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In a small cemetery on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a few meters from labor leader Berl Katznelson's grave and directly in front of the poet Elisheva's, stands the grave of the poet Rachel Bluvstein. (1) The stone itself is a simple but monumental structure, with a thick border framing chiseled letters that spell "Rachel"--the poet's first name and chosen pen-name--and a few brief lines of poetry:
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Outspread hands, gaze from afar There no one comes Each and his Nevo Over a vast land
The lines, from the last stanza of the poem "From Afar" (Mineged), showcase Rachel's minimalist style: short, simple words resonate in the distance of this "vast land" and in the caesuras of the rhythmic free verse. The poem transforms Moses' final moments at Mt. Nebo, overlooking the promised land that he will never enter, into an existential state of desire for something that is simultaneously visible and unattainable. Distilling the language of Deuteronomy 32:52, (3) the concise stanza emphasizes the sound and meaning of each brief word. For example, Nevo (Nebo), already transformed in The grave of Rachel by the Sea of Galilee. the poem's first stanza from a geographical name into a metaphor--"in every hope / there is the sadness of Nevo" (ll. 3-4)--here becomes a symbol of unfulfilled yearning. This poem, however, is conspicuously different from Rachel's most frequently quoted poetry, in that its carefully structured lines resist gendered and biographical readings with an elliptical impersonality. In contrast to the many "I"s that fill Rachel's poetry, these lines avoid a lyrical and grammatical subject by means of a high literary register (the infinitive absolutes paros, ra'oh, difficult to render in translation) and succinct phrases. While the poem can be read as a dying poet's poignant reflections, (4) its neologisms, sound play and precise, complex allusions go beyond biography to convey unattainable desire in an intricate modernist text. Ironically, Rachel is memorialized with the words ish uNevo lo (each and his Nevo), which place Moses' masculine face on the grave of a poet celebrated for her feminine voice in modern Hebrew poetry.
These poetic lines are one of many building blocks in the construction of a romantic site of veneration and pilgrimage that disseminates the mythology of Rachel. The first prominent modern Hebrew woman poet is molded to suit the cultural and ideological needs of a new Zionist Hebrew culture in Palestine. Even a brief history of Rachel's gravesite demonstrates the careful shaping of the commemoration and, by implication, the image of this female poet. Though Rachel lived near the Kinneret (as the Sea of Galilee is known in Hebrew) for a relatively short time, her well-known and oft-quoted lines, "If fate decrees / I must live far from your borders--/ allow me, Kinneret, / to rest in your cemetery," (5) articulate a desire to be buried beside the lake, which was fulfilled after her death in 1931. In a widely circulated melodramatic biography of Rachel first published in 1939, Bracha Habas describes a simple, horizontal stone typical of Middle Eastern cemeteries, featuring the single word "Rachel," surrounded by the graves of the Zionist pioneering generation, watchmen and pioneers, farmers and builders. (6) The archives of Kevutzat Kinneret, where the cemetery is located, include an undated photograph of what was presumably this first gravestone, with the name "Rachel" chiseled in large letters, accompanied by much smaller lines of poetry. (7) This first stone was replaced within a few years of the poet's death, part of the posthumous re-crafting of Rachel, her life and her poetry. (8) The current gravesite, while relatively modest in scale compared to those of the leaders of the labor movement that surround it, recasts the site as a place to mourn the distant poetess, with a bench to sit and contemplate the upright (European-style) grave and gaze at the large palm trees on the lakeshore; an area to leave stones and kvitlekh (scraps of paper bearing messages and requests addressed to the departed soul); and a waterproof box to hold a treasured, tattered copy of Rachel's collected poetry. By omitting the standard biographical elements of a gravestone--family names, dates--this site venerates the iconic poetess rather than the prosaic Rachel Bluvstein.
While Rachel's grave has become a pilgrimage site for youth groups and tourists, Anna Margolin's gravestone in the Workmen's Circle cemetery in Queens, New York, attracts far fewer visitors. (9) Not unlike the Kevutzat Kinneret cemetery, the Workmen's Circle is the final resting place for an illustrious collection of Jewish political, intellectual and literary figures. Down the road from Sholem Aleykhem's grave and some ten rows behind the prominent "Honor Row," (10) Margolin lies under a simple stone notable for its profusion of text. In contrast to the surrounding gravestones, which mix English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian phrases, Margolin's grave is entirely in Yiddish. Engraved in large letters across the top is her pseudonym, Anna Margolin, parenthetically followed by her name, Rosa Lebensboym, along with the surname of her long-time partner, the Yiddish poet and journalist Reuven Ayzland, and her dates, 1887-1952. As Ayzland recounts in his memoirs, Margolin made him promise to inscribe the epitaph she left in her papers, a poem she had written more than twenty years before her death. (11) It appears without the first two lines, because, according to David Roskies, the Cemetery Department of the Workmen's Circle reacted against their explicit imagery and expunged them. (12)
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[She with the cold marble breasts And the narrow illuminated hands,] She squandered her beauty On garbage, on nothing. Perhaps she had wanted, perhaps desired Disaster, seven knives of pain And poured out life's holy wine On garbage, on nothing. Now she lies with a shattered face. The disgraced spirit leaves the cage. Passerby, take pity and be silent Say nothing.
