The poem we focused on this week was long and complex, so I am going to start just by sharing the poem itself, in its entirety. Then I’ll talk about it. I will try to be brief, but if I fail, and if you don’t have time for quite that long a schlepp (is that really the standard English spelling?), at least you’ll get the whole poem, and your own initial reaction to it.
The Country of My Bones, by Kadya Molodovsky.
English translation by Kathryn Hellerstein, from her wonderful book Paper Bridges.
There, where my eyes’ horizon ends,
Rises the country of my bones.
Thoroughly kneaded with ten fingers,
Flown through in a metro,
And snagged near a white cherry tree.
Good morning! It’s a sunny Monday,
It’s a Tuesday with windy rain
(What a miracle, that people’s feet
Can stroll through so many days and ways).
A cottage struggles against gray poverty
Like a hearty plant against drought.
The doors cut open the day with a rattle,
The cat awakens, and the hens, and the goose.
A hope awakens that cucumbers in the garden will turn green,
And a hen will lay an egg.
My mother- a clever general- ordered
That no one should want any plum-tsimes and tea.
No, no! Who needs it?—
Cucumbers turn green, the world is bright.
My feet tremble toward distant, sunny races,
But now a familiar command arrives:
–Look, the goose! Where has she waddled?
Maybe into Khaim Gedalye’s lettuce-patch.
The blue ribbon in my braid trembles
And the sunniness fades with the swaying flutter.
The waves saw away at one another, the waves
Of all the seas that I have floated through.
And it seems to me: I have seen people and cities
Through a crooked and fluid mirror.
I hoisted my silk shirt to flutter as a flag,
And went off into the world in a shirt of hard labor,
I seem always to be in debt to everyone,
And the worst complaints are always directed at me.
This is clear.
The clearest of all.
About this, the Yankee would say: Okay.
The Litvak says: It’s no damn good.
Strange how the sun is naked, and thinking is naked.
A cloudiness hangs in me
And obscures a soft summer’s day.
A cottage met up with the Empire State Building
And they bent together into a question mark:
The Empire State Building openly, impudently
Pointed with its highest tower
And wrote as brilliantly and unexpectedly
As lightning in the darkness of a storm:
–See, with my highest copper tip
I’ve cut a harrow in the sky,
And your grandfather, for naught, with trembling hands
Blessed the new moon!
And the cottage, as usual, asks how you are,
And calmly says to me:
–There’s none of the bee’s venom in honey—
I correct those mistakes in the country of my bones
And record them in my writings.
Kadya Molodovsky (usually ‘Molodowsky’ in English) published eight books of poetry over a forty-year span. Her work is difficult to categorize. She wrote about women’s lives, about injustice and the suffering of the poor, about dislocation and the modern world, and about the Holocaust. There is often a sense of in-between-ness. She drew from old folk sources and her poems feel self-consciously modern. Her work is distinctly Jewish, but her relationship to the tradition is rarely a straightforward rejection or acceptance. Her lyric poems sometimes use end rhymes, sometimes don’t, and sometimes rhyme a word with itself, often employing all three of these strategies within a single poem.
It makes sense that Molodovsky’s poetry has many disparate subjects and influences. She grew up in a house with pictures of religious, enlightenment, and Zionist leaders side by side on the wall. She was educated early in both religious and secular subjects and in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. She traveled restlessly and was married but without children. She came of age as an artist in the ferment of Kiev, then Warsaw, between the two world wars. She then taught Hebrew and also was an important contributor to the secular Yiddish schools in Poland. She had Zionist leanings but was married to a Communist. Her work is extremely intelligent, lyrical, and many-layered. It also veers between passion and ironic detachment, seemingly never coming to rest anywhere.
Her early “Women Poems” made her known, and the book Nights of Heshvan (1927) in which they appeared was self-consciously feminine, and feminist. Those poems are available here at Sheva Zucker’s blog Candles of Song. If you want to go deeper into Yiddish poetry, this blog is a great resource. There, Zucker has collected a series of poems about mothers, as a tribute to her own mother. Particularly useful to students, she includes the poems in Yiddish, in transliteration, so those who can’t read Hebrew characters can still get the sounds, and in English. Brief bios of the poets are also available. Some of the entries also have audio clips.
