Review

The Many Essences of Sutzkever

James Nadel

The Full Pomegranate: Poems of Abraham Sutzkever. Trans. Richard Fein, with an introduction by Justin Cammy. SUNY: 2019. 320 pages. $24.95.

On April 24, 1952, a frustrated Abraham Sutzkever complained to his former mentor Max Weinreich that Yiddish poets often missed the “radiant core” (finklendiker iker) of his poems. This was clearly a phrase that stuck with the poet for the rest of his writing career. In 1983, in a poem subsequently titled “Tell me, what did you want…”, he used the same words to describe peering into a skull during a brain operation in the Vilna Ghetto, an experience he compared to finding the “eternal” amidst the ruins of this “Jewish city” (204). Discovering this light-bearing nucleus, or “essence,” protected Sutzkever through the darkest days of his captivity.

For several decades now, English translators have attempted to convey the “core” of Sutzkever’s poems, an infamously difficult task considering his sophisticated word play and rigid poetic structures. Richard J. Fein, a poet in his own right best known among Yiddishists for his translations of Yankev Glatshteyn, has added another excellent addition to this field with his recent collection of Sutzkever translations, The Full Pomegranate (which includes the poem mentioned above). The volume is not tied to a specific collection of Sutzkever’s poetry, but is rather an anthology that spans the poet’s long career and consists of works that, in the words of the translator, “…have said translate me” (xi). Such an approach allows readers to track the development of Sutzkever’s voice, as well as place his contributions within the broader poetic traditions of his time.

The book also opens a window onto the process of translating Sutzkever; many of the pieces included have never before been rendered in English, but others have appeared in previous collections of Sutzkever’s work. The most prominent poems of the latter category are also those closest to Fein’s heart: the Siberia series from 1952–53, which was originally published in an earlier, longer, and somewhat different form in 1937. The series reflects on Sutzkever’s childhood years when he lived near the steppe city of Omsk. Fein’s afterword focuses on this set of poems and on Sutzkever’s discovery of a new, personal vocabulary for evoking the wonder of nature. Fein points our attention to Sutzkever’s use of “Genesis” as an adjective (breyshisdik) to underline the primordial imagery that pervades these poems, as Sutzkever portrays a world forever in the process of creation. In Siberia, nature bends and mutates, as echoed by Sutzkever’s famous neologisms: sunknife, grass-dreams, snowsounds, firesnow. The nature of Sutzkever’s world is kinetic, raging like a thunderstorm or churning like hot magma, always on the way to but rarely reaching a concrete form.

Capturing this state of constant flux is one of the main challenges of translating Sutzkever, as is the disparity between this fluid theme and the strict poetic structures he employs. For instance, in their earlier translations of Siberia, Benjamin and Barbara Harshav stick to the ABAB rhyming scheme of Sutzkever’s originals, and include internal rhymes to further emphasize their lyrical qualities. Their translated lines have nine or ten syllables and conform to Sutzkever’s “precise trochaic pentameter,” a pattern that required the translators to insert English phrases that extrapolate upon the Yiddish original. 1 1 Benjamin Harshav, introduction to A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Barbara Harshav and Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 27. The final results have a definite sense of movement to them, as the reader is propelled from line to line by the expectation of rhyme and syllabic meter.

Fein sacrifices such momentum by focusing his efforts towards a more literal, direct translation. He almost never includes extra phrases or words in order to match Sutzkever’s rhythm, allowing him to avoid some of the syntactical contortions and archaic vocabulary in which the Harshavs sometimes indulge. An Elizabethan sounding phrase like “Philosophically, solution I request” becomes the more recognizable “Philosophical, I demand a solution” (10). 2 2 Abraham Sutzkever, A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Barbara Harshav and Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 78. Fein’s translations thus sound more natural to the contemporary English reader for whom free-verse poetry is more familiar than the neo-Romantic rhymes of Sutzkever’s original and the Harshavs’ version. Furthermore, less restricted by Sutzkever’s form, Fein has no need to count syllables and eliminate articles, which has the effect of making the translation more readable.

Fein, in privileging an approximation of the poet’s vocabulary over his prosody, also preserves a theme central to these poems: namely, the manner in which people, places, and animals come into being. To take one example, the opening poem of the Siberia series, “In the Village,” ends with the image of a pigeon being born:

Quiet. In our dovecote a pigeon

Pecks through an eggshell – peck-peck. (6)

The final onomatopoeia—the “peck-peck” that is featured in Sutzkever’s original Yiddish but that is lost amidst the Harshavs’ rhyming scheme—emphasizes the process of creation; the act by which the pigeon breaks his way into and expands his view of the world. 3 3 See for comparison A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, 75. In this translation, the poem is entitled “In the Hut”.

