There is a Strange Flavor
An excerpt from
Lider fun togbukh
By Abraham Sutzkever
There is a strange flavor, seasoned with pomegranates and grapes
found in the desert when, without shadows, it flames;
while rain rolls through the red dust of dirt trails,
and it is possible to taste it in Jerusalem’s hills.
Every grain of dust becomes an ancient, local fruit,
a fruit of the sky and the earth, that sort of a mix.
And if you say a blessing and seal it with your lips,
it will bind you to the sky, and bind you to the earth.
A cloud overflows like boiling milk; and a second cloud
descends down the rain’s hanging ladder like fine gold.
The streams knead cliffs with torrential dynamic,
but nothing matches dust in the rain for flavor and freshness.
There is a flavor of dream (to a palate barely reached),
there is a healing flavor of God-blessed sounds; the taste
of dust in the rain is seasoned with pomegranates and grapes
when, without shadows, the desert flames.
--First appeared in Pakn Treger
Translation © Maia Evrona
The Fiddler Plays…
The fiddler plays and grows ever thinner, thin and thinner,
already thinner than the fiddle-bow, thinner than a string.
In place of its master, by itself the fiddle plays thinner, ever thinner,
and its master burns for his faith on a white pyre.
The fiddle plays alone now ever thinner, thin and thinner,
the fiddler cannot pass it a sip of water; On their own
the sounds play and they play thinner, thinner.
until sounds glow on the pyre, sounds glow.
Sounds glow on the pyre, glow thin and thinner,
now the darkness plays without fiddle and without bow.
It plays without sounds and its playing: thinner, thinner, thinner,
until we sparkle all through its black eyes.
Oh, darkness, for whom do you play ever thinner, thin and thinner,
for us, the small tears? Are your favors destined for us?
Music from tears. Tiny tears. Thinner, thinner, thinner,
together with the white pyre and the dark earth.
--First appeared in The Brooklyn Rail; inTranslation
Translation © Maia Evrona
I am currently in the process of translating the collection Poems from My Diary/Lider fun Togbukh by the great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever (often spelled Avrom Sutzkever). A legendary figure of the Yiddish literary world, Sutzkever was born in 1913 in modern-day Belarus. He survived the Vilna Ghetto, where he served as a member of the famous Paper Brigade, before escaping to the partisans in the forests surrounding Vilna. Following The Holocaust, he testified at the Nuremberg Trials and immigrated illegally to Mandatory Palestine, just before the founding of the State of Israel. There, he continued writing poetry in Yiddish, despite significant pressure to write in Hebrew, and founded the Yiddish literary journal Di Goldene Keyt/The Golden Chain. He passed away in 2010 in Tel Aviv, at the age of 96.
Poems from My Diary was first published in 1977 as a collection of roughly 75 poems, but was later expanded to nearly 200 in the volume Twin Brother, published in 1985. The complete collection is considered Sutzkever's masterpiece and led to his being awarded the Israel Prize for Literature, the only time the prize has been awarded for literature written in Yiddish rather than Hebrew.
In 2016, I was awarded a fellowship in translation from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete my translation of Poems from My Diary, and over fifty of my individual translations from the book have appeared in a variety of literary journals.
If you would like to support this project, please consider making a donation via my Paypal Tipjar.
Translations of Abraham Sutzkever's Poems From My Diary:
-“The Clay of Time,” “A Face in the Window,” “In Memory of Uri Tsvi Greenberg,” “Those Green-Green Eyes,” “Our Terror is the Terror of Ponar and Majdanek,” “It Drew Us Both Here”
Forthcoming in Lunch Ticket
-“A Horizon of Furious Salt”
Forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly
-"The Distant is Drawing Near," "I Will Be Again Where I Once Was," "The Street Sweeper" and "When I Suddenly Shake the Shards of Night From My Eyes"
Forthcoming in Pusteblume
-"Out of Amused Solitude, At a Flea Market in Paris"
Tupelo Quarterly, Spring 2018
Pakn Treger; 2018 Translation Issue, Transportation
-"My Fingers Wandered Together," "A Funeral by Day, A Concert by Night" and "You Quivering Wave"
Forthcoming in Ezra; An Online Journal of Translation
The Brooklyn Rail; InTranslation, Summer 2017
Ilanot Review; The Letters Issue
-"A Myrtle Scent Led Me Through the Mountains of Safed," and "When Your Words, Your Rhymes"
West Branch; Fall 2017
The Northwest Review of Books, Issue 1, Spring 2017
Circumference; Poetry in Translation, March 2017
In Geveb, December 2016
Transom; Issue 10
Eleven Eleven Journal; Issue 21, Fall 2016
Pakn Treger; 2016 Translation Issue
The Kenyon Review Online; August 2015
-"And if a Single Wish," "In the Orchestra We Are Just the Notes, Just the Notes," "And I Will Make a Pilgrimage To My Hometown in Winter"
Poetry East; Spring 2015
-"There Are Several Signs," and "The Last Cranberry's Sour Twinge," with translator's note.
Hayden's Ferry Review; Spring 2015
Asymptote Blog; Translation Tuesday, April 2015
Cosmonauts Avenue; December 2014
Poetry Magazine; November 2014
The Ilanot Review; Summer 2014; Conflict
*Nominated for a Pushcart Prize
Pakn Treger 2014 Online Translation Issue, reprinted in the Pakn Treger; Translation Anthology (a print issue)
-"Your Body's Red Bricks," "Who Will Remain, What Will Remain?" "A Heavy Apple," "How Does One Explain?" "After What and Whom Do You Yearn?" "Recollection of Pasternak," "The Fiddler Plays," "And Every Moment I See You for the First Time in My Life," "And This Is the Ballad of My Life," "I'm Thankful that We're Both Alive..."
The Brooklyn Rail; inTranslation, April 2014
Pakn Treger 2013 Online Translation Issue
There Are Several Signs…
There are several signs, that our life
so far is but an early stage of life,
and that the original word, which gave birth to life,
gives birth to a higher life when this life ends.
The animal dressed as a man will remain a wild beast
so long as people do not become like birds, girded with wings
and abandon land after land and soar and soar
all the way to the self: it’s farther than to the star one cannot see.
Shakespeare and Ibn Gabriol and Rembrandt and Mozart
will bow one day to a completely different kind of spirituality:
To divine tragedies, celestial comedies,
to furrowed music and unfamiliar colors.
This is the only messiah in which I believe, the one
who loves my language, such a messiah is not welded
to any gate, he is forged in ardent, human ribs,
and happy is anyone when the messiah sings through his lips.
First appeared in Hayden's Ferry, Translation© Maia Evrona
And If a Single Wish
And if a single wish is good on my account,
this is it, my only wish, I will not hide it,
and may I be forgiven by other wishes, near or far:
Just for a moment…I want to glimpse tomorrow’s little flower.
Just as, for instance, I have at times had the honor
of glimpsing yesterday through a whirlpool’s flow
of sparks, when I drowned myself well in the Vilija River
and also hastily drowned my tears.
Just as, for instance, an elderly man may glimpse
an eagle beyond cliffs, and be calmly jealous of its wander.
My only wish is one with this: Tomorrow’s revelation.
Before the present comes apart.
And if, in its mercy, it will anoint me with it dews,
I will recognize the spring at once by its first bloom.
But I will later tell no one of my vision,
apart from a handful of earth, a handful of heaven.
First appeared in Poetry East
Translation ©Maia Evrona