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From The Buffalo Poems

Rachel Tzvia Back
Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back, born in 1960 in Buffalo NY, is the 7th generation of her family in Palestine. Her grandfather left Palestine in the 1920s, looking for the “golden medina” on America's shores — in the 1980s, Back returned to Israel, to make her home here. She studied at Yale, Temple and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she wrote her PhD dissertation on post-modern American poetry.
      Her collection of poetry entitled Azimuth was published in 2001 by Sheep Meadow Press - a Hebrew version of this collection was published in 2000 by Kibbutz Hameuchad Press (translated into Hebrew by Aharon Shabtai). A new chapbook entitled The Buffalo Poems , a collection which records the heart-breaking cycle of violence and loss defining Israeli and Palestinian lives these last years, was recently published by Duration Press. In addition, Rachel Tzvia Back's poetry has appeared in numerous journals in America and abroad, including The American Poetry Review,Sulfur, Bridges, Tikkun and Modern Poetry in Translation, and in several anthologies including the Suny Press Anthology Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers. In 1996 she was a recipient of the Israeli Absorption Minister's award for Immigrant writers, which included a grant to have her collection of poetry translated into Hebrew. Her own translations of Hebrew poetry into English have appeared in various volumes, including the Feminist Press anthology The Defiant Muse: Hebrew Feminist Poems From Antiquity to the Present and in the recently published biography of Lea Goldberg entitled About Lea. Back's critical work Led by Language: the Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe was published in January 2002 by The University of Alabama Pess, in their Contemporary and Modern Poetics Series.
      In February 2002, Rachel Tzvia Back participated in a reading series of Israeli poets presenting their work in America. The series, entitled “Poetry of a Punished Land,” hosted Meir Weisletier, Aharon Shabtai, Taha Muhammed Ali, Peter Cole and Back at various venues, including Wesleyan University and Princeton. She was also guest writer at Rutgers, Hofstra, Makor (NY), University of Alabama, and NYU and, in February 2003, she was scholar-in-residence at Cabrini College, Philadelphia, as part of their globalization project.
      Rachel Tzvia Back works as senior lecturer at Oranim College, Haifa, and in the MA Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University. She resides in a small village in the Galilee with her life-partner and their three children.
      Peter Cole wrote of Azimuth: “With grace and gravity, with a gentle, quiet tenacity, Rachel Tzvia Back brings the poetics of indeterminacy to bear on Israel's over-determined landscape. Her verse hurts as the land itself has been hurt: its rippling music is delicate and achieved, its evocation of intimacy stunning. As political as it is personal, Azimuth shows us, again, how history and linguistic horizons meet, and who we are or might be before them.”

On the Ruins of Palestine


I live on the ruins of Palestine

Slow to speech thick
               of tongue quick
          in anger ancient

          In the ruins on a land
through a night

            By a single
                        singed vision
and another
            single spark

Cradled close in a charred palm
      chiseled in a stonedream
                          carried across history

Through the dark beneath our bare

Strangers all

On the ruins of Palestine


Saplings on the hillside
                        first to burn

Most slender most eager and frailest

Eastern straw winds
            sweep flames across our
                           dislodged doorstep

Into a spoken first-fire

Take of the water of the river, pour it
            upon the dry land; and the water
which you take out of the river shall
            become blood.

The bush unconsumed all-
            consuming my child
                                  hot with fever

                  cannot hold his head up
            to see
                        beneath his bed
      room window (wandering
white buffalo

            frozen in flamelight
            behind our clenched eyes -
                       imagined marker
                                    of near-by

“Blessed is she
            who in her lifetime has seen
                                                the most water”

Who has seen has not seen
                                       blessed is she

9 (a middle-eastern fable and nursery rhyme)

The children were missing limbs
In the southern sand region they
were missing:
a leg a foot an arm
I sent my northern children out looking

The moon was full the paths were white
was smooth just the ripple
of my children's high voices
skipping stones in the dry wadis:
                                         Hunter horn berry and bird,
                                         hunter horn berry and fish.
                                         Hunter clover nut and bird,
                                         Whisper a secret, make a wish.

Daniel led the way said
he was unafraid and held
his brother's hand
Beneath an olive tree they stopped
to eat treats I had packed and to play
echoes and acorns
                                         Hunter horn berry and bird,
                                         Tell me, child, what have you heard?
                                         The sky at sunset is redder than red
                                         And buffalo-robes will be your bed.

In the southern sand region
under starched white sheets
the children reached
for missing legs that ached
and called to them
to leave the fevered body behind
                                         Hide and seek in buffalo-clover,
                                         You'll wake up, child, when the hunt is over.
                                         Hunter horn berry and bird,
                                         Tell me no more of what you have heard.

My children went looking for
limbs the other children would no longer need
My beautiful children came back


when we no longer care
                   who or how many
are dead
                   our own
      running through sprinklers
                   in the still

when we are too weary
                   too hot too bored
                                   to read even
one more name or
          that day's favorite

two teenage daughters dead in a day

two bodies on two stretchers
                                   their mother
      fallen upon them       her mouth
                                   mangled open
in agony
      as she strokes their lovely long legs
                    now covered in flags

                    one more bomb
in a season of many

when we cannot remember the name
      of the smallest baby girl
                     carried through narrowstreets
amid crowds of mourners
      curled in her father's arms she is

slightest bundle
      of cloth bread wild
in her father's arms

carried to the graveyard to the crumbling
      edge of driest dirt
                          in a season of stray

                  noone claims someone

when we count our days
                 by which bloody “incident”
                               killed whose children
in what village or city
      while we travel
                    to work
and back home
      and we no longer care

so long as our own
      can still run through sprinklers
                                   in the late-afternoon

15 (April invasion)

What stands between us

Lumbered from distances
ice-crystals still in hooves

Tracks tars tanks
rumbling where starred

Roads made ragged ribbed
chests bared ammunition

Residue on hearts inside

Horns of bone cannon metal
covered in dust down

Dirt paths blind blind alleys
demolished walls

Reveal eyes all I
can see crushed cinder-blocks

Concrete cement and stone
hearts beating

Beating dark fur red rugs
still draped by gaping holes

Herd a heap heard the whole
loss lost

To bodies left in the rain
rot in the sun

Will no one cover console
carry them away

They are evidence
of what was

Here home school street
what has

Obscured the beloved's face
I hear a heart

voice like my own

is asking:
How fast can you bury your dead?


What stands between us
a girl

Her hair black long
her eyes

This is not suicide

she says
in the grainy video-taped

interview This is

Selfless spirit to sustain
Hope       Kill

as many as she
can this beautiful human

bomb I've been told
How the Buffalo stepped forward

during the time of famine

its selflessness they say
with explosive belt strapped

around her belly she looked

she looked lumbering larger
than one self

in a moment the moment before
deafening stops up time

and space with nails bolts glass
splinters what is left is

metal blood flesh

to be scraped off the street
collected in sandwich bags

so the whole the whole
can be buried


O gates; Cry, O City!
The whole

of Palestina
art dissolved into tears

of mourning.