American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Songs of the Diaspora (part two)

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Back in August I was definitely fooling myself, thinking I could write about Yiddish poetry while trying to pack an apartment — and without sustained access to a library. Now I am probably fooling myself again, thinking I can pick up where I left off . It’s tempting, in fact, to say, “the hell with it”; “let it all hang.” This blog was meant to be a record of distraction. When distraction becomes obligation, it’s time to play hooky, right? Hooky from hooky, as it were … or maybe not, since that would mean going back to school.

Anyway, for good reason or bad — or just because — I’ve gone ahead with part two, half a conclusion to my reading of  Alice Stone Blackwell’s Songs of Russia (1906), focusing now on the first of the two Yiddish poets.

Part one is here. Part three to follow.

representing-190Since abandoning these notes in August, I’ve acquired Marc Miller’s Representing the Immigrant Experience (2007), a study of Morris Rosenfeld (I’m still looking for good source material on David Edelstadt). Miller’s book doesn’t mention Blackstone’s anthology, so I don’t feel entirely superseded … but I do feel superseded a little. My one consolation: Miller answers a question dogging me while I wrote part one. “Did Rosenfeld write either of his two poems in Russia?” The answer, I now know, is nyet. His earliest poems date from after his arrival in the U.S. (heretofore, the best I’d been able to ascertain was that his first publications came after his arrival, not quite the same thing).

Rosenfeld was already in his twenties when he left the Russian empire for good, so it’s not surprising that both of his poems, though written in the U.S., retain a Russian perspective, which certainly invites a reader to see them as Old World creations (and nothing in Blackwell’s anthology suggests otherwise). The first, “The Jewish Soldier,” recalls the 1877 Siege of Plevna; the second, “On Ocean’s Bosom,” concerns the flight of Jews across the Atlantic … but with a twist. This twist — reverse emigration — is not revealed until the 20th and 21st stanzas.

The poem divides roughly into three sections. The first (stanzas 1-9) gives the setup: a ship at sea, in terrible danger from storm (1-4); awful noise from the passengers (5-6); inexplicable calm from two men in steerage (7-9). Next comes the speaker’s questioning of the two men (stanzas 10-14). Finally, after a pause in which the setting is again described (stanza 15), the men explain themselves tearfully (16-24): they are Jews, and though they have nothing to look forward to in Russia, save pogroms, they are leaving America; not of their own free will, as with the speaker, but from poverty.

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)There is, perhaps, an autobiographical element in this encounter: Rosenfeld came to America for six months in 1882, returning briefly to Russia before the draft forced him to flee for good. When he made his own reverse voyage, it may well be that he met men like those in the poem. Does it make a difference, then, that he only wrote the poem after reversing his reversal? Only if we take his speaker’s voluntary return to Russia as a sincere preference for the Old World on the part of the poet. A reading of that sort (especially in the context of Songs of Russia ) might well admit an inference of Russian patriotism — an inference turned ironic when we learn more about the poet.

Ironies notwithstanding, the poem is indeed a song of Russia, also of America. And also, emphatically, of the diaspora: a protest against dispersal, international in its address. A reader’s appreciation of all this requires, however, a little context. Blackwell’s sophisticated readers no doubt brought that context to their reading. But as the book and its historical moment receded into memory (and then out of memory, into the archive), this preparation for understanding became less likely. I take my own rough understanding as typical: I get the general idea, but the fine points escape me. I did not know, for example, that the two Jews are not returning to Russia (as I at first presumed) because they find poverty more threatening than the pogroms. Their departure is involuntary for a more concrete reason. As explained by Abraham J. Karp, “The two Jews were turned back by the March 3, 1891, immigration law which barred entry to ‘paupers or persons likely to become a public charge.’” The poem, then, has complexities, but they’re frangible. Our care for them is a direct function of how much we know.

Here is the bare text as given by Blackwell, followed by E. M. Lilien’s illustration, made for Lieder des Ghetto (1902):

On Ocean’s Bosom

The awful wind, the storm with peril fraught,
Is wrestling with a ship upon the sea.
It would destroy her; she in sore distress
Cleaves the deep waters, groaning heavily.

The mast is cracking, quivering is the sail,
Frightful the water’s depths of roaring strife;
The wind contends and struggles with the ship
In fury, in a fight for death and life.

Now she is driven forward and now back,
Now she must stoop, now rise upon the main.
The ship is but a plaything of the waves
That swallow her, then spew her forth again.

The ocean roars, the billows lift themselves,
And awfully they thunder, lash and hiss.
The murderous storm seeks all things to destroy,
And opened are the jaws of the abyss.

Sighs, prayers are heard, for great the peril is,
And dreadful the distress. With suppliant breath
Now every man is calling on his God
To save the people from a certain death.

