Every Friday, Jewish Currents staff, board members, and other supporters send out a selection of books and articles from other publications we’ve been reading (and maybe the occasional movie or TV show or album). We spend a lot of time developing and promoting our own work, but we want to offer you a look at what else is on our minds.
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Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I recently stumbled upon Jeffrey Yang’s brief essay “Translating the Abyss,” published in a 2013 issue of the magazine Poetry. The piece, a companion to an index Yang describes in its first line—“I used to keep a list of books in which ‘the abyss’ appeared”—carries us through some of these abysses, from Genesis to Wendy Doniger’s rendering of the Rig Veda to Roberto Bolaño. It’s a charming and haphazard tour through a void that, Yang eventually realizes, is “everywhere (at the edge of nowhere)”; appropriately, he ultimately abandons the list, choosing “to leave it to memory,” which of course has its own kind of oblivion.
Yang’s account of his vanishing catalog brought me to another inventory, assembled by Lindsay Garbutt, this one gathering instances of “abyss” in some of the work published in Poetry over the decades, from Charles Baudelaire’s “The Abyss” (through Robert Lowell) to Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” (through Robin Robertson). This list brought me to two new-to-me pieces I now adore: Mahmoud Darwish’s “To a Young Poet,” translated by Fady Joudah, and an assemblage of fragments from the notebooks of Anna Kamienska, translated by Clare Cavanagh. Darwish brings us an abyss that marks an impassibility still reconcilable with intimacy: “You are like me, but my abyss is clear.” The poem, which cleverly undermines its own straightforwardly pedagogical frame, offers a series of tender negations. The speaker advises, “Don’t tell the beloved, you are I / and I am you, say / the opposite of that: we are two guests / of an excess, fugitive cloud.” Kamienska, for her part, gives us a series of contradictory abysses. “Poem—a pebble tossed in the abyss,” she writes, then deflates the very grandiosity she just summoned: “The space of loneliness. A slit in space. The eye of the abyss. The abyss is an overblown concept. No getting around it.” Her aphorisms are so moving precisely because they marry the highfalutin to the mundane, carrying us through the nested voids with care. “Holy Never,” she writes, “have mercy on us.”
Helen Engelhardt (member, JC Council): I pressed play on the first disc of The Golden Peacock/The Voice of the Yiddish Writer, and after a brief introduction in English and in Yiddish by editor/producer/reader Sheva Zucker, I heard the authoritative voice of Yankev Glatshteyn reciting his poem 1919. I paused the CD and replayed the track to listen to his voice again.
There are many good anthologies of Yiddish poetry, some of them only in English, some of them providing the original text next to a translation. I have several of them. But this is radically different: This is the voice of the poet himself at the peak of his powers, savoring the music of the words he has chosen—the pauses, the intonations—performing his work as he meant it to be comprehended. There are two photographs of Glatshteyn, one on the cover and the other in his section, taken at different times in his long life, but neither of them bring me into an intimate connection with the artist the way the recordings of seven of his poems do.
At the time of the release of Zucker’s first all-Yiddish CD, Di Goldene Pave, in 2001, the idea of assembling an audio collection of writers reading their own poems in Yiddish with a copy of each poem was quite revolutionary. If you were able to find such a recording, you’d then have to go on another search for the text. Zucker began this project as an outgrowth of her textbook, Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language. She feared that the very sound of Yiddish was fading out of consciousness as the last generation of European-born native speakers died off. It’s true there is a whole community of Orthodox Jews who speak Yiddish, but the average secular and even observant but non-Haredi Jew living outside New York (or even in the city), has little access to it. How, she wondered, were people studying the language supposed to learn what Yiddish really sounds like, and what it sounds like at its best? She realized she should collect recordings of Yiddish writers reading their work.
