Last week we read poems by Rukhl Korn, who lived and wrote first in Poland, then in Montreal after World War II. We spent most of our time reading and talking about the poem Shvester. Our reading was enriched by the discussion of this poem in Kathryn Hellerstein’s book, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish.
Rather than reiterate that discussion here, I want to just recommend the book to you. It’s true, it is written in a somewhat academic tone. It starts by talking about how specific poetry anthologies shaped and were shaped by prevailing views of women writers, including how modern anthologists viewed literary history. So not everything in her first two chapters will be interesting to everyone who likes Yiddish poetry. Still, time and time again Hellerstein picks powerful, important poems to talk about, and does so intelligently, helping you see connections between the poet’s life and her work, and also to see the poets’ connections to each other. Her translations are strong, and supplemented by discussion of poets’ usages that can’t be straightforwardly rendered in English. Her love of the work comes through clearly.
Lastly, her feminist sensibility is well articulated, backed-up by facts, and crucial to understanding these poets. These were women who were working in a man’s world, both in the literary establishment that would publish and evaluate them, and in the shapes and limitations put on women’s lives by Jewish tradition– a tradition these poets both honored and pushed against. The book is a bit expensive. Well worth it, but if you’re tight, maybe you can coax your library into buying a copy: http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=10593
For the blog, though, I’ll share not Shvester, but a different poem of Rukhl Korn’s, called The Other Side of the Poem. It begins, Fun yener zayt lid iz a sod faran | un in sod iz a hoyz mit a stroyenem dakh. “On the other side of the poem is an orchard | and in the orchard is a house with a straw roof.” The same first words begin each stanza: “On the other side of the poem, …is a bird,” then, “…is a little path,” and then “On the other side of the poem miracles can happen.”
‘The other side of the poem’ may stand for one or all of several dislocations. It can refer to the gap between reality and the imagination, the world as it is compared to the world as we might dream or wish it. It can be the divide between the present and the past. In Korn’s case that would include the divisions between Canada and the Old World, and the division of life after the holocaust from life before the holocaust. “The other side of the poem” can also divide present from future, including the distance between the present writer of the poem and the future reader of the poem. Finally, as in the opening passages of Bontshe Shveyg, where this world “oyf der velt” is contrasted with the other world “oyf yener velt”, the “other side” of the poem can refer to heaven, or the world to come. Here’s her poem in its entirety.
(Click on the poem for a clearer version)
And here is Ruth Whitman’s translation, from her book An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry:
On the Other Side of the Poem
On the other side of the poem there’s an orchard –
and in the orchard a house with a straw thatch;
three silent pine trees are standing there,
three guardians forever keeping watch.
On the other side of the poem there’s a bird,
a brown-yellow bird with a reddish breast
that returns here every winter
and hangs like a bud on the naked bush.
On the other side of the poem there’s a path
narrow and steep, the thinnest sliver,
and someone who’s lost her way in time
comes, quiet, barefoot, to haunt me there.
On the other side of the poem there may be
a miracle. But today is dreary and grey;
a feverish longing for an amazing hour
flutters against my window pane.
On the other side of the poem my mother
stands on the threshold, stands in thought
and calls me home as of old, as of old:
You’ve played long enough! Can’t you see it’s night?
That final image is heartbreaking. The speaker longs for an imagined world with her real mother in it, the mother of her childhood who can call her back inside when it’s time to stop playing. Somewhere a miracle may happen that can grant her wish of seeing her mother again. But her imagined mother says, “Stop your imagining and come home.” And of course, that homecoming is impossible except in imagining.
“Perhaps exile is the natural condition of the poet,” said Joseph Brodsky. There is an alienation from the unexamined life that many writers share, but also a kind of double removal, first detaching oneself from direct experience in order to use words to get closer to some crucial element of that experience, and simultaneously, an acute awareness that words cannot take you there. One yearns to celebrate fleeting experience in a fixed form. Given that this unattainable endeavor is the work of the poet, Brodsky suggests that physical or cultural exile can be a professional advantage.
The concept of exile is, of course, central to the Jewish world-view. By heritage Jews are granted a vocabulary of longing from two thousand years of yearning for the return to a promised land. When “Next year in Jerusalem” is intoned every Passover, it doesn’t mean the present day Jerusalem. It is the Jerusalem of King Solomon, where and when the temple can be rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah. Presumably in Solomon’s own days, the yearning for return to wholeness was directed at the Garden of Eden. But exile has also meant that the world as it is needs to be fixed, that this place in which we find ourselves is not as it is supposed to be.
So many Yiddish poets were in exile from their exile. Even without moving a step, secular Jews were no longer able to belong to the pious, constrained but comprehensible, world of their parents, and of their early upbringings. That is, they could not even long for what they are supposed to long for. Then there were physical displacements. Beginning with legislative edicts in the Russian Empire in the 1880s, Jews were displaced by three successive generations of forced legal removals, pogroms, famines, revolutions and World Wars. Finally, the Holocaust annihilated the place they were displaced from, so that, absent time travel, there was no ‘there’ to long go back to.
Two weeks ago we read a poem by H. Leivick, called “A Leaf on a Tree,” in which the speaker imagines himself up in a tree outside his window and is transformed into a leaf among the leaves. In this image, nature, the imagination, and the old tradition (a ‘blat’ can mean a page, as well as a leaf) merge in the poet’s mind. Happy and at home, he drinks all night from the ancient source of water. But the light of day shows that he doesn’t belong. He must go back and wander a zigzag path over sand and rocks.
The clear light of day casts him into exile. Thus, enlightenment and reason are alienating, and call us into a life that requires effort and suffering. In the poem, that path of suffering can be endured, even affirmed, by virtue of his nighttime experience, “by the grace of a leaf on a tree”. For Leivick, the earlier experience– identity, the imagination or the poem’s merging of the two– can sustain us in a world of wandering and pain.
Returning to Korn’s poem, the bird in her second stanza returns every winter, to hang on a naked branch. I’m not certain of my interpretation, but here’s my take. European robins are brown-yellow with red breasts. American robins are black and gray with red breasts. So her imagined bird is on the other side of the ocean. Time is also flipped. Usually birds return to a cold or temperate climate every spring. Here they come in winter. Birds are often muse-symbols in poems. The bird from the other side of the poem does not come to inspire the poet to sing for a mate or to build a new nest, but comes to empty branches, to sing of loss.
The path on the other side of the poem connects the poet to someone who is farblondzhet in tsayt, “who has lost her way in time.” The translator’s interpretation is that that this is a ghost, probably the mother who will arrive two stanzas later. This is why she chooses the verb ‘to haunt’. But that take is not in the original Yiddish, which just says that the one who has lost her way in time, “goes around there with quiet, barefoot steps.” It’s plausible that this is the speaker of the poem’s mother, but it could also be that the speaker herself is lost in time, that her own lost soul wanders around on that path back there, on the other side of the poem, looking for her mother, for the longed-for miracle, for everything that has been lost.