Wrinkles from a Tabula Rasa: A Review of Gili Haimovich’s ‘Promised Lands’ by Debasish Parashar
Gili Haimovich. Promised Lands. Finishing Line Press, 2020.
Gili Haimovich’s Promised Lands is an anthology of wrinkled faces, new beginnings and creative protests. The color of her poetry is not dark red, rather it is light purple, or even snow-white at times, as to resemble blank pages. Indeed, Promised Lands is a set of poems on new possibilities, bodies freshly discovered, layered faces, roots and rootlessness, love and longings, motherhood, migration, semantic freedom and rediscovered languages. Her poetry smells of earth and it strolls along the cities. She travels and does not just visit. At times it holds an almost romantic quest for primordial innocence that strips away the cultures of experience, rediscovering naked bodies, evergreen forests and fragile minds.
The recurrent poetic image of the blank page in some of the initial poems of Gili’s collection reminds us of John Locke's conceptualization of Tabula Rasa. The Mind as a repository of thought impressions generated by Matter, is reinvented as Body, as a repository of fresh touches. The Body is an accumulation of sensory adventures. The Body is not simply the corporeal human body, but a set of bodies which are spatio-temporal or ideational frameworks. Bodies are layered bodies, with layered structures of power, sometimes solid and sometimes fragmented.
Love and Marriage
Poems like ‘Our Winter’ are musings on fragile and vulnerable human relationships. Bodies become territorial realms of experience ‘coiled into one another’ like two ‘barbed wires’ along the borders of two perennially fighting imperfect communities. The cleavages of a fragile human relationship are aptly visualized as two barbed wires generating electric shocks. Cold evenings become a bed of thorns. The imperfections count more than hyperboles, idealisms and dominant definitions. ‘Perfectly Loving’ exposes the façade of social expectations and the societal quest for definitions in every sphere of human life, including love, which, however, lacks definitions. The bare bodies of the lovers become the exotic and promised lands full of infinite possibilities, yet free from shackles of definition. The poet’s imagination confidently straddles along those lands, erasing frontiers, borders and binaries. The vision is not essentially utopian, but pragmatic,
You went on to tickle my temples
and I, to fiddle with your testicles.
definitions won’t find us
In her cartographic imagination of a land amour where ‘the fall is pretty as the spring’, the narrative self reinterprets the Fall not as a state of dormancy, but as ‘Fall pretty as the Spring’, a season of striptease, apparently more pleasurable than nakedness. The Fall has still some promises left in it. The process of decay still has its own beauty. This dialogue between the human self and the natural cycle culminates in a dialogue between the poetic self and the silent other, while the former ends up almost on a note of confession,
I am piling the leaves of the black hair on your chest
and I am hiding my head inside of them.
The dialogue between human life and nature continues in ‘Leaves’ to explore the transience of time, simulations of nature and corresponding human emotions.
The domestic is no less than a symbolic battlefield of contradictory pulls and pressures, whether emotional, psychological or sexual. There are tensions due to tangential expectations, which destabilizes the center and shakes the margins of the female mind. In many of her poems, love is a riot born from a piece of scorched earth. Conflict is central to the understanding of love in Gili's poems. The poem ‘Single Sock’ is very special for the way it treats something so mundane as the washing of a pair of socks in a washing machine in such extraordinary delight, without compromising on the thematic concerns at large. The journey from the carnival to one’s home and to the everyday bed is a tedious one. A carnival is true, but unable to revitalize the fading dimensions of a relationship which has gone sour. The “mysterious place / where all lost socks and women disappear to” of ‘Single Sock’ is probably the same personal yet anonymous space as visualized in the following lines from ‘Carnival’,
Hurting, fossilizing from having no distance at all.
So many ways to fight,
So little opportunities to surrender.
Maybe all we need is just the perfect, peaceful scenery,
The kind that will inspire us to reveal again the beauty
That once we held together.
In the absence of that beautiful space of otherness that embodies opportunities to surrender, even a carnival fails to revitalize life and infuse fresh passions. Some distances are necessary, some rooms have to be of one’s own.