The children weep, the women wail in fear,
The folk confess their sins, with desperate mind;
And souls are fluttering, bodies quivering,
In terror of the mad, destructive wind.

But in the steerage down below, two men
Sit quietly; no pangs their heart-strings thrill.
They seek no rescue and they make no plans,
As if all things around were safe and still.

The water roars, the billows foam, the winds
Howl with prodigious tumult as they blow;
The boiler gasps, the smokestack buzzes loud,
But calm and silent are the men below.

Coolly they gaze into the eyes of Death;
They care not for the tempest’s dangerous might.
It seems as if the spectre Death himself
Had reared the two, in terror and dark night.

“Who are you, tell me, miserable men,
That you can hide all signs of pain and dread—
That even at the awful gates of death
You have no sighs to breathe, no tears to shed?

“Say, did graves give you birth, and do you leave
No parents and no wife behind to weep —
No child who will lament when you are lost
In these abysses terrible and deep?

“Do you leave no one to feel grief for you,
To long for you, shed tears in sorrow sore,
When the vast watery graveyard covers you
And you unto the earth return no more?

“Have you no country and no fatherland,
No friendly house, no home to which to go,
That you have such contempt for life, and wait
For the dark grave without a sign of woe?

“No one in heaven have you on whom to call
From trouble’s depths, no God to whom to cry?
Have you no nation, say, have you no faith?
Ye wretched ones, what is your destiny?”

Yawns the abyss, and loud the billows roar;
Creaks the ship’s rigging as the blast sweeps by;
The tempest howls, and wildly pipe the winds;
And thus, at last, with tears one makes reply:

“The graveyard dark was not our mother, nay,
Nor was the grave our cradle-bed of old,
‘Twas a good angel that gave birth to us,
A mother dear, with heart of tenderest mould.

“A mother fondled us, a loving breast
Nurtured us, warm as any breast could be.
A happy father also every day
Gazed in our eyes and kissed us tenderly.

“We had a house, but it has been destroyed;
Our holy things were burned by murderous bands,
Our best and dearest slain — dead bones are they ;
Those left were driven forth with fettered hands.

”Known is our country—oh! ’tis recognized
With ease, alas! by ceaseless bloody news
Of baitings, beatings, burnings, riots wild,
Death and destruction dealt to wretched Jews.

“Jews, hapless Jews are we, without a friend,
A joy, or hope of happiness, alack!
Ask us no more, no more! Leave us in peace.
America to Russia drives us back —

“To Russia, whence we fled; to Russia back,
Because we have no money. Journeying thus,
What have we left to look for or to hope?
What good is life or this dark world to us ?

“Something you have to weep for; you have cause
To murmur and fear death. You have a home
To which to go; you left America
Of your free choice, not forced by fate to roam.

“We are forlorn and lonely like a rock;
On this ill earth no place for us is found.
Travellers are we, but no one waits for us.
Tell us, I pray you, whither we are bound?

“Let the wind storm, and let it howl with rage,
Let the deep seethe and boil and roar around!
We Jews are lost, however it may be;
The sea alone can quench our burning wound.”

Illustration by E. M. Lilien for a 1902 translation of Rosenfeld into German

One can test the accuracy of Blackwell’s translation by comparing it to Leo Wiener’s prose version in Songs from the Ghetto (1898), the first English collection of Rosenfeld’s work. Blackwell acknowledges Wiener in her preface (she calls her own work “versified renderings” of his),  so there’s no surprise that the two versions should be close. The question is how close. What does Blackwell lose in exchange for rhythm and rhyme? (Qualities, I should note, that are present in the Yiddish originals, as one can tell from the transliterated text given by Wiener.) Here is the prose version:

On the Bosom of the Ocean

The terrible wind, the dangerous storm, is wrestling with a ship on the ocean; it is trying to break her, but she in distress cuts through the deep, groaning heavily.

The mast cracks, the sail trembles, frightful is the depth of the roaring waters; the wind struggles desperately with the ship in a life and death combat.

Now she must lie down, now again she must rise, now she is driven back, now forward; the ship is a plaything of the waves that swallow her up and spit her out again.

The ocean roars, the billows rise, and lash, and thunder in awful terror, the murderous storm wants to destroy everything, the abyss opens up its closed jaws.

There are heard sighs and prayers. Great is the danger and dreadful the calamity, and everybody prays to his God that He may save and liberate the people from sure death.

Children weep, women wail; the people cry and confess their sins; souls flutter, bodies tremble in terror of the angry, destructive wind.

But below, in the steerage, two men sit quietly; no pain assails them; they seek no salvation, they make no plans, just as if all were safe and calm about them.

The water roars, the billows foam; the wind whines and howls insanely; the boiler gasps, the chimney buzzes, but the men below, behold, they are silent now!

