Hila Ratzabi sees God everywhere, but seems a little afraid to talk about it. A frequent contributor to the Mima’amakim journal, Hila’s new chapbook The Apparatus of Visible Things deals with finding the invisible inside the things you see and seeing the invisible as the frame of the visible (there are other themes too, but that’s the one that most interests me). How this relates to God is not always clear, and how it relates to Judaism even less so, but throughout our interview Hila was game to discuss her feelings on God, Judaism, poetry and how these things come together (or sometimes don’t) in her work. (A few excerpts from Hila’s chapbook can be viewed on the Mima’amakim Poetry Forum, linked here.)
Aaron Roller: Can you tell me a little about yourself, particularly your background as a Jew and an artist?
Hila Ratzabi: My background and identity as a Jew and as an artist have two strains: internal and external. Externally, I was born to two Jewish parents (an American and an Israeli), educated at a progressive Conservative Jewish day school, and ended up doing a double degree at Barnard and the Jewish Theological Seminary (studying Jewish Philosophy, hasidut, kabbalah, and English and poetry). That’s the story that can be marked by history, but internally there was more going on that’s less easy to track. My spiritual development was always intertwined with art. As an adolescent and teenager I struggled with the question of the existence of God. At the same time, I started reading two books: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and The Artist’s Way. I began as a visual artist (though I’ve been writing poetry since I was 7), and as I read these books I found that my experiences making art led me to a feeling of empathy with the notion of a Creator. Furthermore, when I discovered kabbalah, I was dazzled by the concept of creation through language. All these ideas about God, language, and creation have followed me around for years and pop up in my poetry.
AR: I’d like to discuss the idea of God in your poetry, because it seemed to me reading your new collection that God is all over the place (omnipresent, perhaps?), though always slightly beneath the surface. Even the title, “The Apparatus of Visible Things” seems to imply a divine force without mentioning it explicitly. Was this intentional?
HR: I never consciously thought about God being hidden in the title, but that’s what I love about what happens when you have readers and interpretations - you discover/uncover your own intentions as an author, and the multiplicity of meanings encoded in a work of art. God is definitely all over the place in this collection, so much so that the poems I’ve been writing lately take a conscious turn away from talking about God directly. It’s always difficult to write about God, and there were many instances where I had to just delete the word “God” from an earlier draft of a poem because it felt like too much and the meaning was still clear without the word. Nevertheless, I am enamored with what I call “God,” though I do consider “God” to be a weak placeholder for what the concept aims at approaching. Sometimes I use the word “invisible” - these all have different connotations depending on the context. My poetry is inevitably grasping at something I will never be able to grasp; it slips through my fingers like water. But every time I look at the world and try to write, I’m convinced that there is something behind the curtain of what we call reality that needs to be addressed. Sometimes I call that God.
AR: While God does seem to be all over the place, there do not seem to be many overt Jewish references. This first question, I suppose, is whether or not you agree with that assessment.
HR: There are some Jewish references, but that’s more as result of my having been steeped in Jewish education my whole life. So you have the poem “Morning” which talks about creation and includes my own translation of the line from Genesis: “God’s wind brushes the water’s face,” which is normally translated as “The spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” But otherwise you are right to read my God references as not necessarily Jewish – mostly they aren’t. If anything, they are more influenced by my studies of Hasidism, which encourages a personal, direct relationship with God – which could exist entirely outside of a Jewish context. Jewish conceptualizations of God are my default starting off point, but not necessarily my end point.
AR: Well, I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t catch that reference to Genesis, being used to the more traditional translation, but that’s good. One I did get, that I wanted to ask you about, is the image of the invisible hand against the wall in “The Wall.” I think it was Luzzatto who used this metaphor to explain God’s sovereignty. He says that a human has limited power because once he’s finished building, the structure stands regardless of him. The world – in contrast – is sustained only by God constantly willing it to exist. So in essence, God keeps an invisible hand against the wall holding it up. I learned this a very long time ago, but it was such a unique image that it always stayed with me. When I saw the image in your poem, I knew I had to ask if you were referencing this older idea, or if the image came to you.