Marriage, as in ‘Champagne and Hummus’, is a tussle between a masculine conquest and a female quest, a ‘seeking sweet’ that tastes ‘more like sparkling hummus’. It is really striking to note how poems like ‘Champagne and Hummus’ and ‘Fake Honeymoon’, which primarily deal with conjugal themes of marriage and honeymoon, are retrospectively colonized by sense perceptions associated with food imagery, or in other words, by a menu of consumer non-durables. It is interesting to observe how fascinatingly these conjugal themes are intertwined with themes of language and migration. Marriage ‘in a language that is not our own’ is burdened by a claustrophobia born out of cultural conflict, subsequently followed by a fake honeymoon that intensifies the longing for newness,
After so many years together,
the notion of new became so new for us,
that it became impossible to open a new door,
to travel to somewhere new,
a sincere honeymoon.
Yet, and it is difficult to comment that, there is an absolute loss of faith in the possibilities of love. The idea of love itself expands into a wider embrace than conjugal love. The poem ‘It Is What It Is’ is significant in this context. The poem consciously or unconsciously, revokes and reworks the astronomical coordinates of the sun and the moon from Wordsworth’s Romantic paradigm. Interestingly, the child is no more the moon, but the sun itself, shining on its own, and gravity is replaced by love.
Comfort food traditionally refers to a wide range of high calorie energy-dense foods consumed as a response to emotional stress. The phrase is used for food associated with a sense of security during one’s childhood, for example chocolates or mother’s sandwiches which stimulate a reward system in the human brain in stress situations. Comfort food can also address the pleasurable culture of the collective unconscious of a human mind. Gili’s poem ‘Comfort Food’ unequivocally addresses the dialectics of language-as-survival and language-as-pleasurable-comfort, by using the simile of comfort food for mother tongue, carefully preserved in the mother's tummy for future generations to inherit. The poem is significant from linguistic and post-colonial perspectives. The mother is the source of language, and the legacy of one's language of birth continues with a reward system of its own, triggering pleasurable memories in the human unconscious in stress situations. In a tone almost similar to Franz Fanon, the poetic persona in ‘Comfort Food’ dares to comment that an acquired language like English comes
from the emptiness,
from the void space
in my mouth.
Between the upper and the lower
Gili observes the language games carefully. Her poems reveal an awareness of the process of eroticization of exotic English and the parallel cornering of her very own Hebrew to the living room of her household; the gradual process of linguistic colonization and subsequent colonial hangover, as well as marginalization and sinking of vernacular linguistic identities, is coupled with experiences of migration. ‘Slow the Pace’ and ‘Colonized’ are testimony to the same.
Migration and Marginalities
It is difficult to understand migration in contemporary world without understanding migratory stress and urbanity as the dominant discourse. Gili’s poems explore various facets of migration in today’s world. It is difficult to ignore the personal and the autobiographical in Gili’s poetic texts on migration. If in her marriage poems, migration is a loss of language accompanied by a subsequent nostalgia for the loss or a source of emotional alienation, in ‘Fake Za’atar’, migration seduces into a suspension of disenchantment for the search of new possibilities while mapping new geographical spaces. Migration is a strange centrifugal tendency that destabilizes the entrenched family structure and embraces the ‘estranged treasures within, the same one that turns acquaintances into saviors.’ From a bird's eye view of migration, the poet expands her visual span to the tits and bits of migration in everyday life as in ‘Pedestrians Cheer’. The poem is an emotional appeal, almost socialistic in tonality, by the everyday pedestrians migrating to and from places, almost on the verge of future extinction, yet relevant for their functional role in shaping modernity and urbanscapes. The poetic argument is progressive, but not essentially post-modern. It gracefully shakes with empathy for the margins, but does not dismantle the center.
