Joel Swann’s epic series of 21 reviews of poetry published in Hong Kong continues with Agi Mishol’s short collection.

Agi Mishol, Between the Trees and the Non-Trees 在樹與非樹之間 (Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2015), 72pp.

Between the Trees and the Non-Trees by internationally acclaimed Israeli poet Agi Mishol offersvaluable perspectives on the nature of poetry itself, a topic that often surfaces in the anthologies of the ‘International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong’ series: asking where it comes from, what it is, and what it does.[1] The hints and fragments of answers culminate in the assertive final poem of collection, ‘Memo (2)’, which begins:

When you prayed, you talked

On and on.

Now it’s your turn to listen:  (ll. 1-3)

The poem offers a distinct alternative to the religious speech that fills time with its tedious ‘on and on’, moving towards a kind of language that demands to be heard. A confident sense that poems ought to challenge received wisdom arises regularly throughout the collection; and although the poems seek to be firm, that need to challenge accepted ideas can feel tired. In ‘In the Name of the Mother’, the voice of a dead mother insists:

A woman is not a plank

you can cling to …

Her body is not flesh

you can pitch a stake in …

A woman is not a feather

in a tail spread out

for a fictitious audience

just to impress

yourself. (‘In the Name … ’, ll. 14-27)

A moment like this is quiet and gentle, uncompromising in its goals while understanding of the difficulty of the task. Even if the instructions are obvious – making it clear that women aren’t there just to support men as objects, possessions, or trophies – their novelty comes from their statement as advice. These poems show how difficult it can be state and report simple things and they explore the responsibility of doing so.


Returning to ‘Memo (2)’, its demand for attention gives way to a series of denials:

Nothing will be deciphered

through this threadbare cloth of words,

these domino letters collapsing backwards.

You should know already there are

no straight lines in nature, particularly

on the horizon where earth meets sky –

it’s all hills and protrusions. … (ll. 4-10)

The work is, then to disillusion the listener of their existing knowledge, decluttering the old to make way for the new. In doing so, the imagery skips over comparisons of the poem to the transient breakability of textiles and dominos, before settling on the very permanent irregularities of the natural world, as seen in the horizon. Mishol often writes warmly of living among a world of non-human experience and encounters, but that world also often seems to be about borders. ‘“No Casulaties Reported”’ is about a explosive-laden donkey sent from Hamas militants in 2014, shot as he ‘strayed / from the plot / in order to munch’.[2] Or in a more intimate setting, the poem that gives collection its title sees the speaker ‘here / between the trees and the non-trees, // my door wide open, the soft night beckoned into the house.’ To summon some form of ‘nature’, then, seems to make a statement about very cultured problems of conflict and hospitality

In ‘Memo (2)’, that natural border moves from the horizon to the surface of the earth itself.

                                   …. These

rules govern you, too. Remember,

before you get sucked up

into the poem,

that spring begins in yellow

when two-winged sprouts

lift up the earth’s crust

with a strength reserved only

for the gentle. (ll. 10-18)

While organic metaphors can tend to open up numerous dead-end questions (and this is no exception), the value of the image comes from its metaphysical precision: the sprout offers an emblem of strength and delicacy. Joanna Chen’s translation descends carefully on the word ‘gentle’, and this is a fair word to describe much of the verse that precedes it: responsible, considered, forthright, while remaining accommodating and (so far as it is useful) understanding.

[1] For a fuller introduction of Mishol’s poetry by her translator Joanna Chen, and published by our affiliate LARB, see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/figs-facebook-poetry-agi-mishol/ .

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-gaza-conflict-donkey-bomb-explodes-after-idf-troops-open-fire-on-animal-carrying-explosives-9616705.html .

Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.

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