesthetic purposes; in this case, a twenty-something  Jewish woman poet, whose early languages were Russian and then German, chooses to write in Hebrew from the relative center of European culture, and adopts Christianity as funneled through its iconic female gures, in order to become  a poet. As a group, the “success” of these poems turns on a kind of subject-object reversal that marks the self in new and “other” ways.The rst poem is called “Pietà.” 15  It draws on two familiar cultural motifs: the Pietà, an artistic depiction often in sculptural form of the Virgin Mary cra - dling Christ’s dead body, and the idea of autumn as a season of transition and paradox, marked by both abundance (the harvest) and decay (the approach of winter.) Goldberg’s poem overlays these two themes to produce a landscape that is at once both familiar and strange: Piet à Once again paths… the autumn’s bloodOn the earth’s wounds.A boney pine branch [hand] stretchesToward the blind sky.Once again the weeping sadness of heavenover the corpse of the autumn earth.Like Madonna kneelingOver the body of the crucied.  J  J I 166 M V: T P  C  L G’ N L  Piet à  —  whispers the forest.Piet à  —  answers the autumn.And silence opens a gateTo the calm of the Father’s Kingdom.Only the wind howls — Judah weeping for his sin,Kissing the feet of his friend,Asking forgiveness from the dead. The measured trochaic rhythms and regular repeating rhyme scheme locate the poem within a European tradition of autumnal verse addressing the para - doxical beauty of a vibrant, yet decaying, landscape.   Goldberg’s poem presents Mary in doubly gurative fashion: on one level, Mary is depicted in the Pi - età, an iconic rendering of her care for Christ, on a second level, the Pietà itself serves as an image for the autumn landscape. The substance of seasonal change is rendered in martyrological terms: the fall foliage’s sacrice is mourned by the heavens, whose “weeping” suggests the movement of rain and wind. The for - est and the autumn collude in the poem’s brief, enigmatic dialogue in the rst two lines of stanza 3, preguring a silence— dmama— that is itself a condition for opening the gates of the “Father’s Kingdom.” In the nal stanza, against the Pietà’s traditional silence, emerges the voice of a Jewish presence in the land—“Judah weeping for his sin”—a presence both meteorological and metaphori - cal, “wandering” like a wind, seeking redemption and forgiveness. The main formal device indicating an intimate connection between the season of both life and death, and the Christian narrative of resurrection, is the repeated rhyme of stav  and tslav  (autumn and cross), in this poem and in the poem immediately following, “  Madonot al parshat drachim ” (Madonnas at the Crossroads.)However, whereas in “Pietà,” Mary is imagined at a remove—both in the iconic image of the Pietà, and as a metaphor for the landscape—this distance is diminished in “Madonnas at the Crossroads,”  16  as the rst-person speaker expressly compares herself, forsaken in love, to a group of wooden icons at a frozen crossroad: 17 Madonnas at the Crossroads I became accustomed to waiting in vain,And to remembering, without agony, blessed days.Wooden Madonnas at the crossroadsAre calm like me in the ice of autumn light.Worn and silent wooden MadonnasKnow: he will not rise and come to life,He won’t come to wipe away a tear in silenceat the frozen wasted crossroads.They won’t get to kiss the blood on his feet,Did they hear the laughter of the boy from Nazareth? B M J 2014, 7(1) 167
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