Motherhood and Selfhood
Many of Gili Haimovich’s poems deal with ideas of female identity, selfhood, motherhood and sexuality. Her poetic texts are narratives of lived experiences with multiple semantic layers. Her tone is not radical, but strong. Her poetic demeanor is practical and political, but not idealistic and pretentious. A woman’s body is time and metamorphosis. Being human is a double-edged sword hung in between the jungle of survival and the savanna of social expectations in ‘My Species’. ‘The Dragonfly’ is about the metamorphosis of a dragonfly with delicate glass wings to a strong woman with wings of flesh and bones flapped energetically till selfhood,
Between you and me, what blew her cover,
were the wings attached to her small body
not the bolt, but
the usual flesh and bones and muscles
flapping with the energy of a female.
‘Bloody Kiss’ is a short and striking poem on the encounter between ‘the secretive body and the public one’ of a woman, a bloody kiss of a lifetime, while experiencing motherhood. That strange bloody kiss creates possibilities of a new birth, a new life, as well as new promises. The title of the poem is quite oxymoronic in the way that it associates kiss with blood, yet it remains symbolically universal. A kiss of blood is the price of newness and regeneration. Motherhood is a state of justice and equality. It is the source of new beginnings and beings with same materials, but in different timings, like siblings, as in ‘My Brother’. That simple statement shakes the very foundation of patriarchy. Overall, the experience of motherhood is a nourishing one in Gili’s poetry. A newborn baby shines like the Sun and makes her parents rise to a glorious presence. Poems like ‘And There’s Something About Softness’ are more descriptive in nature and contrast the tenderness of a newborn baby to the softening touch of luxury in everyday life.
Diversity of poetic images is a remarkable feature in Gili’s poems on motherhood. At times, diversity of expressions is visible even within a single poem. For example, the poem ‘The Butterfly Catcher’ begins on a very tender note of a lullaby with the mother addressing her baby as caterpillar, followed by a stanza dedicated to the process of metamorphosis and growth. Then, there is a turn from the third stanza onwards, with the poetic voice becoming more personal, assertive and profound, to conclude the poem with the following stanza,
I’m a butterfly-catcher
trying to seize my images
through the net of exhaustion.
While reading ‘Promised Lands’, the poem ‘Peanut Butter and Pomegranate’ draws special attention, not simply for its content, but for the poem’s overall location within the broader framework of the collection. This poem is an interesting experiment with the idea of writing a sequel to ‘Champagne and Hummus’, a poem encountered by the readers in the first half of the book. ‘Peanut Butter and Pomegranate’ appears late in the second half of it and tests the reader’s memory by making specific references to its corresponding poem ‘Champagne and Hummus’. The poetic persona is an open-end process and not a rounded entity, and it evolves through a series of inter-related poems which are not essentially placed in continuity, but scattered across the anthology-like collection or even multiple collections. Like Balzac’s character-processes, Gili's poetic-persona-in-process demands careful and retentive reading, prospectively increasing semantic and hermeneutical possibilities, justifying the title of her collection, or anthology, ‘Promised Lands’.
Genealogy, Migration and Poetry
In Gili’s poetry there is a search for one’s roots and genealogy, with a constant preoccupation of the self to negotiate with the changing dualities due to migration and rootlessness. ‘First Harvest’ begins on a surrealistic note,
My father grew wrinkles
reach high as the hay.
If someone dares to harvest them
it might be possible to build a home there.
It moves on to express an ardent need to dig out one’s roots, even if the process takes one farther from her father, inheritance and genealogical legacy. ‘Long-distance Potatoes’ underlines the importance of guarding memories, drawing a simile of guarding potatoes which resultantly increased the cultural status and economic value of potatoes in the new markets in Europe. The poetic persona navigates through paradigms of genealogy, migration, the early history of potatoes in Europe as a cheap nutritional choice as well as through its association with low culture. Memories feed the self and need to be preserved with care, just like potatoes.
War and Conflict
‘Gazelles Crossing the Road in Nes Ziona’ is a visual landscape of a zone of conflict. The landscape of Nes Ziona from the desert-like and deserted Zion, the promised land of Moses, evolves through a description of two contrasting sets of images of innocence and experience. ‘Gazelles’ and ‘children climb up the iris’s hill’ embody spontaneity and innocence, contrasted with ‘drafted men’ and a ‘siren’, embodiments of conflict, power and experience. Interestingly, the latter set of images colonizes the real space, highlighted by the sardonic humor and irony in the following lines,
to put a sign warning of gazelles passing here,
here in Nes Ziona,
one of the smallest towns in Zion,
desert like Zion,
In Hebrew, Nes Ziona means the miracle of Zion.
