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Written in Pencil: On Amir Eshel's Poetry

Published on 
September 14, 2020

The poetry book Zeichnungen/רישומים (Drawings, 2018), by Amir Eshel, includes twenty-four bilingual poems, written in Hebrew and German. It thus presents forty-eight poems, for every poem carries with it a double—an accompaniment, a shadow, perhaps, arriving from the other shore of language. Being based on acts of self-translation, these poems offer a dialogue which is difficult, for it calls Hebrew and German into a conversation. The conversation, however, is not only an inner one—a self-conversation of the author, embedding both poles of a bilingual experience—but also the conversation of generations. When Hebrew speaks with German in these poems, it becomes an echo of generations. The conversation is of historic value and carries with it the weight, the gravitas, of years. And yet, there is another conversation taking place in this book, in between Hebrew and German: between Eshel's poems and the drawings of the German painter Gerhard Richter. Eshel's poems speak with the graphite drawings of Richter from his cycle 40 Tage (40 days, 2016). The poems speak with the Gray, with the Minor, with the Shapeless. Both the form and the material of Richter's drawings are imprinted in Eshel's poems. But how?


Many questions should be asked of these poems, which were written in response to Richter's drawings. These poems are written under the impression of the drawings, following the concepts of the scratch. The poems borrow the thin line, inscribed and broken, the scratches of the pencil; they borrow the grayness, the darkness, but also the lightness of the pencil line and of the paper—its whiteness. This mode of writing is not foreign to Eshel's poetic project: his handwriting is tender, searching, looking for solutions, and yet retreating, marking its own paths of disappearance. Eshel's poems are written with traces of withdrawing. If there is a futuristic value in these poems, they should be understood as associated with a sense of regret. This is not to argue that Eshel's poetry should be read as an apology, associated with gestures of forgiveness, but rather that his poems are committed to a certain reflection, an ethical one, which causes them to withdraw, to move back, before disappearing.

I argue that this movement—this stepping back, this retreat—traced in Eshel's poems signifies a poetical project: namely, a thinking of the future, based, however, on past forms, on reminders (and leftovers) of the (German-Jewish) tradition.      

One can argue that these poems are written with sadness. There is a thin melancholic line passing through a major portion of this poetry book. However, not the cloudiness, the gray alone, or the darkness becomes its signature, but rather the lightness, the bright sign too. Eshel's poems, although written in pencil, written in graphite, are asking for a light.

What light, however, is being written in these poems—written in gray?


The book begins with "Night Voices" (Stimmen der Nacht, קולות לילה). The opening of the poem is at night, in darkness. But the word asks for a "sign" (Zeichen, סימן). The poem gives us this first sign—a spot of light emerging out of darkness. The light is the sign, which itself cannot be but of darkness. This fact should not be understood in metaphysical terms. What poetry has to follow, once it begins to speak, is not an idea—abstract, remote—but rather the material condition itself. The poem is written with Erde, with earth, with dust. Every sign in Eshel's poems is, however, associated with the concealed, with the shadows of being. The poem thus tells about its own conditions—it reflects materiality, it deals with the given, with the concreteness of being. Yet, this concreteness is not only of the presence, the concreteness of “what-is,” but also of "what-was.” The sign of the poem attests to disappearance. Eshel’s poetry is aware of its own historical contexts. These poems reflect not only the darkness, the gray, the shadows of Richter's drawings. What they tell about in these German-Hebrew poetical dialogues is the dark hour of history.

Eshel's poems are written in pencil. One of the poems says:


Der Bleistift / der ausgerechnet dort / einen Ausweg / . . . finden will


The poem admits that it follows the pencil, searching for a way out (Ausweg). But to where? The poem speaks about cognition and about a sense of sweetness. Of course, the poem seeks that too—it asks for solutions. Yet, the poem, we should assume, is still on its way, scratching its path of escape. A writing that borrows these tools—the tools of drawing, the pencil, the graphite, the white paper—also learns the path of light. As the Book of Zohar tells its readers, the light of creation is concealed in darkness, yet unborn. Every creative act might be associated with these signs, markers of the twilight zones, before all things begin, already in regret. 

On these ambiguous states of light, in which Eshel defines the states of language, the beginning of poetry (and—already—its end?), he writes this line:


באפלה הרגעית הזאת/להרף עין/ מסתברים כל פשרי הדברים

Und in dieser nichtigen Dunkelheit / im Nu / erkennen wir alle Dinge


In this darkness, the poem says, in a moment, we know all things that are given. Not in light but in shadow does the poem experience the world.


