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This poem appears in our Fall 2020 Housing Issue. Subscribe now to get a copy in your mailbox.

Translated from the Yiddish by Nathan Halper

(English follows the Yiddish, below.)

My introduction to poetry wasn’t through poems, but through the little songs of childhood: hand games, playground chants, taunts or dares, small encouragements we made up and passed back and forth. What united these forms was the rhyme, which felt like the clasp of a braceleta kind of perfect, practical enclosure. Rhyme clipped language to me; I was bound to the words before I could apprehend the meaning, so when the meaning arrived it could effect a wild torque from within. Because rhyme establishes the promise of formal fulfilment, by the time I encountered the substance of that fulfillment, I was already committed. “Household of Eight” by the great Yiddish poet Avrom Reyzentranslated here by Nathan Halperreturns me to that childhood space of looped language effortlessly memorized and recited. As the poem describes an overcrowded dwelling, its sing-song momentum builds an optimism in me, as though the poem will find its solution by the force of its music. But the volta here is not a turn away from the dire, but a barreling headfirst into it. The grimness of circumstance directs even the fantasy into the ground. There is no way out, but there is a song.

– Claire Schwartz

אַ געזינד זאַלבע אַכט

,אַ געזינד זאַלבע אַכט
— ,און בעטן נאָר צװײ
,און קומט אָן די נאַכט
?װוּ שלאָפֿן דאַן זײ

,דרײַ מיטן טאַטן
— און דרײַ מיט דער מאַמען
,הענטלעך און פֿיסלעך
.געפֿלאָכטן צוזאַמען

,און קומט אָן די נאַכט
,מ’דאַרף מאַכן די בעטן
דאַן הײבט אָן די מוטער
.דעם טויט אויף זיך בעטן

— ,זי מיינט מיט אַן אמת
:עס איז נישט קיין װוּנדער
,אויך ענג איז אין קבֿר
. . . דאָך ליגט מען באַזונדער

Household of Eight

Household of eight.
Beds are two.
When it gets late,
What do they do?

Three with father,
Three with mother:
Limbs
Over each other.

When it’s night
And they go to bed,
Mother begins
To wish she were dead.

A resting place
All her own.
Narrow—
But you sleep alone.


Avrom Reyzen (1876–1953) was a Yiddish poet, fiction writer, and editor, and a strong proponent of Yiddishism. He was born in Koidanov, Russia (modern-day Belarus), and immigrated to New York in 1911.

Nathan Halper (1907–1983) was a Yiddish translator and James Joyce scholar. His last book was Studies in Joyce.