Jul 05, 2023
Lisa Richter. Nautilus and Bone: An Auto/biography in poems. Calgary: Frontenac House Poetry, 2020. $19.95 CAD.
Published in 2020, Lisa Richter’s collection of original English-language poetry, Nautilus and Bone; An Auto/biography in Poems, is built on an intriguing foundation. The collection circles the life and work of the Yiddish poet Anna Margolin, at times telling her story in the first person—from Margolin’s perspective as imagined by Richter. Other times, Richter circles Margolin through poetry inspired by her life, and by Richter’s own family history. In some cases, Richter rewrites Margolin’s poetry through homolinguistic, English to English translation. Even after reading, I find the premise difficult to describe, so I will leave it to Richter in her introduction:
I still do not know if I chose to write poems to/for/about Anna Margolin, or if Anna Margolin chose me. I’d like to think it was mutual. Many poems in this collection are drawn from both biographical and historical sources, but use them primarily as springboards, creating a hybrid of fact and fiction (as is all auto-biography to some degree). I make no claims to speak on behalf of the dead, nor do I attempt to cover every facet of Margolin’s life (such an undertaking would take a lifetime). The persona I have enacted in these poems hovers on the periphery of my imagination, filtered through my own dreams, preoccupations, (dis)pleasures, experience. I try my best to give a lyric voice to the most essential, enduring aspects of the poet’s life and work as I see her, and to engage in conversation with those parts of myself that are most closely, most symbiotically intertwined with her story (11).
As a reader of Margolin’s poetry in its original Yiddish, and a translator of her work into English, I approached this collection with both interest and skepticism. I am glad to see contemporary poets engaging with Yiddish poetry, and with Margolin specifically; glad to see a contemporary poet devoting a whole book to exploring her life. Margolin’s work should be used as a springboard for creating contemporary poetry, and I was eager to see how Richter would do that.
At the same time, I find the premise of giving “lyric voice” to one of the most remarkable lyric voices in Yiddish literature a bit curious. While Richter states that she “makes no claims to speak on behalf of the dead,” earlier in her introduction she describes Margolin’s “voice ringing in [her] ears, demanding that her story be told.” And I wonder: Why?
Why would a writer who was notoriously particular about how and when her story would be told—who, after all, wrote the epitaph that appears on her tombstone—demand someone else do the telling?
Reading Nautilus and Bone, I found myself most struck not by the life of Anna Margolin as represented here, but by how difficult it can be to shed misconceptions about the Yiddish language, and, by extension, its poets, even when one approaches those poets with good intentions. Would Richter have felt such a duty to retell Margolin’s story had Margolin written in a language other than Yiddish? Imagine, for example, a contemporary poet writing a similar series of poems about the last days of Sylvia Plath, from the point of view of Sylvia Plath—the natural response would be that Plath already did that.
Of course, the next question any serious reader of Margolin’s work would have reading this review is whether or not Margolin—who was born Rosa Lebensboym, in 1887—truly was telling her own story in her poems. After all, this was a writer who often wrote in personas and published under pseudonyms. This is not the first time a persona has been projected onto her: Yiddish literary critics were infamously certain that she was a man writing with a woman’s persona.
In English, Margolin enjoys the rare privilege among Yiddish poets of having been translated numerous times, by a variety of translators. For the purposes of this collection, Richter exclusively drew from Shirley Kumove’s translation of Lider, Margolin’s only book of poetry. She also utilized Gerald Marcus’ translation of the memoir From Our Springtime, by Margolin’s life partner Reuven Ayzland. At the time that Richter wrote this collection, little, if any, of Margolin’s prose had been translated into English. One poem alludes to her writing a column on women’s issues for Der Tog, which she did under yet another pseudonym. Richter was unable to read Margolin’s letters, though she nevertheless describes them as helpful.
Poetry can be found in translation, just as it can be lost. Richter clearly admires Margolin’s poetry and Kumove’s translation, which she describes as definitive. Kumove’s translation is certainly the most complete, and the only full-length book of Margolin’s poetry in English, but it doesn’t quite transmit the full-bodied beauty of Margolin’s voice into English, nor Margolin’s intellect. I am biased, of course, having translated Margolin myself, but I wondered if Richter would have written this particular collection in this particular way had she encountered Margolin through better translations. Consider, for example, the first line in Kumove’s translation of “dos lid fun a meydl.” In the original Yiddish, the line is “Yene sho, yenem reyts, vel ikh eybik gedenken” (Lider 125). Kumove translates this line as “That time, that excitement, I will always remember” (Drunk from the Bitter Truth 270). I am certainly aware that when translating poetry, translators cannot always be literal, and I have made my share of errors when translating from Yiddish, but excitement is far from the definition of the word reyts, which means appeal, allure or charm, and is often associated with the charm of a woman. This is what is remarkable about this line: Margolin has taken a concept often seen as a woman’s weapon and turned it around into something the female protagonist of the poem is herself haunted by. Excitement is rather anodyne for what Margolin achieves.
Preconceptions about the Yiddish language can take years to unlearn, even for those of us who have taken the time to study it as a second language. Whatever preconceptions someone reading Anna Margolin in her original Yiddish might have, however, we are still reading her original words.
In Nautilus and Bone, Richter imagines those words. Other works she cites for her research include Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish. The poems in Nautilus and Bone are peppered with shleppers and schlemiels, shmattehs and tchotkes (34, 35, 40). (The spellings are Richter’s choices.) Her homolinguistic translation of “Primeval Murderess Night,” which she re-translates as “The Primeval Murderess Talks Back to the Poet” includes the word “meshugas” (33), though the original poem does not. These are words that English speakers think of when they think of Yiddish, but they are not words that appear in Anna Margolin’s poetry.
