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The Virtuoso of Loneliness: A Brief Invitation to Leyeles

Zackary Sholem Berger

Aaron Glantz-Leyeles does not make things easy for the translator or critic. A formalist, he was of a philosophical, lugubrious bent; spending most of his life in America, he was no troubadour, guerilla fighter, or escaped refusenik. Neither did he become the harrowing, post-war poet of Holocaust remembrance (like Jacob Glatstein), triangulating God’s absence with the calipers of Jewish history and the “goyim’s” nonchalance. His lyric conclusions are different, and more deliberate.

Leyeles wrote about his own internal life. His first work, Labyrinth, in 1918, featured the meditations of youth in a modernist vein. No earth-shaking developments here, nothing that can’t be found in the work of other Yiddish modernists or American poets of the time. In 1926, his third book, Rondeaux, was something else again: a continued negotiation between self and universe, life and work, but now carefully preoccupied with cycle and structure. The rondeau is a medieval French verse form: poets have always ransacked such older forms in search of supple tools. Leyeles too found scaffolding for self-excavations:

איך גלייב ניט אין קיין צײַט, איך לייקן אָפּ דעם ליגן.
מײַן עבֿר איז נאָך דאָ, און ערגעץ אויף די שטיגן
פֿון גרענעצלאָזן רוימס פּאַלאַצן שטייט נאָך איצט
דאָס וויגל פֿון מײַן קינדהייט, און מײַן יוגנט קריצט
נאָך הײַנט אוזאָרן פֿון מפּלות און פֿון זיגן

I don’t believe in time, I deny the lie.
Here my past remains, and somewhere on the steps
of Limitless Rome’s palaces is still
my childhood’s cradle. Even today, my youth carves
forms of loss and victory.

We can acquaint ourselves with Leyeles’ mature self-conception as an artist, albeit at a temporal and existential distance. Through the good offices of the Yiddish Book Center, his 1955 reading and interview with A. Tabatchnik of the Montreal Public Library has been digitized and made available online. In a deliberate, literary (klal-Yiddish) cadence, he reads a number of his poems, accompanied by the sounds of city streets—shouting children, the odd car horn.

Notably, he reads his long poem about the God of Israel, his “strict and just demander.” The poem describes the deity’s museum, which includes not crowns, or fancy regalia, but rather manuscript after manuscript, “nokh a manuskript, un nokh a manuskript / […] oysyes in oysyes farlibt”—letters in love with each other.

Nokh a manusrkipt, un nokh a manuskript . . .

Perhaps these are the same letters that fly free from Haninah ben Teradion’s burning, tortured parchments. Rather than any collective experience or some communion with the divine, the God of Israel demands aloneness. “Seek alone! Explore alone! Suffer alone! For your own and for my own honor.”

Zukh aleyn, forsh aleyn . . .

Such isolation is depicted in an alternate way in another poem by Leyeles, “The song of songs” (Dos lid fun lider, a clear reference to the biblical Song of Songs). “The song of songs is circumscribed”, getsoymt, as if set apart by a fence.

Dos lid fun lider iz getsoymt

The moment of the song, of the poetic act, stands still and then disintegrates in the “heedless race of the cosmos,” in kosmishn galop.

Kosmishn galop

Taking this sense of loneliness to an extreme, death itself is the never completed epic poem of disquiet, something Leyeles calls the Umruiad (a play on Iliad) which one might translate as the “Anxietad.”

The loneliness comes to a head in Leyeles’ sober call: “I am called the song of songs.”

Ikh heys dos lid fun lider . . .

He himself, in his circumscribed loneliness, is that poem—and not just him, but all Yiddish poets are contained and alone within the poem.

He salutes his brethren Yiddish poets and their loneliness (ignoring the women poets he must have known about and read) in another poem, “Tsu aykh dikhter yidishe” (To you Yiddish poets), in which the poet thinks about the solitary act of writing:

דיכטער ייִדישע, איר מײַנע נאָענסטע ברידער,
ברידער פֿון דעם זעלבן עלנט, פֿון דעם זעלבן יאָך,
פֿון דעם זעלביקן פֿאַרלוירעניש און בראָך –
כ'שרײַב צו אײַך די שורות, אַזאַ ליד פֿון לידער.

Yiddish poets, my closest brothers
Brothers of the same yoke and loneliness
The same loss and tragedy—
I write these lines to you, this song of songs.

This poet sees himself as the heir to a great tradition, now limited to a fenced-in corner, subject to inevitable disintegration. The acute knowledge of the dissolution of a literary culture, and the attendant loneliness and despair, certainly are natural phenomena in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I wish to suggest, however, that the seeds of this loneliness were planted even in Leyeles’ earlier, pre-war works. Fabius Lind is nothing if not an icon of loneliness; as the Harshavs put it in their anthology, a sophisticated individual in “alienation and isolation.” Looking backward from the post-war “loss and tragedy,” we see a contour traced out through decades.

