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Herring Barrels

Maia Grace

INTRODUCTION

I grew up not know­ing my father. When I met him for the first time I was six­teen. He gave me a copy of A Por­tion of the Peo­ple: Three Hun­dred Years of South­ern Jew­ish Life, edit­ed by my aunt, Dale Rosen­garten, and my uncle, Theodore Rosen­garten, and opened it to a page with the fam­i­ly (our fam­i­ly) pic­ture tak­en July 1927 in Kryvitsh, a shtetl not far from Vil­na, then in Poland. It was tak­en to com­mem­o­rate my great-grand­moth­er Ida Katzoff’s vis­it, after twen­ty years in Amer­i­ca, with her two youngest daugh­ters. In it, three gen­er­a­tions stare intent­ly for­ward. My grand­moth­er Trudy sits cross-legged at her mother’s knee. Her old­er sis­ter stands behind. The sis­ters look caught in motion, unlike the rest of the fam­i­ly. They lean away from the cam­era as though still on a boat cross­ing the Atlantic, their mouths slight­ly open, sug­gest­ing curios­i­ty as well as sus­pi­cion — or maybe dis­ori­en­ta­tion — in this large Jew­ish fam­i­ly they had nev­er met but were part of.

I asked my father whether Trudy spoke Yid­dish. He said no. But Trudy Kat­zoff Rosen, at nine­ty-years-old, recalled the sum­mer of 1927 clear­ly. She told me she had dis­em­barked back in New York speak­ing Yid­dish. Mere months before she died, years after I met my father, a Yid­dish song she learned in Kryvitsh burst from my grand­moth­er’s lips, the words flu­ent­ly sum­moned from mem­o­ry, per­fect­ly enun­ci­at­ed, and record­ed. What does it mean, to have this fam­i­ly his­to­ry in me? Though I only had a vague idea of what Yid­dish sounds like, I won­dered if it might erupt out of my hand while writ­ing poet­ry, or come to me in my sleep.

On a trip to South Car­oli­na to vis­it the Rosen­gartens, who live in McClel­lanville, down a sandy track skirt­ing the salt marsh on the edge of Cape Romain, my uncle gave me Jerzy Ficowski’s biog­ra­phy of Bruno Schulz. In its pages, I read about Deb­o­ra Vogel. Schulz penned chap­ters of his acclaimed nov­el Cin­na­mon Shops (renamed Street of the Croc­o­diles for the Eng­lish lan­guage edi­tion in 1963, long after his death) in the mar­gins of let­ters to her. I imme­di­ate­ly loved the title of her own book of prose poet­ry, Akat­syes blien (Aca­cias Bloom). Vogel com­posed poet­ry in Yid­dish as she learned it in her twen­ties. This puz­zled and intrigued me. The Vogel fam­i­ly spoke Pol­ish at home. Vogel was very close to her father. He was a Hebraist and, as Vogel’s friend and edi­tor Rokhl Auer­bach not­ed, expressed con­tempt towards Yid­dish as the folk lan­guage. Her mother’s fam­i­ly were promi­nent Zion­ists who also reject­ed Yid­dish. Why did Vogel write in this lan­guage that iden­ti­fied her as state­less, pos­si­bly anti-nation­al­ist, of doubt­ful alle­giance? Why write in a lan­guage she didn’t grow up speak­ing? Why write in Yid­dish if she felt close to her Hebraist father? 

That lan­guage could be a mea­sure of dis­tance between Vogel and her father, and between me and my fam­i­ly, piqued my curios­i­ty. I wrote to any­one who might know Vogel and her work. Unable to read her writ­ing in the orig­i­nal Pol­ish and Yid­dish, I com­mis­sioned trans­la­tions, and soon held a few rough Eng­lish ver­sions in my hands. Lat­er, I read and reread Vogel — as though for the first time — in Anas­tasiya Lyubas’ and Anna Ele­na Tor­res’ beau­ti­ful trans­la­tions. I dis­cov­ered her poet­ry was very dif­fer­ent from mine. To vis­it Lviv as it was then — Lwów, in Poland, between world wars — through the frame of her poems is like enter­ing a Cubist paint­ing. You see angles of bound­ed space, bor­ders between the inside and out­side of hous­es, domes­tic and urban events col­lapsed into melan­choly land­scapes, lan­guid inte­ri­ors, and a topog­ra­phy of sen­su­al expe­ri­ence with­out nar­ra­tive. She large­ly rejects a per­son­al voice. The very force of her still­ness chal­lenges the dynamism and self-rev­e­la­tion often asso­ci­at­ed with mod­ernism as an artis­tic movement. 1 1 Anna Tor­res, Cir­cu­lar Land­scapes: Mon­tage and Myth in Dvoyre Fogel’s Yid­dish Poet­ry,” Nashim 35 (2019): 68. In con­trast, I tell sto­ries in verse, coax­ing my fam­i­ly his­to­ry to appear through lan­guage. I began to ask myself: what would it mean to merge my own voice with Vogel’s? How might there be an inti­ma­cy despite this distance?

