Obituary: Dennis Silk

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The Independent Culture
DENNIS SILK was one of the most memorable literary personalities of modern Jerusalem, a writer of poems and prose who also made his mark in the theatre.

He was born in London in 1928. At the age of 17 he went to work for the publisher John Lane (the Bodley Head). As a "self-persuaded Zionist" from his early twenties, he was drawn to the Palestinian Jewish Pioneers by his reading of Chaim Weizmann's 1949 autobiography Trial and Error, though not insensible either of the attractions of T.E. Lawrence's Levant.

In any case, being a Jew in post-war Britain was not at all his cup of tea. After doing his National Service in the RAF followed by a year's agricultural training in Sussex, Silk, now 26, left England for Israel. His first year in the country was spent at a General Zionist Kibbutz, but he left this to settle in Jerusalem, where he eventually made his living as a copy editor, working for many years at the old, liberal Jerusalem Post, and only leaving it - in, admittedly, failing health - when it began to move towards the political right.

He had been writing poems from the age of 16, but it was not until he was over 30 that he began to produce work which he felt pleased with. The Sun Press published a small edition of poems, Face of Stone, in 1964. His first full-length collection, The Punished Land, was brought out by Viking Penguin in 1980. This was probably due in part to the admiration for Silk's work expressed by the novelist Saul Bellow: "Dennis Silk is a delicious poet. Utterly natural, entirely himself, he works by a curious method. What he does . . . is to surround the inexpressible, which is charmed by his siege and surrenders."

He has also had solid support from poets like Alfred Corn and the redoubtable Yehuda Amichai, who calls him "a subtle and powerful poet. Every poem is a small drama - very strong and powerful and unforgettable."

Silk's explanation of the title The Punished Land is severe, although mildly expressed:

These poems are about a land too beautiful for its inhabitants. So they punished it (or rather her) with a general ill-will - Jewish, Christian, Muslim. She survives, parcelled out, and in hiding.

Sometimes she hits back. Perhaps she's also a punishing land.

She's called Palestine because it's her best name. It's not the Palestine of the Fatah, or the Greater Israel of the irredentists.

"Dennis Silk uses language like a slingshot," says Alfred Corn. "His Goliath is military intransigence. What he defends is humanity and realism, in poems of acute observation and imaginative agility."

Two further collections of poems followed The Punished Land: Hold Fast (1984) and Catwalk and Overpass (1990). In a section called "Guide to Jerusalem (Third Edition)", Hold Fast includes the following:

SACRIFICE OF ISAAC

(Do-it-yourself sonnet)

monotone.

army camp.

altar stone

stomach cramp.

procurer

target-dummy.

Sarah.

mummy.

rhetoric

needless ram.

thicket

am what I am."

Moriah

paranoia.

The poems of Dennis Silk are, as Corn puts it, "not designed to yield all of their content on first reading": but this one may suggest the extreme economy of his writing as well as its relationships with the traditions of English lyric and English satire.

His writings for the theatre were brought out in 1997 in a comprehensive collection entitled William the Wonder Kid. His impact on the Israeli theatre through his plays was considerable. In them, objects, toys and dolls have as much reality as human characters and there is a tendency against dramatic egotism and in favour, as the critic Zvi Jagendorf puts it, of "the ascetic discipline of the thing or the dance".

Silk, together with his friend Harold Schimmel, edited the first successful selection of Israeli poetry in translation, Fourteen Israeli Poets (1976). A more personal gathering is Retrievements - a Jerusalem anthology (1968), a book designed, the preface states, "to surprise Jerusalem" by giving it a different view - a host of different views - of itself. It is a huge and curious assortment of pieces of writing by poets, dreamers, travellers, diarists, philanthropists, planners, archaeologists . . . Jerusalem is displayed as an infinitely complex, utterly individual character. So too, on reflection, is Dennis Silk himself.

"Temperamental and gentle to an extreme," wrote Peter Cole and Gabriel Levin in his old paper, the Jerusalem Post; "eccentric, stubborn and generous, he was a man of surpassing wit and impeccable charm. He lived simply and without compromise. He won no awards, endured many years of near obscurity, but leaves behind a legacy of poems and plays as fine as any to emerge from this region in the last half of the 20th century."

Oliver Bernard

Dennis Peter Silk, poet: born London 10 July 1928; died Jerusalem 3 July 1998.

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