In the Country of My Bones was the title poem of Molodovsky’s sixth book, published in 1937, not long after she moved to America. Exile is the major theme. The poem itself begins with a long view of the horizon, to where the ‘country of my bones’ rises. It might seem like a poem of nostalgia and longing, but it is more than that. In the first stanza she describes having been formed in one place, and then transported. In the second stanza is an image of a different kind of travel— the speaker’s ‘wonder’ that the same feet can move through time and through moods, from a sunny day to a dreary day. In that sense, images of dislocation across place and time can also be about facets of the self, and a poem about literal exile or culture shock can also be about a self that contains disparate selves.
I’m not going to go line by line and ‘explicate’ the poem. I will mostly talk about the image I find central to the poem, which occurs near the end:
“A cottage met up with the Empire State Building
And they bent together into a question mark”
What is that question mark asking? First, how does one live, as someone who was born in a cottage in a shtetl, and now is in modern New York City? For that matter, how does one even understand a world that contains both that cottage and the Empire State Building? The Empire State Building is a symbol of America, of modernity, and of wealth and power. It is a structure that can write on the sky, or cleave it like a harrow, in contrast to the observant Jew who jumps towards the new moon during his Rosh Hodesh prayers, but gets no closer.
“And your grandfather, for naught, with trembling hands
Blessed the new moon!”
At first, this may seem a triumphal image, compared to the old ways, which were “for naught.” [As an aside, it seems to me that the ostensibly comic or pathetic ritual of jumping towards the new moon was never an attempt to reach the sky, to attain the unattainable. It was a way of offering oneself to the gap between earth and heaven, between where one is and one’s imagination, between the human and the divine. In this particular poem, Molodovsky’s take on tradition and the shtetl cottage seems simultaneously mocking and affectionate throughout.]
In the very next breath she describes how atop the building’s eydlestn (the most noble, delicate, refined) cornice sits New York’s biggest paskudniak. Hellerstein gives ‘bastard’ here, but a paskudniak is more specifically a lout, a crass and vulgar person. The genius and greatness of America only serve to elevate those who deserve it least, while those who are truly deserving are lowered by contrast.
But neither is Molodovsky rejecting modernity and advocating a return to the old way of life which, in any case was fast disappearing if not already gone. In her earlier, charming description of the ‘cottage’ that symbolizes shtetl life and traditional Judaism, hope is limited to a cucumber, and an egg (fertility and sustenance, but on a very humble and impoverished scale), and her feet were already restless for more.
So if the Empire State Building is problematic, the cottage had problems of its own. But it is the juxtaposition of the two that raises the biggest question. What is the country of her bones?
The country of her birth could be back in the old world, where her bones were formed. Then, the word ‘gebeyn’ can also mean ‘remains’. It was probably already clear to her in the 1930s that her bones would likely be laid to rest in America. The poem’s first lines seem to locate the country of her bones as rising at the horizon—that is, at the limit of what she can see and know, in her memory and her imagination. Or it could be that her bones’ ‘country’ is wherever her feet take her, through Monday’s sun and Tuesday’s rain, from the cottage to the skyscraper.
Any one interpretation is probably too pat for this writer, who was unlikely to settle for easy answers. One classmate commented that much of her work seems to be emotionally detached, or uncommitted. To me it often just seems lonely. In her first book, “Nights of Heshvan,” the protagonist of a poem is trying to mend a marriage after adultery, and says “Husband, / I have a place for you near me, a cherished place, / but I have not kept any peace or place for myself.” Other poems variously describe the work of poem-making as distancing her from others, and as creating bridges. In this poem, she “sees people and cities through a fluid and crooked mirror,” but in the end she also “corrects these mistakes in the country of my bones.” Writing is, for her, the only consistently connecting, potentially redemptive act.
I include one final tidbit as a nod to Molodovsky’s humor, which is present and provides leavening throughout the poem, and also a tribute to our teacher. D has explained the cultural differences in the everyday act of greeting someone, and often tries to keep us, her students, from answering the question, “Vos makhts du?” with an automatic ‘fine’, or ‘ok’. She says the ‘auto-fine’ is a feature of American culture. An authentic Yiddish answer will rarely let that question go without a complaint, direct or implied, and will in any case provide actual information. So it was delightful to see the poet’s culture shock efficiently depicted through the American’s obligatory optimism, “About this, the Yankee would say: Okay,” whereas, “The Litvak says: It’s no damn good.” The actual wording is “It’ll do for a kapore.” In other words, swing it over your head and fling it.