by Eva Eliav
Red Bird Chapbooks, 22 pp.
Reviewed by Dara Barnat
Eva Eliav’s debut collection of poetry, Eve, is a twenty-two-poem sequence with the Biblical Eve at its center. Eliav – who lives in Israel and writes poetry and prose in English – situates the reader in The Book of Genesis, after Eve is famously, or infamously, tempted by the snake to eat from the tree of knowledge, and then shares its fruit with Adam. As the speaker – in retrospect, Eve herself – reveals in the opening lines, “to tell the truth / it all happened so quickly.” Now, Eve and Adam find “eden curled away / black and fragile / as an edge of burning paper,” the consequence of defying God, “the old man” who “snapped his benevolence shut.” While both she and Adam experience the fallout from their sin, the narrative is told through Eve’s perspective. Thus, the poems work to subvert more patriarchal interpretations of Genesis, whereby God, following their transgression, gives Adam authority over Eve, “he shall rule over thee” (The King James Version). Eliav’s chapbook is a welcome contribution to the tradition of women poets re-imagining female figures of the Bible (Lot’s Wife, for example), who are voiceless or marginalized in the text, including Alicia Ostriker, Shirley Kaufman, and Karen Alkalay-Gut.
In this collection, Eve is not a simple heroine archetype; rather, she is portrayed as an intelligent, layered figure, with strengths and weaknesses, who navigates the imperfect world of Paradise, such as it is. In the third poem, we encounter her description of Eden that is, according to her, almost too bountiful for humans with their many flaws, “and the garden / smugly stocked with delicacies // painfully perfect // had little to do really / with what we are.” In this poem and others in the first part of the collection, such descriptions are told through a speaker, at times about Eve, at times seemingly focalized though her, like in poem seven, “such a large price / for such a little slip // a conflict of loyalties / who knew that it was such / a fateful flavor / the taste of personality / of freedom.”
Poem ten marks a crucial juncture in the sequence, where Eve’s first-person “I” becomes prominent, “I began to divide the garden into what pleased me / and what did not.” The “I” introduces a tone of empowerment, where Eve claims her independence. Her mode of sorting through the items of the garden for herself might be read as a subtle challenge to Adam’s naming of the animals, as God decrees in Genesis Two, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (KJV). With Eve’s recognizing of her own choices, we find a wide array of emotions, with joy, pain, and humor combined, “I stopped picking flowers / hating my sadness / when they faded // I put Adam on a diet.” Eve thus evolves into her own, separate selfhood, in spite of her sin, or perhaps because of it.
The relationship depicted in the chapbook between Eve and Adam, too, is a welcome re-imagining of the Bible, in that it moves away from Eve being at fault, as Adam declares to God, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (KJV). Adam, like Eve, is humanized throughout the collection, with favorable qualities and shortcomings. Nor does the collection portray Eve as especially angry at Adam for telling God that it was she who first ate the fruit, which we might, as readers, expect. Instead, the fall from grace is an event they face together as part of a shared life. The relationship, according to the Eve in Eve, is deep, as exemplified in the final poem, where she reflects on having grown older with Adam by her side, “often the snake would sun there […] still, in the evenings / Adam walks with her // his silence cool and lush / as an oasis.”
Eliav’s Eve therefore reinterprets The Book of Genesis in surprising ways, in a poetic style that is sharp and refined, seeming to evoke Emily Dickinson. With this precision of form and language, Eve takes an active role in Paradise, up against a God that punishes her, neither entirely destroying him, nor entirely fearing him, as in poem sixteen, “they said the old man died / I laughed / I knew it was impossible.” As the poems lead the reader to reflect upon the beauty, holiness, and sins of Paradise, there is a space created in which to appreciate the full complexity of the human condition. Anyone interested in the story of Eve – a woman responding to and shaping her own Paradise – will have much to discover in this collection. In Eva Eliav (with the name of the author and “Eve,” of course, resonating), we find a poet equally gifted in story and craft, and thus hope to be reading more collections, such as this one, in the future.
Dara Barnat, a poet, lecturer, and researcher, completed her doctorate at Tel Aviv University, where she currently teaches. In the Absence (Turning Point Books), Dara’s first full-length collection of poetry, was released in 2016, and The City I Run From: Poems of Tel Aviv (Turning Point Books), a chapbook, is forthcoming. Poetry, translations from Hebrew, and critical essays appear in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Washington Square Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poet Lore, Ha’aretz, and elsewhere. darabarnat.com