Archives for posts with tag: poetry

Happy Purim 2017 from Zack, Celeste,

Our first podcast of the new year features a chat with the bilingual poet/critic/translator Alexander Dickow. Text of the poems he read are at the end of this post.

To a Politician
Your cellophane disguise for a tongue
Furiously unbefits the even knavest
Of these podium fisted Catilines I hate
Whose dim broadcasts encrust
With craven abjectives and slick nouns,
Whose paramount pronouncements’
Weighty grovel fresh veneers each victim eye,
Who gape and crave at limp wealth,
Puppets of their own slanted lip
And their thin speech as cheap
As its callous stakes are ruthless:
Our brittle faith, our breath, the truth.

Galaxy

Measureless and vacant husks
Veneer along the pale gaps
Kissing the smooth-lit kernels
Far across the hesitation
Contours

Where cycles dip
Ebbing forth aromas
Of nectar vicinities
All gleamed among
Their dim stretchings

Remote surroundments
Hint around lucid cusps
And milk-blinkings swerve
Over grooved vastnesses
Whose lofty gazes
Empty to the brim resound

Finespun legions
Of distant stone pivot
Within strange rings
And innocent strains
Swivel endless and lilt
Like hearts wept upon
The rings of far-fetched motes
Tingling their ancient aubades

Galaxie

D’incommensurables écorces
Enduisent selon les faîtes espacés,
Et frémissant le semis d’éclairages,
Floue les ourlets tout loin.

Arômes qu’émane
Un jusant cousus d’oublis,
Luisez vos affleurements sourds
Et vos proches nectars.

Des avant-preuves perlent
En glissant partout les orées lucides
Où des clins de lait dérapent
Pendant des éloignements vastes
Dont les grands regards
Vides à ras bord résonnent.

Des légions respirées
En pierre lointaine pivotent
Dans des cerclages
Et des airs d’innocence
Louvoient des vibrements
Comme des coeurs pleurés
Dessus les anneaux d’improbables noyaux
Frissonnant d’antiques aubades.

I come to this book as an outsider. I am a white guy, a Jew, reviewing a volume of African American poetry for black people in Baltimore. I do this because I live in Baltimore, I feel a kinship with African Americans due to our shared history; and I want to know how poetry of different communities works.

This is all the more true because Tariq Touré’s poetry, in this black-and-white volume called “Black Seeds,” is aimed at his community. These are short poems about the state of black Baltimore, about life and death and striving, murder and failure and desperation. Each poem is accompanied on the facing page by an image, often a photo of an African American looking into the camera. The portraits are unadorned, beautiful.

This is 31rwu9z9dl-_sx322_bo1204203200_more than a community – it is an audience before whom the poet is performing. This is a multimedia presentation. It is based on the slam esthetic: each poem ends with a boldfaced title, the performer naming what he has just delivered with a flourish.

There are calls to nationalism:

“I see empires in your furrowed eyebrows” — Nubia

… and prayerful meditations on the self:

“Man is given seconds, yet begs for minutes”–The curious attention span

This is hip-hop on the page, and as such strikes a balance. On the one hand there is rhyme aplenty and anaphora, familiar in any oral tradition; on the other these are verses with plenty of space, cascading down the page, and capital letters to give emphasis. There is a poem Balance about this tension between the weight of history (and literacy) and the present-day of orality (and popular culture):

I have friends
Who sit and Pontificate
Musing over Plans
To leave
More than
A biological imprint
7 generations
Down the stream
Where
Apple headed children
Trip over
Their forefathers & foremothers
Legacies
On the way to school

And

I have friends
That have only
Planned
For Saturday night

The entire slim volume is balanced on the razor’s edge of this conflict: duties to the self versus duties to one’s people; honoring past martyrs and building bridges to the future impervious to flame.

Indeed, this book is surrounded by flame, fire out of the gunbarrels of police and the torches of protest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. One would expect there to be more hate. I don’t read that here, though there is sorrow and rage:

Jim crow’s skeleton
fell out of
a police van
crashed onto the ashen pavement
paraded down Pennsylvania avenue
brutalized the metal cavalry
of pigs
subsequently
announcing a 100% off sale
the city glowed
as Watts glowed
as Harlem glowed
as Ferguson glowed
for Freddie

Baltimore Power Keg

“Glowing” as candles glow, not burning or flaming as an explosion. The skeleton, zombified, brings multiple sites of tragedy and brutality into redemptive communion.

