Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Abraham Sutzkever, A Portrait Poem by Seymour Mayne

Di Yidisher Velt

It is about continuing; it is about legacy; it is about passing on the words of Jewish tradition, even when death is all around, the words resist an easy death or, for that matter, any death. They live. Davka, they live, and they live long in unexpected, unforeseen places. 

Seymour Mayne [born in 1944 in Montreal] is a well-known Canadian poet, editor and translator. He met Abraham Sutzkever [born in 1913 in Smorgon–died in 2010 in Tel Aviv] while still in high school in Montreal, while the great Yiddish poet was speaking at the Jewish Public Library (Yidishe Folks biblyotek) at 4499 Esplanade Avenue at the corner of Mont-Royal Avenue, across the road from Fletcher’s Field—a venerable institution in Montreal.

Twenty years later they met regularly in Tel Aviv, Seymour Mayne writes (on page 12) in Prism: an Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Education (Spring 2018: Volume 10)
In our meetings, Sutzkever was always glad to parse words and phrases with me, but generally we did not engage in literary criticism or theory. We focused on the poems ofthe ghetto period and the time he had spent in the Narocz Woods with his fellow partisans. As translator, I noted from the start that his sharp focus on the concrete word and image gives a clear urgency to his poems, so that when readers engage them decades after they were written, the works are as immediate and vivid as if they had just been spoken.
In a dedication for Sutkever, Mayne writes (on page 13): “The Jewish present and past, no matter the destructive onslaught of enemies, find strength and hope in the Yiddish word. All who touch and are touched by Sutzkever’s consummate art carry the vibrant legacy of his words into the cultural renewal of the Jewish People. This poem is for him.” The legacy continues; I got in touch with Mayne last year, and we correspond by e-mail and here is his poem, capturing an essence of a man, who moves from one place to another.

Abraham Sutzkever, A Portrait Poem
by Seymour Mayne

Tired and bloodshot
your aging eyes
match your bald
pate and full moustache
memento of your girth
and Partisan strength.

You speak and sing
always of some past’s
indefinite future
which is not the present
ever but that frozen
waste where unpeopled
the ghosts of millions
wind into the snow
and darkening light —
northern hell
of the world, Siberia
where history
is grimly imminent.

Surrounded by paintings
Vilna mementos and nameplates
here in your flat
over lightwashed Tel Aviv —
here you say
you never write
but only find yourself reflected
in the books and portraits.

Hurrying you seem
always rushing and writing
poems as all poets now do
in haste, secretly,
unseen in no man’s
land, invisible place,
the impossible promised land
where all the refugee words
are gathered and make shelter.

The “promised land” is the place where the impossible takes place, where the impossible for some borders on miraculous and for others is miraculous, and while others is awaiting the miraculous. A regular everyday miracle are the words of “an outsider” finding a home in an ancient land; even so, this might be the only ancient land where such “refugee words” can make sense and where the light can be easily reflected back to meaning. Tel Aviv is as different from Siberia as one place on earth can be as different from another. There is more than geographical distance. For more, go [here] and [here] and [here] and [here].

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment Policy:

All comments will be moderated; and bear in mind that anonymous, hostile, vulgar and off-topic comments will not be published. Thoughtful, reasonable and clear comments, bearing your real name, will be. All comments must be in English.