No doubt it would take a miracle to see gazelles here.
Yet the idea of war is not exclusively political and external, but domestic and personal, in Gili’s ‘Promised Lands’. Conflict is one of the core themes in Gili's poems on love, marriage and the domestic sphere. ‘The Warless Warrior’ at home is also conditioned to a state of war that suffocates with the sweetness of longing,
if only not making choices
could be a vocation.
The Promised (Waste)land and Promised Lands
While reading poems like ‘Into’ and ‘The Promised Wasteland’, it is convenient to infer that the Promised Land is actually a barren land, ‘a desert’, ‘a wound’, a land of ‘beautiful waste’, as well as ‘prohibited’ and ‘inaccessible’ wasteland. There is hardly any ambiguity regarding the fact that the poet is referring to Zion, the modern state of Israel or the Promised Land of Moses. ‘Into’ is a carefully crafted poem that takes the readers on two simultaneous vocations, one through the popular episode of Moses leading the God’s chosen people into the Promised Land of Israel found in Jewish mythology, and the other directly into the core theme of Gili Haimovich’s anthology, the promised lands. The poetic persona feels very much part of the community while specifically referring to the mythological 40 years of struggle in the desert in search of the Promised Land wrestling ‘sand and faith’. The long struggle does not necessarily offer any peaceful embrace of the Promised Land, but a wild wasteland spread with thorns and pain, as the concluding lines of ‘The Promised Wasteland’ underline,
Their tongues bring the opposite of saturation.
And penetrate determinedly
the land that already had so little to offer.
This is when you realise promises better kept unfulfilled
and you do not enter.
In the second half of the anthology, a reader comes across a series of poems with the poetic persona backpacking around countries in the eastern hemisphere on a cartographic adventure in search of promised lands. The adventure starts from India, the land of contrasts and generosity. Borders appear to be ‘shadow lines’ and the adventure continues through Mongolia ‘On the Night Train from the Gobi Desert’ to reach Hong Kong in ‘Though She’s Titled Hong Kong’, albeit for a conclusion with the following lines,
Hong Kong loosens the attempt to be herself,
follows glimmers of a western future,
instead of the ones from the sea.
She won’t fulfill her potential,
or her promise.
Will the rain wash away its shades?
‘Estonia Song / Sweeter Sea’, a long poem dedicated to Estonian poet Mathura (M. Lattik) completes the trail of promises. It is really interesting to note that the cartographic adventures along the foreign shores are followed by a series of poems dedicated to trees, and more specifically, roots. ‘Exposed Roots’ is an oblique comment on the narrowing vision of modern man in the face of industrialization and urbanism. When human vision is limited to the height of concrete structures and is unable to see the vastness of evergreen tree tops, one ends up clinging to the glimpses of exposed roots. Ironically, modern man with baby vision is not even free like crawling babies,
While a crawling baby is contrary, spreads itself on all fours
just to get somewhere.
How have we come to a place
where the bigger you are the less space you are expected to take up?
You and I, did we grow narrow? Did we ever look at a treetop?
To walk away is important for resurrection and revival. Her view of how ‘Jerusalem is always forsaken’ does not seem to be a reason strong enough for the speaker in ‘Kiss’ to walk away from her homeland. The speaker prays for a faith which is strong enough to accompany that walk. The spirituality and austerity of the speaker’s tone continues in ‘Song of Songs, Poem of Poems’, a poem that reworks on an otherwise frequently overused Biblical story, of Eve and Adam, and their new-found promised land,
Every song yearns to be a poem.
And every poem
is a lullaby
even if weeping accompanied its writing, Eve.
Every poem is virgin soil,
not necessarily heaven’s,
not necessarily no man’s land either,
even if no man, no Adam, has set foot on it yet.
But the apple, look, the apple is already bitten.