Margolin's poem confounds the conventions of the epitaph by crafting a bitter, obliquely biographical self-portrait. In contrast to Rachel's poem, the opening lines immediately call attention to the woman interred below, even though the breasts and hands of the original poem were severed from the epitaph. However, as in Rachel's "From Afar," the text avoids the lyrical "I." The third person address not only describes its subject but objectifies her body, a "shattered visage" and abandoned "cage." The poem loses its classical symmetry in its truncated version on the gravestone, omitting the kalte marmore brist (cold marble breasts) on this evenly proportioned marble stone, with its symmetrical, carved wreath of flowers and vines. Ironically, the missing lines are perhaps the most appropriate ones for a tombstone, since the stone literalizes the metaphor. Instead, the visual layout and rhyme flaunt a bitter rejection through repetition that becomes a refrain, literally, of nothing, gornisht. The letters carved into the gravestone visually emphasize this bitter rejection, as the repeated word, gornisht, calls attention to itself before each stanza break, on a descending diagonal that leads the eye to the poem's final command, zog gornisht: Say nothing.
Barbara Mann suggests that the repetition of gornisht and the unsuccessful attempts to find a rhyme for "nothing"--mist, brist, geglust and gezikht, shattered rhymes in successive stanzas--together use poetic language to call attention to the poem as a constructed object, belying the pronouncement of a wasted life. (14) Together, the art of the poem and the design of the grave--the polished poetic words carved on smooth marble--offer a strange counterpoint to the poem's bitter tone and shattered visage, one of the many surprises and contradictions that fill Margolin's work. In contrast to the seeming transparency of much of Rachel's poetry, Margolin's poems are filled with literal and metaphorical masks that flaunt the fictionality and changeability of poetic identity. While her epitaph seems more personal than Rachel's, Margolin uses a stylized persona to fend off the personal throughout her poetry, thereby expressing a formal and thematic dimension of her restrained modernism.
What is perhaps most striking about both graves is what is omitted. Each poet dictated a key aspect of her gravestone: Rachel chose an evocative location, while Margolin provided an unconventional epitaph. Yet those elements are transformed in the posthumous memorials. Rachel hameshoreret, "Rachel the poetess," is memorialized in universal-masculine terms on a minimalist gravestone tempered by a romanticized setting. She is not merely buried next to the Kinneret; she is enshrined through the combined effects of architectural design and national legend. While Rachel's popularity may have rendered a full name or lifespan unnecessary on her grave, (15) the absence of such biographical details is ironic given the predominance of biographical criticism of her poetry. From early reviews to contemporary articles, critics have rewritten Rachel and her poetry as expressions of a tragic life devoted to the realization of the Zionist dream. Margolin's grave features a different kind of omission, the censoring of the epitaph designated by the poet. The severing of the woman poet's breasts and hands erase the female body on its physical marker. The discomfort with the poem's words on the part of whoever made the final decision on the stone's text mirrors the critical unease with which Margolin's gender-bending poetry was met. In both cases, we end up reading the text that is engraved in stone, a remnant of the poet's voice, as well as what has necessarily been authored by others, the design of the stone and site. Visitors, critics and readers can speculate about the individual buried underneath, but those speculations, like the stone itself, are mediated by a series of poetic, biographical and feminine constructs.
These two poets, one a larger-than-life myth and the other a shadowy poetic presence, are remembered first and foremost as women poets, in the popular imagination and in reviews, memoirs and critical essays that often privilege biography and biographical criticism over textual analysis. The fact that both were recognized as poets reflects the new place of women in Jewish culture, part of the modernization of Jewish life that would have been unimaginable a generation or two earlier. Like so many of their contemporaries, Bluvstein (1890-1931), writing as "Rachel," and Lebensboym (1887-1952), writing as "Anna Margolin," moved along similar trajectories, circulating in multilingual modernist circles in Europe, Palestine and New York, though there is no evidence that they ever met. (16) Yet these two women writers, who have not been analyzed together, offer very different approaches to gender: Rachel's poetry features a single, unitary and recognizably "feminine" persona that dominates readings of her work and enshrines her as a tragic heroine in Hebrew culture, while Anna Margolin's texts produce multiple personas that constantly shift perspective and resist the constraints of gender, often confounding her critics.
I began with the graves of these Hebrew and Yiddish poets not to call more attention to their respective biographies, but to focus on the poetic and critical constructions of gendered authorial selves that are often overlooked in both languages. Like the careful crafting of their graves, Rachel and Margolin shape their own poetic images, but they are also consciously and unconsciously fashioned into poetesses, a Hebrew meshoreret and a Yiddish dikhterin. These feminine terms are dictated by more than grammar, (17) reflecting …