This new bilingual edition of The Golden Peacock is curated to include not only audio recordings of different dialects of Yiddish, but also the texts and translations, as well as brief biographies in Yiddish and English and introductory notes on each piece. For new students of the language, here is a gorgeous sampler of poetry as spoken by the men and women who created modern Yiddish secular literature. It is also an abbreviated anthology of Yiddish literature. Although it is by definition limited in scope—there are no existent recordings of Y.L. Peretz or Mendele Moykher Sforim (Abramovitsh), nor, as far as we know, of Anna Margolin, of A. Lutzky, or of many others—it provides readers and listeners with a broad view of Yiddish literature highlighting many of the main themes: the clash of generations, parents and children, biblical stories, love, the Holocaust, and Yiddish itself. Some of the works are unfortunately all too relevant today, such as Elie Wiesel’s speech on Babi Yar.
I have a very personal relationship with one of the readers. Celia Dropkin was the mother of a close family friend, the grandmother of a friend I had grown up with. She sometimes turned up on a Sunday morning when I was having breakfast with the Dropkins. Celia was a short sturdy woman with a big smile and a commanding voice, who walked with the help of a cane. By the time I met her, she was no longer writing poetry. She was painting small jewel-like oil paintings which decorated the walls of their living room. I didn’t know she was a poet, let alone an important one. Years later, when Yiddish poets of the 20th Century were being reclaimed by Jewish feminists, I was astonished to learn that Celia Dropkin was their voice. I had forgotten her actual voice. Sheva gave it back to me in Di Goldene Pave.
To purchase the book and/or the CDs, contact Sheva at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares is perhaps best known for his 40-year collaboration and friendship with the greatest writer Argentina ever produced, Jorge Luis Borges. The two men collaborated on several books, including The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq and Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, which are probably Bioy’s best-known works in English. But focusing on this partnership does Bioy a great injustice, for he was a productive and accomplished writer in his own right. Unlike Borges, who only worked in the short story and essay forms, Bioy wrote a number of fascinating novels, many short stories, and a novella that stands among the greatest works of Latin American literature, The Invention of Morel.
Like Borges, Bioy was fond of rendering homage to his favorite writers and ideas, citing them within texts that are themselves homages. The Invention of Morel is a book written in the shadow of Robert Louis Stevenson and of H.G .Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. In form and language, however, it owes much to Henry James’s novellas—the James of The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, with its convoluted sentences wandering in many directions.
The unnamed narrator of Morel is on a seemingly deserted and inaccessible island, to which he has fled to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for an unspecified crime. There, he finds himself suddenly among a group of people dressed in attire from another era, none of whom he is ever able to get to acknowledge his presence. Even worse, at intervals he sees a beautiful woman sitting on a rock overlooking the sea who also never notices him, even when he throws himself at her feet.
The narrator attempts to understand who these people are, how they get to the island, why they’re there, what all the machinery he has discovered in a chamber is, and how he can live out the love for Faustine, the woman on the rocks he so desires.
The title, with its nod to Wells’s Dr. Moreau, warns us that some strange bit of science is at play here. When the secret is revealed (which I won’t do here), the narrator is forced to make a choice: his love must be eternal or it will never be, and even if it’s eternal, in the circumstances of the island it will also never be.The Invention of Morel is a book that has haunted me for decades and that I reread, in English or Spanish, frequently. Perhaps when I finally die, I, too, will spend all of time at the side of the woman I love.
Before you go, here are two events we wanted to make sure you were aware of. First, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene are hosting a virtual benefit for the soon-to-be-erected Triangle Fire Memorial on Thursday, March 24th at 7 pm Eastern. More information here!
Plus, on Sunday, April 3rd, at 2 pm Eastern, join Jewish Currents and The New Press for a celebration of Mikołaj Grynberg’s exquisitely original and darkly funny collection of stories I’d Like to Say Sorry, but There’s No One to Say Sorry To, excerpts of which were first published in Jewish Currents as Rejwach. Grynberg, a psychologist and photographer, spent years collecting and publishing oral histories of Polish Jews. His first work of fiction recrafts those histories into dazzling first-person vignettes that explore Jewish identity and the contemporary lives and tensions of a generation still haunted by the Holocaust and its afterlives. The event will feature a conversation between Grynberg and translator Sean Gasper Bye, as well as readings by translator Antonia Lloyd Jones and short story writer Deborah Eisenberg. Sign up here!