Almost exegetically, Gili subverts the dominant phallocentric and patriarchal narrative regarding the Biblical Garden of Eden and the subsequent Fall of Mankind, and tries to reclaim the Edens for future daughters with the following lines from ‘Surrender’,
I’m cultivating my sensitivities again,
my gardens of Eden.
And it’s a good practice to raise daughters as well,
they don’t easily betray you.
When the serpent of expectation bites
I’ll be the one to remind him it’s simply in his nature.
Form, Structure and Language
Most of the poems from ‘Promised Lands’ are monologues, narrative and lyrical ones, rarely dramatic. The monologue form offers the poet a narrative liberty to explore a diversity of themes, multiple layers of meanings and multiple contexts. Gili Haimovich’s monologues are brutal confessions dipped in rhythm and graceful diaries edged liked swords. Her tone is personal and at times moody. Her poetry is a desert by the river, and sometimes a hurricane dancing away from its eye.
Gili’s language has an inner rhythm rhymed in elegance. Her language is far away from the vulgar and the profane, but measured and graceful. Her language is photographic with the ability of creating visuals, aptly justifying Gili’s exposure to visual arts. The poetic tone is contemporary, not archaic; rooted, but not conservative; confident, but not rhetorical; strong, and tasteful. Not all, but many of her poems are meant to be read out aloud. The sound of her poetry is not rap, but smooth jazz or blues at best.
Promises and Protests
One article can change an idea. It is interesting to note that the title of Gili’s collection is not ‘The Promised Land’, but ‘Promised Lands’. Promised lands offer a plurality, a bunch of undefined possibilities and a series of dynamic permutations and combinations of spatio-temporal erasures. Promised lands deconstruct the monolithic, homogenous and deterministic idea of the Promised Land, simultaneously foregrounding the infinite possibilities of reading. Promised lands refer to the dynamic and dialectic negotiations with absence, which destabilize the western metaphysics of presence. The yearning for those promised lands does not cover for their absence, yet the search looks beyond the sensory realm of presence deep into the realm of the unseen. Promises and disappointments are not dialectically opposite, mutually exclusive and isolated zones of experience, but overlapping and coextensive to each other. The following lines form the axis of Gili Haimovich's poetics and philosophy in ‘Promised Lands’,
Of course, no one has ever reached the promised lands.
Yet we keep at it, marching toward them.
Yearning doesn’t cover for their absence.
Sisyphus is awake. The search continues. Love continues. Poetry continues. Protest continues.
As daringly as the fresh green on the treetop’s leaves
I love \ write.
That’s my protest.
Debasish Parashar is a Multilingual Poet, Translator, Poetry Reviewer, Literary Critic, Creative Entrepreneur, Singer/Musician, and Lyricist based in New Delhi, India. He is an Assistant Professor of English literature at the University of Delhi. Parashar is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Advaitam Speaks Literary journal and is associated with the World Poetry Movement. With his debut song ‘Pamaru Mana’ (2018), Debasish became one of the first Indian singer/composers who dared to experiment with the idea of fusing 500-years-old Borgeets of Assam with Western Orchestral feel, challenging the religious and ritualistic conventions of the Satras. He has sung for Raag, In Search of God, MUSOC XXV and elsewhere. Debasish has read in various national and international literary events/festival in India, Medellin, London, Japan, Greece, Italy, Mexico, El Salvador, and elsewhere. Debasish Parashar was honored with the ‘Festival Charter for Interpretation’ award at the Indija Pro Poet-2020 International Literary Festival. The Poetic Media Lab, Stanford University has curated the cinematic adaptation of his poem ‘Fundamental Right to Dream’, and some other works for the ‘Life in Quarantine’ project. Apart from that, his poems have been curated under some remarkable global projects including the First Ever Museum of Poetry in Piccolo Museo della Poesia Chiesa di San Cristoforo, Italy under Rucksack, a Global Poetry Patchwork and The Canoe (Piroga) by renowned sculptor Italo Lanfredini. His poems, reviews, articles and interviews have appeared in hundreds of anthologies, newspapers, journals, broadcast media and magazines worldwide.