Land­scapes were deeply impor­tant to Vogel. In a let­ter to Melech Rav­itch, 1936, trans­lat­ed and sent to me by Anas­tasiya Lyubas, Vogel wrote I know there are worlds that at first appear as for­eign to us on the sur­face. We reject books that rep­re­sent such worlds to us to only dis­cov­er the beau­ty of these worlds lat­er … And I think that this can only be the fate of my poet­ry and prose. And per­haps the still­ness and soli­tari­ness of Aus­tralia (per­haps it is an imag­ined pic­ture?) is quite appro­pri­ate to read me. Nor­wid said once that every­thing should be read in a set­ting that is sim­i­lar to the one where it was writ­ten.” The low­coun­try salt marsh in South Car­oli­na where I read Vogel and spent long after­noons walk­ing and think­ing about her could not be more dif­fer­ent from Lwów; fecund, not a per­son or build­ing in sight, late after­noon rains chang­ing the land­scape dai­ly. Yet as I grew close to my Jew­ish fam­i­ly of Pol­ish descent, the cityscape that pos­sessed Vogel nonethe­less min­gled with the land­scapes where we spent time togeth­er. Seek­ing close­ness with my fam­i­ly, and lament­ing the time lost with my half-sis­ters, I grew inti­mate with an imag­i­nary Deb­o­ra Vogel. I dis­cov­ered her poet­ry could describe my world. Dur­ing the dog days of sum­mer, lines of Vogel’s poet­ry hummed in my head, and I felt com­pelled to write back. When I start­ed writ­ing the poems below, Vogel became real to me as a char­ac­ter. I asked her, why did you write in Yid­dish? Is lan­guage passed down through gen­er­a­tions? Will your Yid­dish emerge from my hand? The poems are writ­ten to her. They address her and beg a response.

The ital­i­cized lines spo­ken by Deb­o­ra Vogel in the fol­low­ing poems are excerpt­ed from her book of mon­tages, Aca­cias Bloom, trans­lat­ed by Anas­tasiya Lyubas. 2 2 Deb­o­ra Vogel, Bloom­ing Spaces: The Col­lect­ed Poet­ry, Prose, Crit­i­cal Writ­ing, and Let­ters of Deb­o­ra Vogel, trans. Anas­tasiya Lyubas (Boston: Aca­d­e­m­ic Stud­ies Press, 2020). They are lines which float­ed to the sur­face dur­ing six years of read­ing Vogel and stuck in my head. Vogel’s direct address is imag­i­nary. In Vogel’s poet­ry, every­day sights — white­washed kitchens, bowls of oranges, wag­ons car­ry­ing milk jars, orange aza­leas — con­tain the secrets of the world. What there is to expe­ri­ence can be expe­ri­enced in every­day mate­r­i­al, in dai­ly encoun­ters, in the five hooped her­ring-bar­rels at Yazhe Shimel’s. Just so, peer­ing into Vogel’s world through the pluff mud of mine opens a win­dow not only into lost Gali­cia, but into my rela­tion­ship to my father, to my her­itage, and to real and imag­i­nary closeness.


Herring Barrels



1.

Standing still at a familiar corner by the brown pond, slapping flies, too hot to outrun them, when freshwater suddenly boils up through the clay and nothing is solid underfoot.

Here, the boring and altogether sad material entered into its most perfect stage in life.

I hear you, Debora, first in the salt marsh buzzing through the sand of Dupre Road and heat so humid it is hydrating.

There are grasses pushing and dug up clams spurting mud. We swim in the creeks holding onto reeds or not holding and drifting by docks where dogs wait churning.

The water in a Galician marsh is soft and full of small mica flecks.

Floating down Five Fathom Creek to the rolling Atlantic, warm, slick with salt, watching the skid and trawl—big graceful arms of the shrimp boat swinging, combing, killing, the birds like skirts rustling in and out. How close can I come?



2.

I try to drift
closer to my father—
find where
he is
or if he is
within me

and beneath
my clothing
lengths of
longing form
a stretch
of land

I walk
slowly
between houses
where people sing
soft songs
in Yiddish
and crush
savory leaves

I climb up
to the roof
to ask
what does it mean
to have this
in me
and not
know it?

When you wrote
It is November, 1934
did November, 1941
exist?

