Ten poems from Poems from My Diary by Abraham Sutzkever

Your Body’s Red Bricks

Your body’s red bricks–you don’t remember the house they built,
you no longer remember its number in the lantern light, nor your street.
A cloud remains in a shape-taking, a molt,
in memory of a summer there remains a yellow leaf.

You no longer remember the young face of the first rain,
the address of your dove and the charm on her little beak.
The meadow, where as one you lay together,
has been corroded by pitch and sulfur.

You no longer remember your parents. Who gave birth to you?
The same ash from fire and its sacrifice, you don’t know whose.
But you know in your heart: the darkest and clearest
word of all words has not stopped its ferment: truth.

But you know in your heart: that glittering principle
is adamant as ever and with it you can slice through
the shadow-world, so the pieces can be played on fiddles
and soothe the sorrow of another in you.

Who Will Remain, What Will Remain?

Who will remain, what will remain? A wind will remain behind,
there will remain the blindness of the disappearing blind.
There will remain a string of foam: a sign of the sea,
there will remain a puff of cloud hooked upon a tree.

Who will remain, what will remain? A syllable will remain behind,
primeval, to cultivate its creation again in time.
There will remain a fiddlerose in honor of itself alone,
to be understood by seven blades of all grass that grows.

More than all the stars there are from north to here,
there will remain the star that falls in a true tear.
A drop of wine will always remain in a pitcher too.
Who will remain? God will remain, isn’t that enough for you?

A Heavy Apple

A heavy apple draws a full branch down with summer,
so it will know where to fall, an open hand grows up from the ground.
Like so, my soul, you bow ever lower, dumber,
loaded heavy with juice and time and fermenting beams of light.

You are also a fruit on a branch, in the garden of your keeper,
invisible as he who created you with ability to see.
And somewhere a child cries in its cradle and weeps bittersweetly…
Why, then, such a soul can be commanded by no other!

The heavy apple plays around with its shadow another moment longer,
like Don Quixote, a cloud rides by with a lance,
when the feet of the rain have trodden an entire night
the roots race, at a gallop, to be nourished beneath the grass.

And if you will tear yourself loose from the branch, back into mist,
loaded heavy with juice and time and fermenting beams of light,
recall how summer is drawn down by a heavy apple
that in falling is inherited by an open hand of the soil.

How Does One Explain?

Explain? How does one explain?
The sun has not grown colder,
yet it cannot melt any tears
and only childhood does not grow older.

Its brother, Youth, has been trampled
like red grapes in a wine-press. Silver
already turns the hair on its shadow.
And only childhood does not grow older.

For all the money the world over
you cannot buy its violets and snows.
Its king and his kingdom grow old
and only childhood does not grow older.

The Fiddler Plays…

The fiddler plays and grows ever thinner, thin and thinner,
already thinner than the fiddle-bow, thinner than a string.
In place of its master, by itself the fiddle plays thinner, ever thinner,
and its master burns for his faith on a white pyre.

The fiddle plays alone now ever thinner, thin and thinner,
the fiddler cannot pass it a sip of water; On their own
the sounds play and they play thinner, thinner.
until sounds glow on the pyre, sounds glow.

Sounds glow on the pyre, glow thin and thinner,
now the darkness plays without fiddle and without bow.
It plays without sounds and its playing: thinner, thinner, thinner,
until we sparkle all through its black eyes.

Oh, darkness, for whom do you play ever thinner, thin and thinner,
for us, the small tears? Are your favors destined for us?
Music from tears. Tiny tears. Thinner, thinner, thinner,
together with the white pyre and the dark earth.

After What and Whom Do You Yearn?

After what and whom do you yearn? — I yearn for nothing, for no one.
Everything is engulfed in nothing. And everything is my family.
Between neighboring cherry trees I yearn for one young man:
He’ll throw a stone down the well and rattle a scene of tranquility.

And what else? After mezuzah-bees. Those that pleasurefully
sting, in place of a kiss with the fingers.
They have committed a sin and unintentionally:
A berry pillaged in the forest by little birds, by singers.

And what else? — After the key in the sea, at the bottom;
The master craftsman lost it there during the world’s creation.
And furthermore I yearn for a time that no longer has any hours,
like a magnate with a full purse, I have squandered them.

I yearn for nothing. For no one. Behind that cover
words bloom, blue-eyed, and rain lives in them.
And between them an abyss. And both say a prayer:
For a rainbow from the abyss to bridge the shores.

