At thirty
Avrom Sutzkever

At thirty my father’s heart gave out
While playing Reb Levi Yitskhok’s melody
On a small fiddle at nightfall –
The fiddle trembled childlike on his shoulder.
And its language, a bright magnet,
Drew the distant world
Into the shadowy hut
Where I, a seven-year-old dreamer,
Wrapped myself around
Fatherly knees.

It was – was – in bright Siberia.
A spot of sun, or the hot tongue
Of the freezing wolf,
Licked the snows on the pane
And couldn’t melt through.
The only light came
From the fragmented sounds
Of the fiddle, sparking in stripes
Against my humid eye.
Suddenly my pale father
Grabbed his heart, jerked, wobbled
With his arm stretched out,
And into my arms his body fell
Together with the fiddle,
As a heavy branch falls
Onto a green wave
And is carried away. . . .

Overhead floated a melody.
Down below, on the floor,
My father’s last breath was failing.
And whether I’m convincing myself it’s true
Or what I say is true:
Lying now eternally joined to a cold silence,
His lips confided in me:
“Thus, my child,
Test the weight of life in your arms
So you become accustomed
To carry it completely, to the end . . .”

Then the poet was born in me.
A kernel slumbered within me
Carrying in its core a certain mission.
I imagined I became the lord
Of forests, people, things.
Whatever I saw
Was my embodied desire.
My father’s last will
Followed me from then on:
“Thus, my child,
Test the weight of life on your arms
So you become accustomed
To carry it completely, to the end . . .”
Now, when I have run up against my father’s age,
Hurried up upon it,
And there’s no way back or forward,
When I notice my face in a mirror,
My distant father
Wells out to me from its waves.
Perhaps I’m him, and my years
Are only a link to his departed life?
The same face as his,
Recollecting snow on windowpanes . . .
The same heart
Which is getting ready to give out,
And just like my father
I also own a little red fiddle:
See, I tear open my veins
And play on them my melody!

But there’s no one here
Whose knees to wrap around,
Weighing out my life,
Dragging on, as with a wind,
My cloud of yearning to a clear destination,
Where all words come to rest,
Where days come together
But never meet.

I clasp in my fist, like a stone,
These thirty years
And hurl them into the cold
Mirror’s chasm.

From Yiddish: Zackary Sholem Berger
[originally published in the journal Passport at the University of Arkansas, which seems to be defunct]