Texts & Translation

Erasing the Written, Rewriting the Erased: A Fragmented and Imperfect Tribute to Vogel

Zackary Sholem Berger

INTRODUCTION


Deb­o­ra Vogel was the apoth­e­o­sis of a trans­dis­ci­pli­nary Yid­dish mod­ernism which is no more. The con­tours of her work in poet­ry, aes­thet­ics, and crit­i­cism crossed lan­guages and domains of knowl­edge. Even after the dis­ap­pear­ance of much of the lit­er­ary, eco­nom­ic, and social infra­struc­ture that made pos­si­ble those intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits, the con­tours remain. Vogel’s work has been reward­ed with an increas­ing read­er­ship and scruti­ny, most­ly on the part of schol­ars, in the recent past. But we read­ers must find a solu­tion to a prob­lem of loss. How are we to under­stand Vogel in the con­text of the destroyed his­tor­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties that made her work pos­si­ble? How are we to pro­vide her a geneal­o­gy, among oth­er Yid­dish mod­ernists, in the wake of destruction?

Like Vogel, I write in a Yid­dish that is not my birth lan­guage, that I came to as an adult attract­ed by the lit­er­ary-crit­i­cal her­itage of the lan­guage, its lit­er­a­ture, and its cre­ators. I have cho­sen in par­tic­u­lar two poems by Vogel to ren­der anew via the poet­ic method of trans­la­tion-era­sure, reveal­ing through dis­tor­tion the con­tours that lead from lan­guage to lan­guage across the decades. 

In era­sure poet­ry, parts of a text are removed by some means (as with an eras­er), or blacked out(as with the censor’s pen). The resul­tant altered text, with the words pre­sent­ed either in situ or oth­er­wise shift­ed, is called an era­sure poem. This method has been used by those iden­ti­fy­ing with a vari­ety of lit­er­ary tra­di­tions to con­cretize the repar­a­tive work of cre­ation in the wake of loss. In par­tic­u­lar, Dan Pagis, Tra­cy K. Smith, and Layli Long Sol­dier, among oth­ers, have made use of era­sure in the wake of genocide. 

If, as Jerome Rothen­berg points out, era­sure is a polit­i­cal act, each of these indi­vid­ual actions of era­sure is itself polit­i­cal. The mul­ti-com­po­nent nature of era­sure, and the ways we are polit­i­cal actors in our choic­es of what to read or not read, are rea­sons which moti­vate my use of this genre to hon­or the work of Vogel in our day.

As some­one liv­ing lat­er, writ­ing in Eng­lish, a lan­guage that has itself under­gone trans­for­ma­tions and era­sures, when­ev­er I trans­late a Yid­dish poet or endeav­or to cre­ate in Yid­dish myself I am enact­ing era­sure. To do so using the words of anoth­er poet is a chance to make explic­it and delib­er­ate, in the set­ting of another’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and philo­soph­i­cal approach, what Vogel’s lega­cy might have been if not sub­ject to vio­lent erasure. 

This is a coun­ter­fac­tu­al, of course, in two sens­es: the vio­lent era­sure did occur, and I am not bring­ing back into being Vogel’s poet­ry in any­thing but a refract­ed and dis­tort­ed way. That is a kind of homage, like a memo­r­i­al notice for the dead whose place of bur­ial is unknown.

I have cho­sen two poems to mod­i­fy: one enti­tled Libe-fer­zn 1920” [Love Vers­es 1920], a short poem in four parts on pages 38 and 39 of the book MANEKINEN: lid­er [Man­nequins: poems], pub­lished by Tsush­tay­er in War­saw in 1934; the oth­er, Balade fun der shlekhter libe [Bal­lad of bad love]”, from page 50 of that vol­ume. I was intrigued by the inter­play in these poems between the spe­cif­ic realia of dai­ly life, espe­cial­ly urban dai­ly life, and philo­soph­i­cal apothegms. The spare set­ting of the say­ings, as well as the bina­ry-cen­tric view of love (or love’s fail­ings) in a plan­e­tary exis­tence, cry out for a spec­u­la­tive trans­fer of her images and obser­va­tions into our own day.

I chose them also because love is what moti­vates me to write poet­ry, and all the more so Yid­dish poet­ry: a love, in the terms of the Tal­mu­dic rab­bis, that is not depen­dent on any­thing”: not the per­ma­nence of the read­er, the soci­ety, or even the lan­guage it is writ­ten in. The love in Vogel’s poems delib­er­ate­ly dis­miss­es, or negates, the motifs of roman­tic love (“maybe mem­o­ry isn’t enough/​with words like you’re my hap­pi­ness’” [from Vogel’s Bal­lad of bad love”]). Such over­writ­ing of cliché with flat des­per­a­tion is an invi­ta­tion to the con­tem­po­rary trans­la­tor who doesn’t know, some­times, which lan­guage they are writ­ing in, for whom they write, or in what century. 