One could argue that this is Richter personalizing Margolin’s poetry with the Yiddish she does know. The poems also feature the type of Yinglish inventions that English speakers expect from Yiddish speakers: “secretary schmecretary (37)” appears in one. A number of poems refer to the “upstairskeh.”
When Anna Margolin included English in her poetry, however, she didn’t Yiddishify it. Instead, her demonstration of perfect English to describe things she disliked gave such inclusions a bite, as in the poem “nit tsufridn/Unhappy” in which she writes of being dissatisfied with her “furnished room” and swaying on a “strap,” on the “El” (Lider 81).
In its original Yiddish, and, ideally, in translation, Anna Margolin’s poetry is reminiscent of the influences and cultures she mentions, from the classical and Renaissance worlds, to Chopin, to Hamlet, to Verlaine. Richter, too, draws on a range of influences for this work. The book is filled with epigraphs quoting writers and singers, from Emma Goldman to Rilke to Lizzo. She gives credit in her footnotes to English-language poets for poems and prompts that inspired her. Part of me wished that she had balanced this eclectic selection with more from Yiddish literature, but perhaps it was fitting with Margolin’s work not to. A paragraph in the introduction includes an extended quote from Alice Walker, a striking choice for a book about a Yiddish poet, and one perhaps warranting more commentary given Walker’s documented antisemitic sentiments.
The only Yiddish epigraph included that isn’t from Margolin’s own poetry is a proverb likely found in the Joys of Yiddish. Similar sayings and curses appear throughout these poems, though not in Anna Margolin’s original work.
Some poems do mention writers from Margolin’s social circle, and in one Richter imagines Margolin’s first husband, Moshe Stavsky, telling her she’ll be the next Peretz, but Peretz is an easy name to reach for, as Shakespeare would be for an English writer.
One likely answer to my question about Richter’s reasons for giving lyric voice to a poet who possessed her own, is providing more context to her life, exploring what she did not overtly write about, particularly given that Margolin was not a narrative poet. When Margolin arrives in Tel Aviv, Richter writes of her thinking: “am I the foreign soil that begs tilling / whose natives you claim have ashes for roots / the olive trees you dream of planting / though I wonder if such groves have not already / flourished there for centuries” (48).
I was almost expecting to find lines like this in the collection, not because they are reflective of views Anna Margolin herself expressed, but because they are reflective of modern-day perspectives. Personally, I question what we truly learn about long-running historical conflicts by ascribing these thoughts to a real writer who lived and could have expressed them herself if she had had them. It’s generally accepted—though whether it is the whole truth, I do not know—that what Anna Margolin disliked about Tel Aviv was the lack of intellectual stimulation. I might have been more interested in a poem grappling with how Richter’s own views on Israel/Palestine square with the absence of such views expressed in Margolin’s work.
Richter imagines other events. At a border crossing, she writes: “One guard checks for sea lice. / Another one rapes me” (53). It’s important to document these all too real female experiences, which no doubt occurred in Margolin’s lifetime and continue to occur today, but the line feels jarring, both because of the magnitude of the transgression described, but also because Margolin’s own lyric voice would not have described such an event so directly.
So how does the lyric voice Richter has created compare with Margolin’s own? This book takes a risk, a risk poets take any time we respond to the work of another poet with our own: it invites the comparison.
Margolin’s own voice is haunting; it follows you, like the forgotten refrain in her “City by the Sea.” She tended toward simplicity, and her best poems move you as whole entities—the sum of their parts—rather than through one-liners. The former feat, I believe, is more difficult to achieve than the latter. Margolin wrote plenty of striking lines, of course, but they work best within the context of the poems in which one finds them.
Richter’s lines pack in words. They require a reader’s full attention and patience to yield rewards. And there are rewards: In “Daughter Exile”: “We hear the screams of drowning Egyptians, their frantic horses, / their useless whips, army washing ashore the next day” (53). Her homolinguistic translations of poems such as “A City by the Sea” and “The Golden Peacock has Flown” stand out, though I wonder: Is that because Margolin’s work stands out?
The real Anna Margolin wrote lines comparing the years that gallop by in our lives to feudal lords who will “seize an uprising by its throat,” and muted, underwhelming years to a “smashed piano.” She wrote of making her childhood self shiver when approached by herself as an adult. As much as I appreciate Richter’s desire to flesh out Margolin’s biography, I’m still most struck by the abridged version: Born in 1887 in modern-day Belarus, to parents torn between tradition and secularism, her early life was directed by her father, who ensured that she became educated and cultured, sending her to New York City. She later met her first husband in Warsaw, and he took her to Palestine, where she had her only child. Subsequently, she left husband and child behind, returning to New York City. There, she published poetry of such quality, critics declared that she must be a man, writing with a woman’s name and persona—a persona whose most well-known poem, in turn, begins with the declaration that she was once a young man. She would then publish only one book, before falling into a determined silence.
So, why give lyric voice to one of Yiddish literature’s finest lyric voices? The most obvious answer is to encourage readers to revisit Margolin’s own voice, which I hope they will do with an open mind. As for the voice created here, I agree with this line: “no need to embellish what blisters and burns” (89).
Richter, Lisa. Nautilus and Bone; An Auto/Biography in Poems. Calgary: Frontenac House Poetry, 2020.
Swartz, Sarah Silberstein. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/margolin-anna
Margolin, Anna. Lider. New York, 1929.
Margolin, Anna. Drunk from the Bitter Truth. Translated and edited by Shirley Kumove. Albany, SUNY Press, 2005.