And Every Moment I See You for the First Time in My Life

And every moment I see you for the first time in my life.
You are a mysterious river; in turn “river” and always
a denial of yourself; and every moment this name of yours
is different, yet for you there are not so many names.

You water the clouds and they grant you back rain.
And if you fall into the sea, it is just so that you may
stride farther on true earth like a young river and remain
where you are and pulse your streaming roots.

Your streaming roots throb, resounding fuller, closer,
they’re beating now in my heart, in my veins.
I am a mysterious river and every moment this name of mine
is different, yet for me there are not so many names.

A storm approaches to uncover us and to give shade,
we will meet one another in the sea at some later date.
And you will say, before wave comes in upon wave:
“And every moment I see you for the first time in my life…”

Recollection of Pasternak

Recollection of Pasternak: The earth of the lock of hair on his forehead–
in fresh Moscow snow. A red scarf around his throat.
Just as Pushkin would have arrived… It had taken him over.
The snow had not thawed.

His hand in mine, as if he were entrusting a key
of fingers to me. And his face, opposite me: both frightened
and strong: Read on, I understand the words, sounds.
The snow had not thawed.

I read the embers I saved from hell: “A moment
fell like a star”*– he understood the words, all
except “a moment.” Was not able to reach it.
The snow had not thawed.

In his moist pupils of polished black marble
that moment shone back. And a moment
had also hung a yellow star on the Russian poet.
The snow had not thawed.

*“A Moment Fell Like a Star” is among the most well-known of Sutzkever’s Vilna Ghetto poems. He met Boris Pasternak after being airlifted to Moscow from the Naroch Forest, where he had joined a partisan unit during World War II.

And This Is the Ballad of My Life

And this is the ballad of my life: dipping bread
in salt at a banquet for my unseen guests from afar.
And when they are hailed on by clod of earth after clod of earth,
to meet them between long tree-lined streets once more.

And this is the ballad of my life: that I mumble
strange syllables before the people of silence.
And they, the unseen and heirs of the mists,
fill my living anxiety and contemplations.

And this is the ballad of my life: to be a witness that those
who lashed me with thongs just a moment ago and set
children on fire and cremated them with their grandfathers,
these same people should send off a swarm of diamonds.

A day at the conclusion of days approaches through tears,
the way a blooming cherry tree approaches at the end of night.
And this is the ballad of my life: to hear my critic–
the roaring oracular voice of forever.

I’m Thankful That We’re Both Alive at the Same Time…

I’m thankful that we’re both alive at the same time,
for if the chasm of an instant were to separate us,
a moan would divide both joy and hope with a knife
and both hearts would not beat in my lines.

I’m thankful that we’re both alive on the same earth
and, like two stars in a well, we both merge a You-and-I.
It is a gift to see the other in oneself, our supplies
in a kind of forest where only melodies thrive.

I’m thankful that we’re both alive in the same life, for
a different life could certainly be the life of a worm.
And pray body to body, a prayer to one another,
while thunder rattles over us with its chains.

I’m thankful that we’re both alive with the same death, like neighbors,
a sign that he is here in this house: his light in the window.
I’m thankful that we’re both alive separate in one
and know well: of all neighbors, this one is most near.

Bios

Abraham Sutzkever

Abraham Sutzkever was born in 1913 in modern-day Belarus, though he spent much of his childhood in Siberia, where his family fled during the First World War. They eventually returned and settled in Vilna (now known as Vilnius, Lithuania), where Sutzkever published his first books of poetry. Initially ridiculed for his rejection of politics in poetry and his embrace of lyricism, today Sutzkever is remembered as the “Partisan Poet” for his involvement in resistance activities within the Vilna Ghetto and the nearby forests during World War II, while continuing to write poetry. He viewed poetry as perhaps his greatest method of resistance and the tool of his survival. Following World War II, Sutzkever testified at the Nuremberg Trials and immigrated to Palestine illegally, just before the founding of the State of Israel. There, despite prejudice against the Yiddish language, he continued to write poetry prolifically and founded the Yiddish literary journal The Golden Chain. Abraham Sutzkever passed away in 2010 in Tel Aviv, at the age of 96.

Maia Evrona

Maia Evrona's poems, as well as excerpts from her memoir on growing up with a chronic illness, have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. Her translations of Yiddish poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and other venues, while her critical work on the correspondence of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books. She also translates poetry from Spanish and dances the tango. Her website is maiaevrona.com.

לידער פֿון טאָגבוך. Copyright (c) Rina Sutzkever, 1977. English translation copyright (c) Maia Evrona, 2014.