For most of Israel’s existence, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been discussed as the site of human conflict. But with the poem that opens the latest English translation (by Esther Cameron) of her selected poems, The Ladder, Tel Aviv-based poet Hamutal Bar-Yosef offers another view of the region, as “an overgrazed, ashen growth that produces small purple miracles of stable existence, serious as children’’ eyes.” In this vision, the land itself is violent, with or without people, and peace is an organic, happy accident. “My cruel land, I am from you,” the poem ends, providing an introduction to Bar-Yosef’s matter-of-fact poetics and sober worldview.
Born in 1940 on Kibbutz Tel Yosef, Bar-Yosef lost her older brother to the 1948 war and, later, her son to suicide. Perhaps consequently, a sense of familiarity with patterns of hope and loss inflects the poems in The Ladder. Acute, too, is the sense of comfort that can come from shared loss, even when one mourner’s instinct is to disconnect. In one poem, Bar-Yosef confronts “the child I was” who stands beside her bed crying. “Go back to your bed, I tell him,/ you’re big now./ But he wants to know/ if I am crying too.”