Wednesday, August 4, 2021

WITMonth Day 4 | When poetry works | The Things We Don't Discuss by Shlomit Naim Naor

My poetry reviews always contain the same disclaimer: I am not qualified to review poetry. I'm not, truly! When I read poetry, the thing that remains - more than an appreciation for the language, for the craft, or for any sense of originality - is how the work made me feel. Did it manage to make me cry? Did it manage to make me sigh? Did it manage to make me feel?

If the answers to those questions are "yes", then it's good poetry and very possibly one of my favorite books of the year, it's as simple as that. If the answer is "no", I can start to unpack the technicalities about the writing, about the framing, about the shaping of the poems themselves. But those are wholly secondary to me when it comes to how poems make me feel.

Which means that on the rare occasions that I come across a poetry book that manages to hit me right in the feels (shh, I'm a millennial, it's how we speak), I am left feeling almost speechless. How can I review a book that ends up feeling so personal? Because that's where The Things We Don't Discuss (הדברים שאנחנו לא מדברות עליהם) by Shlomit Naim Naor has left me. It's a book that punched me straight in the face with its first poem and didn't let up. It's a book that - for the first time in my life - has me itching to translate a poem from Hebrew into English. It's a book that feels like it understands me, even though very little of it is actually parallel to my life. But somehow, Naim Naor gets it. Gets me. Nothing else really matters, does it?

But because this is a review (of sorts), I'll try to explain why. First, there's a technical matter - Naim Naor's writing style is diverse and varied within this single slip of a collection by itself. While she revists certain themes more than others, the poems don't bleed into each other. Several even manage to stand out, bluntly unique in both style and tone, though they do not clash with the rest of the works. The collection isn't one of those smooth poetry books I'm so often gushing about, it certainly feels like a collection of smaller sub-collections, but it straddles the line between having its poems stand out and also not having them discordant with each other. 

Naim Naor also does an admirable job of playing with different ways of writing in poetry; a frequent criticism of Israeli poetry is that all one has to do to write a "poem" is slap the vowel symbols on a few staggered lines. This criticism is really just a critique of pretentiousness that markets itself as poetry, but there is a universal truth behind it when it comes to bad poetic styles suffocating potentially good poem ideas. And simply using a common poetic style is not enough to turn a string of words or sentences into a good poem. Naim Naor easily side-steps this criticism by not limiting herself to a single, standard poetry style. I don't mean that she's particularly experimental (she is not), but more that she is willing to have poems that have very different rhythms and flows set alongside each other. It's a mix of different standards, in a way, and I actually rather liked it. Her poems do feel a little more natural for this mix, and a little less... performative.

The truth is, though, that I loved The Things We Don't Discuss because of its poetic topics. Naim Naor is one of the only observant Israeli women writers I have had the pleasure of reading, and her writing is clearly steeped in that experience. That first poem - the one that punched me in the face - kicks things off without a moment of hesitation, describing the loneliness of being a single religious woman on Shabbat, asking "And what will I do with all the Shabbat leftovers from my singlehood?" The poem references traditions and experiences that will be instantly recognizable to any observant Jewish-Israeli woman, but more than that it includes the struggles behind a lot of normalized dating traditions surrounding Shabbat meals. In one particularly gut-punch-y line, Naim Naor writes "There is no room for who I want to be" - I started crying. And that was only the beginning. (The second poem is the one that absolutely consumes me and I would love to translate, if only because I wish I could feel it even more deeply. Does that make sense?)

Naim Naor is true to the promise of her collection's title (which, I should note, is female-gendered in Hebrew - that is, the things that we women don't discuss), raising topic after topic after topic that are too rarely discussed. She writes of her struggles with her past singlehood, with motherhood, with grief at the loss of a parent, with giving birth... These are poems that seem determined to be straight-forward in precisely those topics that often get glossed over, particularly among religious women. It's this, I think, that made The Things We Don't Discuss such a unique collection for me. The concept of taboo-breaking poetry is hardly new, and there are many who would likely read these poems and scratch their heads at the supposed taboos Naim Naor is breaking. Because that's not what she's doing. It's not about being loud and deliberate, it's not about making some sort of point in writing about unknowable subjects. It's just about being able to get out those small, painful pieces. And for me, at least, seeing enough of myself in those small pieces and feeling understood was revelatory. 

So yes, The Things We Don't Discuss hit me emotionally. It worked technically, with good pacing and technical flow and diversity of tone (but not too diverse). It worked thematically, broaching different topics without being overly defined by one (even if certain themes hit closer to home for me personally). And it worked on a whole other dimension as well - I want to share these works, while at the same time keep them to myself. I want to share them in Hebrew and I want to share them in English, wanting to dive into the heart of the poems and find myself on the other end. I loved this collection with every drop of my existence and I loved the reading experience too (including the crying and the parts that I read on the beach that were interrupted by the very noisy guys who decided to sit very close to me, sigh). I don't know that this review will even mean anything (my review of Hebrew-language books very rarely do...), but nonetheless: This was easily my favorite book of the past several months.

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