Pagis, Dan

views updated


Nationality: Israeli (originally Romanian: immigrated to Palestine, 1946). Born: Radautz, Bukovina, 16 October 1930. Education: Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Ph.D. in medieval Hebrew poetry. Family: Married; one daughter and one son. Career: Prisoner, concentration camp, Transnistria, 1941-44. Teacher, kibbutz school; professor, medieval Hebrew literature, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Also taught at Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley. Died: 1986.



Poems. 1972.

Selected Poems of T. Carmi and Dan Pagis. 1976.

Points of Departure. 1981.

Variable Directions: The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis. 1989; as The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis, 1996.

Kol ha-shirim: "Aba" (pirke prozah) [Collected Poems and Father (Prose Passages)]. 1991.


She'on ha-tsel [The Shadow Dial]. 1959.

Shahut me'uheret: Shirim. 1964.

Gilgul: Shirim [Transformation]. 1970.

Moah: Shirim [Brain]. 1975.

Shenem 'asar panim [Synonyms]. 1982.

Milim nirdafot: Shirim [Twelve Faces]. 1984.

Shirim aharonim [Last Poems], edited by Shimon Sandbank. 1987.


Shire ha-hol shel Mosheh Ibn 'Ezra [The Secular Poems of Moses Ibn Ezra] (dissertation). 1967.

Shirat ha-hol ve-torat ha-shir le-Mosheh Ibn 'Ezra u-vene doro [Secular Poetry and Poetic Theory, Moses Ibn Ezra and His Contemporaries] (literary criticism). 1970.

Ha-Betsah she-hithapsah (for children). 1973.

Hidush u-masoret be-shirat-ha-hol ha-'Ivrit, Sefarad ve-Italyah [Change and Tradition in the Secular Poetry, Spain and Italy]. 1976.

Ke-hut ha-shani: Shire ahavah 'Ivriyim mi-Sefarad, Italyah, Turkiyah ve-Teman [Scarlet Thread]. 1978.

Al sod hatum: Le-toldot ha-hidah ha-'Ivrit be-Italyah uve-Holand [Secret Sealed] (literary criticism). 1986.

Hebrew Poetry of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 1991.

Editor, Ha-Kad ha-'atik, by Ludwig Strauss. 1960; with Gad Ulman as Ha-Kad ha-'atik: Agadot, 1986.

Editor, Kol ha-shirim, by David Vogel. 1966.

Editor, Shire Levi Ibn al-Tab'an [The Poems of Levi Iban al-Tabban]. 1967.

Editor, Torat ha-shirah ha-Sefaradit [Introduction to the Hebrew Poetry of the Spanish Period], by David Yellin. 1972.

Editor, with Heinrich Brody, Shire ha-hol [Secular Poems], by Moses Ibn Ezra. 1977.

Editor, with Ezra Fleischer, Kitve Profesor Hayim Shirman (1904-1981): Reshimah bibliyografit. 1982; as A Bibliography of the Writings of Prof. Jefim (Haim) Schirmann (1904-1981) 1983.

Translator, Hitbonenut be-tahrite gulgolet ha-pil me-et Henri Mur bi-Yerushalayim bi-zeman ha-milhamah [Looking at Henry Moore's Elephant Skull Etchings in Jerusalem during the War], by Shirley Kaufman. 1980.


Critical Studies:

"The Confines of Language and Beyond: Avner Treinen and Dan Pagis" by Alex Zehavi, in Modern Hebrew Literature (Israel), 9(1-2), Fall/Winter 1983, pp. 70-78; "Transformations: Holocaust Poems in Dan Pagis' Gilgul " by Naomi Sokoloff, in Hebrew Annual Review, 8, 1984, pp. 215-40; "Time Denatured into Meaning: New Worlds and Renewed Themes in the Poetry of Dan Pagis" by Tamar Yacobi, in Style, 22(1), Spring 1988, pp. 93-115; "The Gilgul of Dan Pagis: Myth, History, Silence" by John Felstiner, in Translation Review, 32-33, 1990, pp. 8-11; "Dan Pagis—Out of Line: A Poetics of Decomposition," in Prooftexts, 10(2), May 1990, pp. 335-63, "Seeking the Meridian: The Reconstitution of Space and Audience in the Poetry of Paul Celan and Dan Pagis," in Religion and the Authority of the Past, edited by Tobin Siebers, 1993, and "Dan Pagis and the Prosaics of Memory," in Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory, edited by Geoffrey Hartman, 1994, all by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi; "Poetry Chronicle: Dan Pagis, Robert Hass" by Charles Berger, in Raritan, 10(1), Summer 1990, p. 126; "Footprints, Traces, Remnants: The Operations of Memory in Dan Pagis' 'Aqebot"' by Wendy Zierler, in Judaism, 41(4), Fall 1992, pp. 316-33; "Scripture in a Sealed Railway-Car: A Poem of Dan Pagis" by Karl A. Plank, in Literature and Theology (England), 7(4), December 1993, pp. 354-64; Return and Gestures in the Poetic Language of Dan Pagis (dissertation) by Robert Karl Baruch, University of California, Los Angeles, 1994; "Dan Pagis and the Poetry of Displacement" by Robert Alter, in Judaism, 45(4), Fall 1996, pp. 399-402; "Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Rubner" by Amir Eshel, in Jewish Social Studies, 7(1), 2000, pp. 141-66.