The poem “Recognition,” which Fein quotes in his concluding remarks, features a young speaker running to the top of a mountain because his father has told him that that is where the world ends. Arriving at the summit, the poet finds not an insurmountable boundary, but a platform from which he can gaze upon an expansive world and his “little dot of a father.” The realization that the world and its natural wonders continue beyond the isolated corner of his family’s cottage transforms the speaker of the poem into an unstoppable force of nature:

I a child turn into an avalanche

Whom light and wonder shaped. (12)

Again, Fein extends the theme of formation in his translation by rendering geboyt as “shaped.” This choice stresses the malleability of snow—the material of this world—as opposed to the firmness of the more literal “built.”

Fein’s translation also preserves the original “I,” which the Harshavs eschewed in order to fit the meter. 4 4A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, 78. Although original rhythm of the poem is lost in Fein’s translation, the reader registers the full significance of the memory depicted in the poem, which marks Sutzkever’s mythic metamorphosis into an artist—the formation not only of the nature around him, but the role of his own voice in this process. Fein is himself fascinated by “the source” of artistic creativity and has published a series of essays regarding his relationship to both Yiddish and the Book of Genesis. He has compared his own formal study of Yiddish, at a relatively late age after a childhood of disgust at the language, to the great nineteenth century American poets discovering their roots by revisiting their ancestral homes in New England. His choice to retranslate Siberia perhaps reflects this interest. 5 5 Richard J. Fein, “What Can Yiddish Mean to an American Poet?” in Yiddish Genesis (Baltimore: BrickHouse Books, 2012), 52.

Ultimately, Fein has a different goal than the Harshavs. The Harshavs attempted to give their readers a taste of the “high literary Yiddish” that made Sutzkever one of the most renowned poets in the “center of learning and culture” of interwar Vilnius. 6 6 Harshav,introduction to A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, 8.
Sutzkever’s Yiddish was nurtured by his study of early modern Yiddish classics in the halls of the Strashun Library and in the original YIVO with Weinreich. It was also tied to his reading of world literature, especially the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid to whom Sutzkever dedicated many pieces. These sources of Sutzkever’s poetry are largely inaccessible to the common reader. The Harshavs’ translations act as a reference point to a destroyed Yiddish intellectual ferment and offer one interpretation of the “radiant core” that energized Sutzkever’s work.

Fein seeks not to imitate the grandiloquence of this literary Yiddish, but rather to place Sutzkever’s works squarely in his own English idiom. In his conclusion, Fein writes that Sutzkever’s “…Yiddish world eventually revealed itself to me. The body of Sutzkever’s poems, his Yiddish, invigorated the body of my translations, my English” (268). He reiterates that translating this set took him “more deeply into English – my English,” a process that mirrors Sutzkever’s approach to his Yiddish poetic voice (265). Fein transforms Sutzkever’s poems into English, even “American,” texts.

***

A remarkable aspect of this volume is its breadth. It allows readers to note how Sutzkever’s images transformed and reappeared over the course of his fifty-year career. Indeed, the scene from “Recognition” mentioned above is transposed from the mountains of Siberia to the deserts of Israel in a previously untranslated poem (“Here I Am Fated to See…”), written thirty-five years after the original image came into being and nearly twenty years after it was published in the Siberia series. Summiting the cliffs of a wadi, Sutzkever views the landscape through a “tear,” just as he had gazed upon the snow and ice of Siberia. The fire of the wadi reminds him of the “savor” of first snow. He has the same “revelation” that he did as “a child on the mountain” at the “beginning of my beginning…”. Realizing the parallels between these two moments, the poet comments:

Someone wants my soul to fall to its knees

Before it rises brand new in humid mirrors. (148)

These poems have never before appeared in the same volume, in English or in Yiddish. Read in tandem, they illustrate Sutzkever encountering a new natural landscape to which he can apply his developed poetic sensibility. Past, present, and future mingle in this space. The poet is resurrected, phoenix-like in fire, but the world around him is a mirror that reflects his frozen memories. The initial image of “discovery” is transmuted into continual and cyclical reinvention.

Historical context for such developments in Sutzkever’s work is provided in an introduction by Justin Cammy, professor of Jewish Studies and Comparative Literature at Smith College, who has dedicated much of his academic career to writing about Sutzkever and his milieu. He is currently completing a much-needed book on artistic life in Vilna in the first part of the twentieth century, one of the only scholarly assessments in English of the world from which Sutzkever’s poetry emerged. Cammy’s eloquent introduction treats Sutzkever’s entire career, affirming the poet’s dedication to an aesthetic purity meant to transcend time and the moral vulgarities of the present. This conviction pervades the poetic paganism of Sutzkever’s odes to nature, his dedications to ghetto life that he later credited with preserving him through the torment, and his post-war recollections written in Israel to provide his lost homeland with an “eternal life” (xli). Cammy is also aware of the tragic paradox of memory that Sutzkever so sensitively conveys in his considerations of the Holocaust and Jewish cultural life after it. Sutzkever’s artistry conjures vivid images of Eastern European Jewish life that place the reader deep inside that rich world. Yet those images are at the same time a potent reminder that such a civilization is beyond recreation. This dichotomy is what Cammy refers to when he states that Sutzkever’s post-Holocaust work is marked by the “…tension between loss and regeneration”(xxxiv). It is the same sense that accompanies Sutzkever’s “recognition” that his poetic voice must be reborn into a past that he has already experienced.