While loneliness is certainly not unique in Yiddish modernist poetry, Leyeles’ self-consciously refined, philosophical verse might be a particular expression of loneliness not often seen with other poets. (For other contrasting examples of loneliness, think of Manger’s lone troubadour, Sutzkever’s proud prophet, or Dropkin’s searching lover.)

All the more surprising, then, is Leyeles’s great later book, Amerike un ikh (America and I) from 1963. Surely not many poets in that turbulent year were writing love letters to the USA? It is the paean of a grateful immigrant, a meditation on mixed blessings and perhaps a reflection, as well, of Leyeles’ not uncomplicated reception of the modern State of Israel. Here is an excerpt:

ניו־יאָרקער נעכט

נעכט ניו־יאָרקישע, צעפֿלאַמט און פֿיל־קאָליריק.
נעכט פֿאַרשײַטע, טומלדיקע, ווײַסע, אויף בראָדוויי.
נעכט – אַרײַן־אַרויס פֿון אַ קאַפֿיי צו אַ קאַפֿיי.
נעכט, וואָס שרומפּן אײַן דיך צו אַ חיריק
אונטער סלופּעס ליכט, וואָס זויגן אויס די „ליריק“
פֿון אַ מענטשנס האַרץ אין גרילציק־רײַסיקן געשריי –
אין די אַלע אַלע נעכט באַהאַלטן ליגן צויטן
פֿון מײַן אומרו – נאָך נישט אויסגעברענטע קנויטן.
נעכט אין רחבֿותדיק צעבליטן פּאַרק בײַם בראָנקסער טײַך –

נעכט אין צענטראַל־פּאַרק און אין דעם פּאַרק קראָטאָנע.
איצט נאָך שלײַכן דאָרט מיט רונדן, הונגעריקן שלײַך
שאָטנס – אונטער הימלען מיט און אָן לבֿנה.
ס'איז די ניט־געזעענע, געהיימע זאָנע,
ס'איז דאָס אויסטערלישע, כּישופֿדיקע קיניגרײַך,
וווּ די צײַט היט ווי נישט־אויסגעלייזטע רענדלעך
מײַנע וועלונגען פֿון עטלעכע יאָרצענדליק.

נעכט בײַם ים־ברעג, וווּ דאָס רוישן פֿון די וואַלן
האָט געטײַטשט די אומגעדולד פֿון מײַן נשמהס שפּראַך.
נעכט בײַם האָדסאָן, אים קום איך מײַן סאַמע העכסטן שבֿח.
אַלע נעכט די עדות פֿון מײַן אָפֿטן פֿאַלן,
אָבער אויכעט פֿון מײַן שטײַגן און מײַן קוואַלן.
נעכט ניו־יאָרקישע, פֿאַרשיידענע, אַ סך, אַ סך.
כ'זאָל כאָטש איינע קאָנען פּינקטלעך איבערגעבן.
[...]

New York Nights

New York nights, multicolored and aflame,
White, loud, impertinent. Broadway.
Nights full of cafe to cafe
Nights where you’re shrunk to the size of a ḥirik
under lampposts—nights sucking out the lyric
of the heart in piercing screams.
And all these among nights: tufts
of my unrest, unburned wicks.
Nights in the flowering park stretched out by the Bronx River.

Central Park nights, nights in Crotona.
Creeping there to and fro hungrily,
those shadows, under skies moonlit and -less.
An unseen, secret zone.
A strange, magical kingdom,
where time preserves, unredeemed ducats,
my wills-and-wishes of several decades.

Nights at the shore, where the rush of the waves
rendered my soul’s impatient speech.
Nights at the Hudson, deserving my highest praise.
All nights witness to my frequent falling.
But also my rising and flowing.
Nights of New York. Various. Multifarious and many.
Just one night’s precise chronicle vouchsafe me.
[…]

Leyeles’ American cosmos was diverse, dazzling, daunting, and more than a little dangerous. But the very brightness of its sparkle is a surprising contrast with the intellectual loneliness of the poet that we have remarked upon above. Why is not clear, but we can question neither the deep-seated, philosophical richness of the loneliness, nor the enthusiastic embrace of America in its loud diversity. As American Jews seeking entree into modernist Yiddish poetry, teetering between oblivion and near-oblivion, we could do worse than to look deep into the underappreciated kingdom of his verse.

All translations from the Yiddish by Zackary Sholem Berger.
MLA STYLE
Berger, Zackary Sholem. “The Virtuoso of Loneliness: A Brief Invitation to Leyeles.” In geveb, October 2015: https://ingeveb.org/blog/the-virtuoso-of-loneliness-a-brief-invitation-to-leyeles.
CHICAGO STYLE
Berger, Zackary Sholem. “The Virtuoso of Loneliness: A Brief Invitation to Leyeles.” In geveb (October 2015): Accessed Mar 26, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zackary Sholem Berger

Zackary Sholem Berger writes and translates in Yiddish and English. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.