Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry, “Eyes, Stones”, takes a brave look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of the Holocaust. Bell is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and brings the hard, exposing language of the Holocaust poets to the table. The result is an unflinching, unforgiving, and deeply intimate survey of a subject that is almost ignored in American poetics.
It is difficult to describe this collection in terms that will do it justice. Bell is role-playing, reporting like a dispassionate journalist, and chronicling family history, all at the same time. Suffering is everywhere present and nowhere ignored. She does not attempt to outline the complicated issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, she takes you into the minds of those in the midst of it. The end result is as harrowing as a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Many of her poems are written in the voices of others. The person whose viewpoint we are reading is usually indicated in italics under the title of the poem. We read words written as if by Arafat, Jabotinsky, various women who are struggling to live their everyday lives in the midst of the conflict, and even her grandmother. All are disillusioned with “the promised land” as such. Some have been living there for generations. Others are occupying houses that do not belong to them. Regardless of background, all are painfully human.
Some of the poems are written in Bell’s own voice. “Letter to Brooklyn” is one of these. In it Bell expresses her sense of guilt at being able to simply fly away to a more comfortable and safe environment, and she does so vividly.
The closing poems are a call to conscience. We are reminded that any conflict between humans effects all of us, whether we admit it or not. “Your Village” is particularly straight-forward in this regard. Its opening lines read:
Once in a village that is burning
because a village is always somewhere burning
And if you do not look because it is not your village
it is still your village
The tone and language of this collection constantly remind me of Holocaust poets, particularly Paul Celan. Bell does not blink, does not gloss anything over. This is gut-wrenching poetry. It is poetry that creeps inside you and lives there. Its images come alive in your dreams. You can almost smell the heat, dust, oranges, and excrement. And this is fitting. Bell is starting with her grandmother’s experience in the Holocaust and weaving this story of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a continuation of that history. Therefore, writing in the same tone as the most well-known of the Holocaust poets is appropriate and helps bind the seperate narratives into one whole. The result is chilling, even masterful, poetry. This is a book that begs to be considered repeatedly.