Readers may have benefitted had Cammy applied this insight to several more of the pieces in this volume. Nearly a third of the poems that Fein selected are from Sutzkever’s under-discussed 1986 volume Twin Brother, and yet Cammy analyzes it for less than a paragraph in his introduction. For example, in discussing Sutzkever’s relationship to Israel, Cammy does not mention “When your words…” from Twin Brother, which would have well substantiated his conclusions about Sutzkever’s affectionate sentiments for his adopted homeland. The poem begins by describing the pain of acquiring a “new language” for connecting with this ancient, unfamiliar landscape, but goes on to show the narrator conversing with an “olive tree” and “King Solomon,” and declaring that “…there is no more beautiful life than this.” (192). Without mentioning it, Cammy correctly recapitulates the poem’s meaning. Sutzkever had “no illusions” about the diminished role that Yiddish would play in the cultural politics of the young state, but nevertheless chose to emphasize a “communion” with this new world, particularly in his work describing the natural delights of the Negev. It would have been productive to track this process in more detail through Sutzkever’s poetry to reveal the ambiguities within it. One poem set that Cammy cites briefly (“In Wadi Feiran” from Oasis) actually shows the poet as a Moses-like figure, unable to enter the promised land after tortured travails (xxxix). 7 7 Abraham Sutzkever, “In Vadi Feiran” in Oasis (Tel-Aviv: I.L. Peretz Library, 1960), 67. A translation of this poem is not included in Fein’s volume. Comparing this equivocal depiction to the more extolling odes included in this volume would illustrate further the “tension” mentioned above.

This absence of such an analysis, which one cannot expect to be completely filled in a short introduction, represents a larger lacuna in the field. To my knowledge, there is no critical edition of Sutzkever’s works in any language nor are there significant book-length scholarly accounts of his work.

Such a volume would be helpful for Yiddishists and non-Yiddishists alike, as they delve into the thick descriptions of Sutzkever’s poetics, in which cultural and religious allusions abound. For instance, the 1969 poem entitled “Portrait” (114) centers on the person of Max Brod as a symbol for the cultural world of the cosmopolitan Prague that bore Kafka. This topic alone deserves an essay about Sutzkever’s relationship with the lost cultural metropoles of Eastern Europe, their prominent Jewish communities, and the meetings their giant figures convened in Israel after the Holocaust. This is not even to mention that the poem begins by comparing Brod to “Chaim Soutine’s painting of hanging meat…”—an image that Sutzkever was clearly infatuated with. He wrote a poem seven years earlier about the Rembrandt painting “Flayed Ox,” a seventeenth century precursor to Soutine’s abstract expressionist masterpiece. Why was this image of mutilated flesh so productive for Sutzkever? Similar questions could be posed regarding a number of the poems throughout this volume, including one set at the grave of Chopin (himself a symbolic touchstone in Norwid’s poetry) (76) and another based on Sutzkever’s real-life encounter with Boris Pasternak (170).

It may be that these questions are impossible to answer, but fortifying these poems with the information that raises them in the first place would allow an audience less familiar with Sutzkever’s oeuvre to grasp the enormity of the world and cultural milieu he is attempting to summon in his work. Madeleine Cohen has argued in these pages that Yiddish poems and their translations are often “icebergs,” whose external coherence hides a myriad of meanings and authorial knowledge lost in the destruction of Eastern European Jewish culture. 8 8 Madeleine Cohen, “Translating the Iceberg: Reflections on the Possibilities of In geveb’s Texts & Translations Section,” In geveb (May 2016): https://ingeveb.org/blog/translating-the-iceberg. The iceberg is one metaphor to describe Sutzkever’s poetry. Another is to call them “The Full Pomegranate”—a fruit notable for its hundreds of seeds, innumerable cores that each radiate light.
MLA STYLE
Nadel, James. “The Many Essences of Sutzkever.” In geveb, May 2019: https://ingeveb.org/articles/the-many-essences-of-sutzkever.
CHICAGO STYLE
Nadel, James. “The Many Essences of Sutzkever.” In geveb (May 2019): Accessed Sep 19, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Nadel

James Nadel is a PhD student in the History Department of Columbia University, working on Russian-Jewish, Russian Imperial and Soviet history.