An Expla­na­tion of the Erasures

An era­sure poem com­pris­es four parts: the orig­i­nal text, the act of era­sure, those por­tions of text sub­ject to era­sure, and the result­ing com­bi­na­tion. I will add a fifth part: a trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal poem and of the cre­at­ed erasure-poem.

The sam­ple com­pris­es three poems.

1. The first is an era­sure of a por­tion of Vogel’s poem Libe-fer­zn 1920” from Manekinen (pp. 38 – 39, Far­lag Tsush­tay­er,” Varshe-Lem­berg, 1934). The era­sure in Yid­dish comes first (I have enti­tled my ver­sion Libe-fer­zn 2020), accom­pa­nied by my Eng­lish trans­la­tion of that era­sure; next there is an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal poem of Vogel’s. This method, frag­ment­ed as it is, rep­re­sents an approach to era­sure and trans­la­tion as com­ple­men­tary techniques.

2. The sec­ond is in the same arrange­ment, but an era­sure of anoth­er sec­tion of that same poem.

3. In the third, era­sure is enact­ed graph­i­cal­ly by strik­ing out words with black mark­er. It is includ­ed as an image. The source poem is Balade fun der shlekhter libe,” also from Manekinen (p. 50), accom­pa­nied as well by my translation.


ליבע-פערזן 2020, 1

שלום בערגער (אַן אָפּמעקעניש פֿון אַ ליד דבֿורה פֿאָגעלס)

א

אַ צײַט האָט געמוזט אַװעקגעבן

קײנער מיטן צװײטן האָבן זיך נישט געטראָפֿן

ב

װאָס צו װיסן קען אײן מענטש

געבן אַ צװײטן, אַלץ געװאָלט װיסן

ג.

לעבן בלײַבן און געבן

װיסן, װעגן ליב האָבן



Love Verses 2020, 1

an erasure poem by Zackary Sholem Berger based on a poem by Debora Vogel

Time had to give away

No one met each other

One person gives another

What he should know. Wanted to know everything

Staying alive and giving

Knowledge, about loving

Love Verses 1920

Debora Vogel, trans. Zackary Sholem Berger

1.

They had to meet at a time

When no one can live without the other

And they had to leave each other

2.

This is what it had to come to:

They met just when

A person didn’t yet know, didn’t experience

What another can give them

Wants everything not to know anything

Wants life itself from them

ליבע-פערזן 2020, 2

שלום בערגער (אַן אָפּמעקעניש פֿון אַ ליד דבֿורה פֿאָגעלס)

אַ סך ליבעס גייען איבער דער

פֿאַרטרויערטער וועלט.

אַ סך פֿאַרלוירענער מענער.

פֿרויען, גייט פֿאַרבײַ.

Love Verses 2020, 2

An erasure poem by Zackary Sholem Berger based on a poem by Debora Vogel

Many loves pass over the

Mourned world.

Many men, lost.

Women, pass by.

Love Verses, 1920

Debora Vogel, trans. Zackary Sholem Berger

Passerby, never mourn

A lost lover - him or

Her

A long road of lost

Passes over the world

Many days in life, many wo/men

The Ballad of He/She/Them (Nonbinarizing)

An erasure poem by Zackary Sholem Berger based on the original by Debora Vogel

Thousands of times already he not

she --

Not

Not

Since that time

It’s come as if

with happiness

to them, oh, happiness

They concealed their feelings

as one should - but as one

Memory remained

(compared before to yellow leaves)

and perhaps memory isn’t enough

Translation of “Ballad of bad love” (from Vogel’s original Yiddish), trans. Zackary Sholem Berger

It would have been a thousand times more preferable

if he didn’t come

when they wouldn’t have met, among thousands

him and her

no green leaves and sky

no blue tomorrow or evening

since that time

it came out as it usually does

with happiness

it came to nothing between them, oh

happiness

They hid their feelings

Maybe it’s not love for him. or love for her

that’s how it ought to be .… but just for him

Only memory remained

(compared once upon a time to yellow leaves)

maybe memory isn’t enough

with words like “oh, you, my happiness”

But why does it always end up with this sentence

“it would have been better

if they hadn’t met”

MLA STYLE
Berger, Zackary Sholem. “Erasing the Written, Rewriting the Erased: A Fragmented and Imperfect Tribute to Vogel.” In geveb, October 2021: https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/erasing-the-written-rewriting-the-erased-a-fragmented-and-imperfect-tribute-to-vogel.
CHICAGO STYLE
Berger, Zackary Sholem. “Erasing the Written, Rewriting the Erased: A Fragmented and Imperfect Tribute to Vogel.” In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Nov 29, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zackary Sholem Berger

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