In the darkness the poem recognizes the order of all things. Eshel's poetry learns from Richter's paintings the highest form of knowledge (Erkenntnis)—a form of light that is concealed, shadowed. What the poem speaks about is not only a fruitful play of light and shadow but also an expression of being, a form of life that lies in the light's shadow. "Between the shadows" (zwischen den Schatten) the poem expresses its own realm. The realm, the inzwischen (the in-betweenness), of the poem, written in gray, is that line being inscribed between Hebrew and German. Eshel's poem dwells in this realm. One may say that here lies its "origin"; from here it appears, and into it—into the shadow—the poem returns and disappears (turns silent). The realm of Eshel's poem—which lies between the languages—is not only a space but also a mode of time.

We should assume the "short life" that every poem possesses. Eshel's poems are short, appearing for a moment. This moment, ein Augenblick, is also the time structure of the divine singing attributed in the Talmud to the angels. What the angels are singing before the Throne is not only about God's glories of creation but also about the short term of the poem itself. The angels, we are told, sing and disappear. There is no need, however, to attribute to Amir Eshel's poetry the values of divine psalms, songs of glory written for a great heavenly chorus. There is no clear sign of the liturgical tradition being imprinted in his poems. However, his poetry recalls—in these thin gray lines—the short hour of these songs, written for the splendor of creation.


I discuss Eshel's poems as sketches, following the concepts and technique of Richter's drawings. The gray line and the poetic realm of dazwischen, the “in-between,” are revealed in the encounter between Hebrew and German. This realm, in which the poems celebrate their beginning (and their end), is also the realm of Übersetzung, “translation.” Since Luther and, later on, Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Else Lasker-Schüler, Aria Ludwig Strauss, David Fogel, Paul Celan, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Ruebner, the encounter between Hebrew and German has created a texture of witnessing, telling of the impossible possibilities of Jewish writing in German. Eshel's poems remember this long path of the German-Hebrew encounter, documenting it in thin lines, in Licht und Schattenfäden, in threads of light and shadows. For what is being left in the world of the poem? The air, a breath. Eshel's poems are made of these materials—as thin as the materials themselves. Eshel's poems, written in pencil, recall, one can argue, the pencil that writes (inscribes itself) in Das Pagis's great poem, delivering thus a sign, itself—a leftover of poetical tradition.

Eshel's poems tend often to silence:


 Im Schweigen geht alles hinüber

אל השתיקה הולך הכל


"Everything goes into silence," the poem says. Silence, however, is one of the highest modes of expression; silence is also a mode of thinking and of speaking. In silence the possibility of language is held, as a shelter. The silence is to be considered not just as an ending, or as an act of omission in the realm of language, but rather as an origin of speaking, as the point of departure for all conversations to come. The silence in the poem is an awaiting, the moment of a short breath. It gives life too. The silence thus belongs to the gray zone of Eshel's poems: silence is the shadow of all vocality, the unspoken aspect of every word. Eshel's writing is committed to this tension; it tells time and again about its own disappearance. This, I argue, is a form of existence. The poem tells about being in a state of regret, signifying being by retreating.  


What are the implications, however, of a poetry that avoids the greatness of hymns and does not conform to psalms and songs of glory? Eshel's poetry is lyric and minor, governed perhaps by elegiac modes. Its implications are not depressive, although it seems so often to turn too early into silence, admitting the government of shadows over its own realm. The poetry is silent, yet it breathes and speaks. More correctly: Eshel's poetry speaks about the possibilities that are left to be spoken—the possibilities that are left to be written in between Hebrew and German. In this twilight zone of language itself, on this thin gray line, I argue, poetry is born. In giving up the clearness and the brightness of light, Eshel's poetry provides its readers with the experience of being a witness who tells not only about sights and things to see and to share but also about spots of blindness and moments of disappearing. In doing so, his poems signify a form of being, a reminder of a German-Hebrew encounter. Amir Eshel's writing, dedicated to the leftovers of this tradition, presents us with its new possibilities too. His poems show us the consequences of a conversation with a German painter, never forgetting the historical conditions of their encounter. These poems not only tell us about things being lost, untold, turning silent (again—the silence of generations) but also hint at what is left to tell.


 However, we can find more in Amir Eshel’s book than shadows and thin gray lines of poetical thinking, acts of regret and witnessing. This volume also presents various voices, different sounds:   


קולות הלילה לוחשים (Die Stimmen der Nacht flüstern)

Voices of the night whispering

טיפוף אצבעות (Die Getrommel der Finger)

Mincing finger walk 

חריקת עיפרון (Das Streichen des Bleistifts)

The screech of a pencil

צלילי מראות (Die Klänge der Spiegel)

Sounds of mirrors

שתיקת החורף (Die Winterstille)

The silence of winter   

הצעקה (Der Schrei)

The scream

טרטור מנוע (Der Motor brummt)

The rattle of a motor





Gerhard Richter