They look coolly into the eyes of Death; the dangerous might of the storm touches them not; it seems as though Death had reared the two in terror and dark night.

“Who are you, wretched ones, tell me, that you can suppress the most terrible sufferings, that you have no sighs and no tears even at the awful gates of Death?

“Say, have, indeed, graves brought you forth? Do you leave behind you no parents, no wife, no child who will lament you when you are lost here in the deep and dreadful abyss?

“How? Have you no one to be sorry for you, to long for you, or shed a tear, when the wet cemetery will cover you, when you will no more return to this earth?

“How? Have you no fatherland, no country, no home where to go to, no friendly house, that you bear such a contempt for life, and are waiting for the dark grave?

“Have you no one in heaven above to whom to cry when you are in trouble ? Have you no nation, have you no faith? Miserable ones, what is your destiny?”

The abyss yawns, the waves bellow, the ship-ladders crack, the storm rages madly, the winds whistle, and finally one said in tears :

“The black cemetery is not our mother, the grave has not been our cradle; a good angel has borne us, a dear mother, endowed with love.

“A mother has fondled us, a tender, warm, friendly breast has nurtured us; a father, too, has stroked us and looked into our eyes, and kissed us tenderly.

“We have a house, but it has been destroyed, and our holy things have been burned; our dearest and best have been turned into bones, and those who survive have been driven away with fettered hands.

“You know our country; it is easily recognized by its unceasing baiting and beating, by its cruel riots, its ruthless destruction, and dealing death to the wretched Jew.

“Yes, we are Jews, miserable Jews, without friends or joys, without hopes of happiness. Oh, ask us no more, ask no more, oh, leave us in peace! America drives us back to Russia,

“To Russia, whence we have run away, to Russia, because we have no money. What is there left for us to expect, to hope for? Of what good is life, and the gloomy world to us?

“You have something to weep for; you have reason to murmur and to be afraid of death! You have, no doubt, a home where to go to, and you have left America not from necessity.

“But we are forlorn and alone like a rock: Earth is too mean to give us a resting place; we are voyaging, but, unfortunately, no one waits for us. Explain to me, pray, whither we are bound!

“Let storm the wind, let it howl in anger: let the deep seethe, and boil, and roar! However it be, we Jews are lost, the ocean alone can allay our burning wound….”

I won’t compare the two English versions — that’s easy enough to do. But see how little the versification departs from the prose in these key stanzas:

“Yes, we are Jews, miserable Jews, without friends or joys, without hopes of happiness. Oh, ask us no more, ask no more, oh, leave us in peace! America drives us back to Russia,

“Jews, hapless Jews are we, without a friend,
A joy, or hope of happiness, alack!
Ask us no more, no more! Leave us in peace.
America to Russia drives us back —

“To Russia, whence we have run away, to Russia, because we have no money. What is there left for us to expect, to hope for? Of what good is life, and the gloomy world to us?

“To Russia, whence we fled; to Russia back,
Because we have no money. Journeying thus,
What have we left to look for or to hope?
What good is life or this dark world to us ?

“You have something to weep for; you have reason to murmur and to be afraid of death! You have, no doubt, a home where to go to, and you have left America not from necessity….”

“Something you have to weep for; you have cause
To murmur and fear death. You have a home
To which to go; you left America
Of your free choice, not forced by fate to roam….”

Less faithful is the remarkable illustration by E.M. Lilien, which accompanied the German translation by Berthold Feiwel. Here are Feiwel’s versions of the same three stanzas:

Und wir sind Juden, armselige Juden,
Ohne Freund, ohne Freud’, ohne hoffnung auf Glück,
Fragt uns nicht mehr! — Doch wollt ihr es wissen:
America treibt uns nach Russland zurück.

Es treibt uns dahin, woher wir geflohen
— Wir sind ja nur Juden und haben kein Geld! —
Doch nun, was sollen wir noch erhoffen?
Was soll uns das Leben, was soll uns die Welt?

Ihr habt wohl Grund zum Weinen und Beten
Und mögt euch entsetzen vor jähem Tod,
Habt alle ein Heim, darinnen zu wohnen,
Euch jagt übers Meer nicht die grausame Not.

Like Wiener and Blackwell, Feiwel puts the men “in the steerage down below” (“Dort unten, im Zwischendeck”); Lilien has them on the deck itself, alongside the ropes and a massive wave. Lilien also gives the men a characteristically Jewish appearance — is that a yarmulke that the one on the right is wearing? and is that a tzitzis peeking out from the other one’s coat? — which makes the speaker’s questioning and the revelation that they are Jews more rhetorical than dramatic.

Still, it’s a fabulous illustration.

Part three will follow shortly, and be much shorter.

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One Response

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  1. Great poem, 🙂

    Marinela

    November 22, 2009 at 2:35 pm


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