To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, May 13, 2013

Celia Dropkin: from "In Her White Wake: The Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin"

Translated from Yiddish by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon



[From the bilingual book forthcoming from Tebot Bach Press]

My Hands

My hands, two little bits
of my body I'm never
ashamed to show. With fingers—
the branches of coral,
fingers—two nests
of white serpents,
fingers—the thoughts
of a nymphomaniac.

I Fall to the Ground

Like juicy red apples
my cheeks flare up
in the sun
with a red flame.

I hold on—barely—
to the tree, and not
today, tomorrow,
fall to the ground,
and when someone,
dazzled by my red
cheeks, lifts me up
from the dirt, he then
tosses me aside with disgust
and pity because
my heart is eaten up
by the worms,
and that fat worm—passion—
just won't crawl out
of my juicy body.
I am left, discarded, as it
rots me to death.


You revel, I revel,
in us revels the God
who ruins everything,
who won’t forbid.

Hammer my hands,
nail my feet to a cross:
burn me, be burned,
take all my ardor

and leave me deeply ashamed:
suck it from me and throw it away,
become estranged, alienated
and go your own way.

You Plowed

You plowed deep
into me—fertile earth—
and sowed there.
Tall stalks grew—love-stalks—
with roots down deep in the ground
and golden heads to the sky.
Surrounding  your stalks, red poppies
amazingly bloomed.
You stood, suspicious,
and thought: Who planted poppies?
A wind passed through;
you had an impulse
to show it the way.
A bird flew through;
you followed him
away with your eyes.


you had been fussed over
by many women’s hands
when I came across you,
young Adam. And before I pressed
my lips to you
you pleaded, your face paler
and more gentle
than the gentlest lily:
Don’t bite, don’t bite.
I saw that teethmarks covered
your entire body. Trembling,
I bit into you—you breathed
over me through thin nostrils
and edged up to me
like the hot horizon to a field.

In Sullivan County

Today in the first light hour after the rain,
the sun shines calmly, softly on me.
The fields in the valleys of Sullivan County
stretch far from the narrow path.
Somewhere out there trees turn blue
on the mountainside. The fields are sown
with raspberries, but it’s often not easy
to eat enough of them: you quickly lose yourself
in a labyrinth of outstretched green stabbing arms,
a braided, thorny wall of branches.
Yet after the rain there are tons of raspberries.
The sun shines calmly, softly on me.
Fresh milk awaits, but I don’t hurry to the farm.
My arm tears on the jagged twigs.

Yellow and red mosaic of fields,
cultivated rows of trees—
here and there a lone tree.
You can barely see the mountain.
A world hemmed in by trees,
the mountain obscured by fog.

No mountains—this is better.
The horizon gets farther, bigger,
in the soft distance.
My soul wanders, aimless.
In the soft distance, it blurs
and lightens. The whole world
swims in a tender gray.

No world—this is better.
My eye gentler, bigger.
In the tender gray,
no world, no earth.
In the tender gray,
I swim undisturbed.

I went up on the mountain and saw
fields like golden rivers
and trees on them like sails on ships:
green sails on golden rivers.
Close, in a deep, green abyss,
the road wound through the endless
seeming forest—a pink serpent
twisting between green sails of ships.
How insignificant, how small
was my valley, my little green valley:
it carried to me, as on wings of wind,
a lamenting sound.
My baby was calling to me.
But I was welded to the mountain,
and for a long time sorrow swung around me
and for a long time the baby cried and called out
until the valley heard my steps again.

New York at Night by the Banks of the Hudson

Seeping from the cells of your skyscrapers
is golden honey, light,
through millions of windows,
as through the cells of gigantic honey-combs,
you can see golden honey,
human honey, light.
Immense bees built their beehives here,
a forest of beehives,
and filled them until they overflowed with honey,
human honey—light.
The Hudson at night is black as pitch,
and the honey flows
and swallows the pitch on the shores of New York.

*          *          *

Trees like these with golden fruit,
a forest of golden fruit,
gigantic cedars
hung with lanterns.

[note. Among the more experimental Yiddish poets in early twentieth-century New York, Dropkin (1887-1956) was significant both for her exploration of open verse as a compositional strategy & for her assertions of female desire beyond the limits observed by most of her contemporaries, both in Yiddish & in English. Born Zipporah Levine in present-day Belarus, she wrote first in Russian but turned to Yiddish on arrival in New York circa 1910, where she participated in the already active Yiddish poetry world, including the experimental In-Zikh (Introspectivist) poets, while developing more markedly transgressive themes than theirs: sexuality, depression, guilt & longing, fury, violence, even at its limits the representation of sado-masochism & other taboo, once hidden subjects. Her work in that sense is a further confirmation of Kenneth Rexroth’s observation of a Yiddish avant-garde & Futurist presence in his own early years in New York: “A good case could be made for the claim that the best writing done in America in the first quarter of the [twentieth] century was in Yiddish. I don’t think it’s really true, but it is sufficiently true to be passionately arguable in one of those passionate arguments that used to sprinkle the whiskers with sour cream in the Café Royale.” And despite Kenneth’s charmingly flippant tone, the active historical presence of two languages & poetries in a single American city is itself worth noting. (J.R.)]


Biographical Note said...

Dear Jerome Rothenberg,

Thank you for posting these poems by Dropkin. I myself have translated much of her work, and have published my translations in several national journals over the last ten years. I would be happy to post my translations here (especially the "nymphomaniac" poem, the source of that word's translation a collaboration between the distinguished Virginia Woolf scholar Jane Marcus and myself in 2004 and published in 2007 in Prairie Schooner, interestingly enough). I am posting my translation of the poem here. I am a native Yiddish speaker, and stayed very close to Dropkin's original work.

Yours Sincerely,
Yerra Sugarman


My Hands

My hands,
Two small pieces of my body
I’m not ashamed of showing,
With fingers like branches
From a coralberry bush.
With fingers like two nests,
White snakes.
Or … like thoughts
Of a nymphomaniac.

(Published in Prairie Schooner, Spring 2007, translated by Yerra Sugarman)

FJ said...

Hello Yerra,

My co-translators and I are always happy to see a variety of translations out there. The more the better! We all remember well the long conversation we had about the word "erotoman"--indeed, a very interesting word to try to translate for a modern audience. We considered "sex addict" and "sex maniac" and "pervert" in the hopes of finding a word that could apply to either gender. But in the end, we decided we could assume a female speaker and went with "nymphomaniac." The best choice, as you discovered independently.

Faith Jones

Biographical Note said...

Hi Faith,

Thank you for your kind response. I agree with you: the more translations, the better!

I wish you the best of luck with your forthcoming book.