In the wake of my move to Baltiimore seven years ago, and even more so in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I have read more and more (though still not enough) contemporary poetry by African Americans. These poets inhabit a diverse space. Toure’s is not the academic poetry of Terrence Hayes or the pop-culture fueled confessional wit of Saeed Jones. His gifts are in the shared world of oral and written, of street, school, protest, home, and quiet self. I look forward to reading more of him, as he sheds his glow.

Thanks Charles Rammelkamp for including three poems of mine in the latest issue of The Potomac — one original work, and two translations from Avrom Sutzkever’s Diary Poems. (And don’t forget to check out Carol Berkower‘s lovely verse in the same issue!)

Here’s one of those translations of Sutzkever’s Yiddish:

1975

Explain it? Explain it how?
The sun didn’t turn colder,
but she won’t melt tears
and only childhood gets no older.

Youth, her brother, was trampled
like red grapes in the cellar.
The shadow’s hair turns silver
and only childhood gets no older.

Her snows and her violets
are not to be had for gold.
Her king grows old, as does his kingdom
and only childhood gets no older.

From Diary Poems by Avrom Sutzkever,
translated from the Yiddish

My translation from the Hebrew of Natan Alterman’s poem The Shadow is now posted at the Manhattanville Review, and also — below! (Check out the journal website for a little squib about my translation philosophy or lack thereof.)

Natan_Alterman

The Shadow
Natan Alterman
From Hebrew: Zackary Sholem Berger

Once there was a man and his shadow.
One night the shadow stood up
took the man’s shoes and coat,
put them on. Passing by
it took the man’s hat from the hook,
trying as well to remove his head —
without success. It took his face off
and put that on too. If that weren’t enough
next morning he went out with his walking stick.
The man ran down the street after him
shrieking to his friends: What a terrible thing!
It’s a shadow! A clown! It’s not me! I’ll
write the authorities! He can’t get away with it! He wailed
bitterly, but little by little got used to it, fell silent, till at last
he forgot about the incident.

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]

I published a short poem at the site Asses of Parnassus. Go assess.

The New York Times recently covered the Yiddishophilia — in recitation and in his own poetic creations — of the contemporary master pianist Evgeny Kissin. The poems he recited, and their translations (by me, among others), are available here. Here is one of them.

A teatr iz di velt (The World’s a Theater)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

The world’s a theater.
God’s director.
A fine play. A pity, though:
The prompter is the Devil.

The booth is the black heart.
The Devil forges the play!
And if you recite the wrong thing
You can’t take it back!

Of course, you can’t be careful enough.
And can’t make a fuss.
The play is fantastic.
The mistakes – genius!

The actor stumbles too.
When he’s supposed
to hurl the cup away,
he brings it to his mouth!

The wine drops glow like flames.
He empties the glass.
There’s no hurrying the thunder.
God’s patience is great.


Aron Glantz-Leyeles does not make things easy for the translator or critic. A formalist, he was of a philosophical, lugubrious bent; spending most of his life in America, he was no troubadour, guerilla fighter, or escaped refusenik. Neither did he become the harrowing, post-war poet of Holocaust remembrance (like Jacob Glatstein), triangulating God’s absence with the calipers of Jewish history and the “goyim’s” nonchalance. His lyric conclusions are different, and more deliberate.Amerike-un-ikh2

More on the virtuoso of loneliness in a blogpost of mine (including some new translations of Leyeles’ verse) posted recently at In Geveb.

Maybe a law of gravitation was in force here too:

Suddenly I found myself attracted to a strange unknown city. This city wasn’t included in the itinerary of my voyage round the world by air. I didn’t even know its name, or whether such a clime was to be found on Earth at all.

It happened this way:Avrom-Sutzkever-2-420x250

When the airplane slid out of the slanted air onto the silky smooth runway, on its way to kick out some passengers to their connecting flight, glugging itself full of gas, or some other drinkable, en route to another nonstop across the sea — I nonchalantly grabbed my bag and in a daze followed the few passengers off the plane.

Read “A Smile at the End of the World,” this story by Avrom Sutzkever in my translation, thanks to the editors at B O D Y. The original is from his volume Green Aquarium. If you are a publisher who is interested in a fantastic volume of prose poems like this one, be in touch!