* * *

Dan Pagis, poet and scholar, was born in 1930 in Radautz, a small town in Bukovina some 30 miles from Czernowicz. While politically a part of Romania, the Bukovina of Pagis's childhood remained in ethnic and cultural terms a provincial outpost of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bukovinian peasants were Ukrainian, while the Jewish middle class, to which Pagis belonged, was linguistically and culturally German. When Pagis was four years old, his father left for Palestine and his mother died, the first of several shifts and losses that would punctuate his early life. This first shift was a comfortable one. Pagis was brought up by his maternal grandmother and grandfather, a sugar merchant, whom he loved: "Grandpa masquerades as an ordinary sugar merchant. Actually he is an emperor hidden from the eyes of men, tolerant and enlightened." His grandfather's study is the backdrop for a number of poems that evoke a science-minded child setting off from that protected library on imaginative astronomical journeys.

That world was shattered in October 1941 when Pagis was deported along with the rest of Bukovinian Jewry. He found himself in a concentration camp (not a death camp) in Transnistria, where he remained for three years. His grandparents died there. In later life he almost never spoke about the experience, not even writing about it until his second volume of poems. There he describes his own escape in a characteristically elliptical way: "the rain stole across some border/so did I." Survival is presented as a kind of cosmic accident: "It's true, I was a mistake, I was forgotten/in the sealed car, my body tied up/in the sack of life." His poems present him as a surprised and lonely observer of his own cutoff lives, both the one that went before and the one that came after.

Pagis reached Palestine in 1946. Hebrew was new to him, and his mastery of it puts him—along with his friend and contemporary Aharon Appelfeld —in that rare group of writers who achieve greatness in a language they learned as adolescents. Pagis went on to earn a doctorate in medieval Hebrew poetry, becoming a professor at Hebrew University and the author of a number of important studies on the secular poetry of Spain and surrounding areas. His own poetry, which mixes religious allusions with everyday speech, can be said to draw on his academic background, but it is just as much the poetry of a survivor looking back or the poetry of a twentieth-century man looking at ordinary surroundings in unusual ways.

Pagis published five books during his lifetime: The Shadow Dial (1959), Transformation (1970), Brain (1975), Synonyms (1982), and Twelve Faces (1984). Last Poems came out in 1987, a year after his early death from cancer. Collected Poems appeared in 1991. Translator Stephen Mitchell has provided two excellent English-language anthologies: Points of Departure (1981) and The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis (1989). The translations used here are from one or the other of these books.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Pagis's poems is their assumption of surprising and revealing perspectives. Sometimes the view is evolutionary (imagining the human condition from a sped-up temporal perspective) and sometimes astronomical (imagining the world as it might look from some vantage point way outside). In some poems inanimate objects or even parts of the body are given limited but poignant aspects of being. So in the poem "Balloons," balloons have balloon-sized souls and suffer balloon-like deaths; in "Twelve Faces of the Emerald," the emerald contemplates itself with philosophical coldness (and some characteristic Pagis irony).

Irony or playfulness imbues many poems whose subjects are serious or even painful. In the poem "Brain," Brain's spiritual revelations are tempered by references to his own limitations, which he does not see; his flights of intellect are made just a little absurd when contrasted to his actual and not very awesome physical presence. The poem "End of the Questionnaire" is about awakening from death—and filling out a questionnaire about housing. The strangeness of the linkage makes it unclear whether this poem is a dark one (because the questions emphasize physical death) or light (because there is something out there after all).

Lack of understanding is a commonplace in Pagis's poems. In the poem "Brothers," one of several about the story of Abel and Cain, Cain the murderer is at the mercy of forces he cannot control. He is surprised by what he has done and deserves the protection that he receives. In another poem on biblical themes Job is distinguished not for his understanding but precisely for its opposite: he fails to see that he has in fact won his argument with God. Brain also tries valiantly to understand but learns mostly to avoid the entrapment of thought.

Pagis's perspective on the human condition can be mordant. The ape-hero of "The Readiness," waiting to evolve, commences like a boastfully confident émigré; evolution's doubtful achievement is a human with suit and cigarette, seated "in perfect readiness for the invention of chess." But with all the qualifications and contradictions, his is a world that honors above all the human capacity for abstract thought. Among Pagis's most striking poems are those about physics and physicists. In the poem "Point of Departure" the bookish child makes an easy flight into a world without gravity and also without harm. While in much of Pagis's work references to a disappearing past are anguished references to the Holocaust, in this poem the surroundings of his European childhood dissolve painlessly: "I fly so fast that I'm motionless/and leave behind me/the transparent wake of the past."

—Alice Nakhimovsky

See the essay on Kol ha-shirim: "Aba" (pirke prozah).