HR: I did not know that specific reference, so it’s a lucky coincidence that it came out that way. The meaning is definitely similar. Although in my poem, I leave it open-ended: sometimes you see just the hand, sometimes just the wall. I’m obsessed with the exact location where the visible and the invisible intersect, which was why the mime came to me as the perfect metaphor for that. It reminds me of why I write about these things – I feel like I have to insist that there is this “invisible hand,” regardless of how obviously there is no evidence in the physical of world of anything behind it. In a way, it is our job to invent God(s) or structures (i.e. the apparatus) to give us a sense that something is holding this world up. Without such structures, I might not be such a happy camper.
AR: That interest in the invisible informs many of the poems, particularly in the sense that all things seem to be filled with a secret vitality. I refer to the insect in “Sheathed Wing,” the pigeon in “Pigeon” and the wind and plants in “Fallen Tree.” Not to take it all too literally, but does this reflect some sort of panentheism, or are you just waxing poetic about the natural world?
HR: Yes, you could say this does reflect a kind of panentheism. In “Pigeon” I address the pigeon explicitly as a god, so the panentheism (all of nature is contained in God) leans into pantheism (all of nature IS God). You could also call the aspects of nature in my poetry synecdoches for God, which relates to the concept of panentheism. Whether or not that analogue is God, the invisible, or the unknown, it is the ultimate reference point, the signified, to use Lacan’s term. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility that poetry allows to imagine how that invisible “something” is manifest in the real world.
AR: Do you see any other poets dealing with the issues that are important to you as an artist and poet? Who are your influences?
HR: My main influence is Wallace Stevens, as I try to include philosophical insight in my poems balanced with vivid imagery and metaphor – a difficult balance to achieve without tipping too much in one direction or the other. Tomas Transtromer achieves this through startling metaphor, and he is an important poet I read. Gerard Manley Hopkins is a poet who knows God in a way that I’d like to. I also love the strangeness and deep attention to mystery in Li-Young Lee and Louise Gluck.
In terms of younger poets who are dealing with the issues important to me as a poet today, I would say the Dickman twins (Michael and Matthew). I’m very much in awe of their work and they (especially Michael Dickman) are saying some of the things I try to say in poetry.
AR: I want to thank you for making me search out the Dickmans because I had not heard of them and I enjoyed the work of theirs I was able to find on the internet.
I found it interesting that you sited Wallace Stevens as your main influence because he was also a poet for whom a major theme was the nature of invisible or imperceptible things (I’m thinking specifically of “Anecdote of the Jar” or “The Idea of Order at Key West”). But Stevens seemed to suggest that it is the artist who generates significance in the invisible (e.g. by placing the jar on the hill the artist generates a previously nonexistent order in the surrounding landscape, making it somehow more than it was before), while in your poetry, it seems that the invisible world might be an objective reality that we have to work to discover. Assuming I am reading you (and Stevens) correctly, would you attribute that suggestion - that there is in fact an apparatus of invisible things - to a religious impulse?
HR: That’s a very good point, and you’ve hit on exactly my existential limbo. In a way, I feel the need to insist on there being an objective reality that is invisible, behind the illusion of the visible world. But on some level, I do believe that Stevens is correct - it is the artist that creates that order, imposes it on reality. If I’m completely honest with myself, I would have to say that the “real” reality is completely chaotic and disorderly, but I’m attracted to the religious perspective which demands that there is an objective order to reality. However, that same religious perspective is created by humans, so we have to acknowledge the human/artistic element in assigning order to the universe. But is the human impulse towards seeing order (where there may not be any) a hint of some actual hidden order? I can go back and forth on this forever with myself. I want to believe that the real world is patterned and planned by a God that I can access on some level, but perhaps in the end that god is just myself. And that’s a little scary.