3.

I am light
and easily lost



4.

All turns brown in the marsh. Full of holes and fluid. Black flies and flooding amber. We take turns showering outside. Hot water to scratch mosquito bites our hands slapping any part not under water. Hitting, slip, thigh. Sabal palmetto fronds, forked key lime leaves, expansive oaks. Released in the steam, living like fish. Looking up to deep violin wood. Warm humid sound.

Shower again in the dark, early or late, staring at stars. Given shape by soft water. Splinters from porch wood. Under me discarded razor clam shells. Inside, my father’s family. A sad paper doll in cornflower blue smiles at me from a corner.

5.

We navigate
Alligator Creek
through the salt marsh
plumb the pools
on Cowpen island
dive off docks
cut by oysters
exposed in low tide

Cows exhale
the air perfumed
by confederate jasmine
tea olives
and yet another bloom
of fortnight lilies
lowcountry
of bright shadows



6.

I am full of acacias, shadowing brightly


7.

Even in July
when weather
is soft on the river

it could be winter
I walk
as though
walking
beside myself
and light

releases
the lamps
which stay warm
after they
are dark

I lie down
in the evening
a descendent
of something—
the night and lamps
the murderers
moving east
towards Lwów
a windowbox
tangled with mallow
and last year’s fennel—
I sign away
a certain hold
on life



8.

I sleep
thumping the walls
turning over
into dampness
queen anne’s lace
in my mouth
and eyes—

9.

Now I dream in Yiddish.

I thump against the boring and altogether sad material of the world.

My stepping is thick with petals dropped from buds like candles tumbled open on a big, broad street leading to Zholkyver Station as though seen in a glass of hazy tea a flash of wall struck by a green school passing like a ship

and looking over one shoulder, your bright-eyed face between angles of dark hair filled to the edge with the mild alarm of living, then gone wholly into the cobblestones and I follow filling deep pockets with my native countryside.

I search out a stretch of blue and gold not obscuring the country beneath yet solid enough to walk on. A town, I think and reach forward to the edge. My hands find something individual, surrounding and delicate—a potted azalea in an upper story window. I pull myself in. Only upon closer examination can the sticky and wanton mass of life be divided into singular fates and particular details. Just like in June or July, one divides the block of green into individual stems and leaves.

I recognize an opening between townhouses their sides curving around the belly of a giant instrument, neck taller than the chimney, a violin but without a waist or bow yet plucked and thrumming through the clefts and holes beneath the bridge, a chorus of hums for every note, setting the pegs turning like tops. How close can I come?

A door in every house opens.

A house with a great sloping roof has reams of soft paper piling up to lofts lost in shadows. I run a hand along a stack and it crumples and gives off light. You seem to tumble backwards out of the papers reaching, falling from a picture of dock workers unpacking millet sacks from a ship, fabric rumpling down out of the frame reaching the floorboards as your feet do.

I thought I
was lost!

You tip the oval of your face up to the light smell of azaleas.

Let’s stay awhile.

Is there time?

You ask,
Were you close
to your father?

I tell you—you, Debora—once my father cornered me on a ferry crossing Lake Champlain to say

I’ve left it up to you, how close you want to be—”

I told him, as we streamed towards the Vermont side,

“You don’t have to be so careful.”

When I talk to him, I feel like I’m talking to myself. Looking ahead, to the edge of land, lisping up from the slate slough of low soft water, rebuilding, lengths of open fields and round bales and dark hidden peat and bog where only priests should rush with lights in their hands—

He told me “not being there is the greatest regret of my life.

You wouldn’t have known, by how still the water was, I felt like a school of fish. My opinion is

that it is past.

I ask you, why write in a language your father refused to speak?

What is longing? What is refusal?




10.

I learn the sign
of herring shoals
are countless silver scales
shivering the surface of the water
like mica flecks
every herring swimming
the lightless depths
made of more than two hundred
bones and cartilages
intricate and of the salt
they are mixed with


11.

I see you
I see you

you say and take in the deep night sky
standing at the window pouring out
nothing withheld


12.

Late January
a warm day
comes and goes
enough for the magnolias
to surge into bloom


In my sleep
Yiddish drops
down with the petals
like candles
tumbled open

I understand every word
and I am home


13.

Out of the swarm you
gather released
from solitary
then solitary again
in and out
into the bright—

MLA STYLE
Maia Grace. “Herring Barrels.” In geveb, October 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/herring-barrels.
CHICAGO STYLE
Maia Grace. “Herring Barrels.” In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Dec 01, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maia Grace

Maia Grace holds an MFA in poetry from San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in Yiddish Poetry, Neck Press, and Sparkle and Blink.