Agi Mishol

Agi Mishol – Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert Literary Award 2019

Agi Mishol Is one of the most famous poets in Israel, respected by critics, international literary prize jurors, and the “common” reader alike.

Agnes Fried, who became known as Agi Mishol, was born on October 20th 1947 in the town of Cehu Silvaniei (Hungarian Szilágycseh) in Transylvania. Her Jewish parents spoke Hungarian. Her mother was sent to Auschwitz, whilst her father ended up in a work camp. Both survived, though not without suffering the loss of their first born daughter.

Her parents moved to Israel when Agnes was four years old. Emigration officials noted down the more Hebrew version of her name, “Hagi” rather than “Agi”, though on reaching maturity she returned to using the latter and adopted her second husband’s surname Mishol. These changes are a symbolic reflection of the poet’s multifarious identity: Hungarian, the language of her youth (as she herself admits, of which she has only a basic child’s knowledge), and Hebrew, which her parents, who ran a small cycle repair business in Israel, never mastered, and thus could never fully appreciate their daughter’s poetry. In an interview she gave to Beata Tarnowska, her polish translator, the poet recalled how the experience of being uprooted, emigration, and encountering two languages shaped her: “When I was four years old I translated every word; contemplating its meaning in Hungarian and then in Hebrew”.

On completing her military service Mishol enrolled on a humanities Hebrew literature course of study at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, which she continued in Jerusalem, where she also attended a writing workshop run by famous poet Jehuda Amichaj. Many years later, lecturing on creative writing, she would stress that you could not thereby “create” a poet, or teach imagination, though a pre existing talent could be nurtured and writing skills improved and cultural roots determined.

Agi Mishol brought out her first book at the age of 18. Published thanks to her parent’s financial help, under her first name Agi, “Kodem Tafasti Rega” ends up a work that, even in the author’s own opinion, would not pass the test of time. Mishol recollects that she ended buying up the whole print run, including stealing a copy held at the National Library, and made a thorough job of destroying them all. True maturity was attained some years later – in 1972 – and since then near 20 works have followed, unchangingly accomplished most traditionally, thanks to pen and paper. The author acknowledges that “Hebrew is a holy language for me. This is something that I owe to my parents – that they brought me to a country, where Hebrew is spoken. Hebrew has become my fatherland”. She is admired by critics, amongst other reasons, for applying a very wide range of shades of Hebrew – referencing biblical quotes, all at once combining everyday language and slang with inventive linguistics, whilst herself convincingly claiming that poets are “language seismographs”. This harmonizes well with lightness, a sense of humour, as well as degrees of freedom as expressed in Mishol’s poetic imagination, with one of her volumes; an example of a cycle of poetic prose, all at once a record of oneiric, surrealistic visions.

The breadth of subject matters that Mishol touches upon is also noteworthy; unclassifiable neither as an example of an author of a lyric poet, or a so called commitment poet. In her work we will find poems such as “Andalib Takatka Suicide Bomber” (translated into Polish by Angelika Adamczyk and Justyna Radczyńska); dedicated to a young Palestinian, who carried out a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem bakery in 2002. The poem challenges political divisions, envisaging – contrary to all expectations – the possibility of empathy: “You are only twenty / and your first pregnancy is a bomb. / Under your broad skirt you are pregnant with dynamite / And metal shavings”. One will also find works dedicated to the life of workers – today’s Israeli immigrants, or to the cultural and political tensions found within the country. Numerous poems are also dedicated to nature, life in the countryside and working the land, as well as on subjects ever close to the poem’s author, animals, daring eroticism, or the human body, including the body of an aging woman, viewed without illusions. Mishol writes “The situation of women in Israel is the same as everywhere – not as good as we would want, even in poetry… Though Israeli women are strong, and the feminist movement here resilient: we have university lectures, numerous feminist magazines, and various types of activities, and personally, I support this movement, I am not an activist. I do not fight, I write”.

A metaphysical perspective can also be found in her work – far from any orthodoxy and without any easy consolation – Mishol herself sums up “my philosophy is close to that of Albert Camus – life is absurd. You search for some deeper sense, whilst well aware that none exists. Moments, when everything opens up to some other dimension, sums up the only metaphysics in my poems. Most poems come from the same sources and talk about my »Self«. But there is a lot of »Self«: there is a metaphysical Agi and another who is cynical, and also a naive Agi, and sometimes even (in a certain, broader sense) a religious one”. Her translator, Beata Tarnowska, develops this theme: “Agi Mishol’s poetry has many faces: one focused on the surrounding world and another that opens up onto other spaces, metaphysical and sensual at the same time, expressing feelings boldly, whilst all at once full of irony and distance. What enchants in Mishol’s poems (incidentally called ‘Israel’s Szymborska’) is humour, not only rare in poetry, but also that gift of discovering metaphysical depth, in seemingly insignificant things and events. There are, no doubt, few poets like Mishol, able to enter the world of nature, and write about animals and trees with so much tenderness. Mishol’s poetry affirms existence, in spite of all the pain and suffering, and she does so with the help of a language that is far from exalted and best able to capture Reality”.

One of the most witty opinions about her work was formulated by the eminent Israeli writer Amos Oz, arguing that Mishol’s poems “can simultaneously recount stories, sing and dance”, whilst also mysteriously able to overcome deep sadness with joy. Perhaps the poet thus fulfils her parent’s heritage, confessing that from her father she inherited an intense sense of humour, while a much deeper emotional union linked her to her mother who was often filled with sadness and depressions.

Married to Giora Mishol for over 40 years – the couple settled in Kfar Mordechai, less than 30km south of Tel Aviv, where they run a farm specializing in growing peaches. Agi Mishol runs university classes. Her work has bee translated into many languages including English and she is a laureate of many awards, including the Newman Prize for Life Achievements (USA, 2018), Lericipea Award (Italy, 2014) or the Yehuda Amichai Prize (Israel, 2002).

Mishol first meet Zbigniew Herbert in Jerusalem in 1991, when he came to receive the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society. Today, she herself admits that: “when I read the poems of Herbert, Miłosz, so wonderfully rendered in translation by David Weinfeld or Wisława Szymborska, I have the impression that they are Hebrew works”. She also recounts that: “in my home, poetry books stand on shelves in the living room, in the hall and on my bedside table. I have the greatest affinity for the ones that stand closest to me on my bedside table… I like Rilke, Whitman, but also Szymborska, who knows how to write about complicated and difficult matters, in a simple, strong language”.

Agi Mishol’s works were translated into Polish by Angelika Adamczyk and Justyna Radczyńska (“Literatura na Świecie” 2004, No. 11/12 and “Literatura na Świecie” 2005, No. 5/6), and Beata Tarnowska (“Fraza” 2011, No. 2). The latter also contains the transcript of a conversation Beata Tarnowska conducted with Agi Mishol.