The poems in Scorched by the Sun, a collection from Israeli writer Moshe Dor, reveal a lyrical author who writes passionately and beautifully about love, nature, national identity, and war. The poems are short and free verse. They fully engage the senses, and the metaphors are often striking. The translation by Barbara Goldberg gives us an English that is limpid and swift. Whatever the Hebrew might be (and it is not reproduced here), one never stumbles over an awkward or obscure phrase in the translation.
The first poem in the book reveals two characteristic and often intertwining themes of Dor's work: erotic love, and the poet’s complex, conflicted love of Israel. “Smells” moves us from the sensual evocation of far-away Israel to the equally sensual evocation of an absent lover, but with a vagueness that leaves us wondering: is the lover Israel itself? It opens with the lingering aromas and images of homeland that come to him in a dream. After listing them, he reflects: “I awake befuddled, / not knowing where I am, groping for a warm // body to define the boundaries of my life.” (p. 17). He relishes the fact that his “nostrils fill with your smell.” Yet, here, “your” could refer to either Israel or the absent lover. It even flirts with the ambiguity of his absent country as the absent lover. This conflation of woman and homeland is reinforced in “Topography.” The lover's breasts become the hills of Jerusalem, her belly the coastal plain, “and between your thighs sometimes / the saltiness of the Dead Sea / and sometimes / the sweet Kinneret.” (p.38). Eroticism in his work is balanced by tenderness, sacrifice, and vulnerability, as in “Houses,” where the poet humbly offers his aging body as a shelter to his lover. “The only thing left for me to give // is my old, bruised body, swaying / in the slightest puff of wind, but it's all yours, / whether standing upright or collapsing— / come, hide in it.” (p.54). Dor's love poems can move just as easily and beautifully from the sensual to the abstract:
Redbud in Dalia
The redbud in Dalia blooms
like my lost, rosy-fingered
love. From where I stand
the hills of Ephraim arch
like her young, firm breasts
and a stubborn woodpecker
hammers at the heart
of the world that remains
bright as a diamond
and as impenetrable.
Nature plays an important role in Dor's poetry. He finds the natural world to be both a support and confirmation of his feelings of love and tenderness, while at the same time he sees it standing against human violence. In “There Are Just Wars,” Dor, a former soldier of Israel, tells us “every war is / anguish and untimely death,” and then, startlingly, he addresses the natural world: “'Birds, why are you singing, don't / you know it's war?' but they didn't / heed me and kept on singing.” (p.26).
Even as Dor's relationship to Israel seems turbulently romantic, his poems also raise important philosophical questions about the nature of national identity and homeland. Dor can be gripped with yearning when he is away from Israel, and just as often tortured by the violence that still plagues his homeland. In “Web” (p.59), he wrestles with the claim that a motherland is a shirt. Many emigrants shed their previous national identity with relative ease, adopting that of their new homeland. But this does not seem possible for Dor. Despite the time he spends abroad, his commitment to Israel transcends love of place and home and tunes itself to the deep and lasting connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Such commitment comes with a price:
And thus I log on, read, gnash my teeth, cry
with dry eyes, pull out hair that I don't have, burn
in the flames of a hell I don't believe in, pick up pieces
of the shattered dream and kiss them like Jeremiah
among the ruins, kissing the bones of his beloved dead.
Overall, this collection reveals for us English speakers an outstanding lyrical poet who ranges widely over timeless themes of love, loss, aging, identity and war, and yet he does so in ways that always feel fresh and contemporary. One can read this work and feel the light through the sky, the humid air, the gentle roll of a thigh, even as missiles are poised over the horizon. Dor gives us the atmospheric touch of a painting by Turner while yet standing in the midst of modernity:
This soft pearly light,
settling so tenderly
on your rooftops, the solar boilers,
the TV antennas, on
you, Tel Aviv.