Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky
translated, introduced, and edited by Kathryn Hellerstein
(Wayne State University Press, 543 pp., $29.95)
In her book of Yiddish poems, Dzshike Street, which appeared in 1933, Kadya Molodowsky has a sequence of five poems called "Jeremiah." This is the first of them, excellently translated by Kathryn Hellerstein:
When my heart grows so full of
That my legs can't hold my body
I want to fall onto my hands and knees,
Howling windily, down on all fours
Like an animal that knows not why
Or for whom--
It's then, like milk upon the lips,
That several names come:
The first one is sweet--Jeremiah.
His body, like a tree burned through
Is blackened and wasted,
With lips that have not drunk any sun
But bitter water.
His arms--opened their full length
with the wind
In eternal asking, a refrain,
Like branches needing to blossom
That wait for rain.
"Burned," "blackened," "wasted," "bitter"--and "sweet"? But Jeremiah must have been especially dear to Molodowsky. Like her, he did not ask to be a poet. "Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child," he protests when informed of the mission for which he has been chosen--to which comes God's answer: "Say not, I am a child; for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I shall command thee thou shalt speak."
Born in a Belorussian shtetl in 1894, Molodowsky was trained as a Hebrew- language kindergarten teacher. Although she had written poetry both for herself and the children she taught, Hellerstein's introduction tells us, she never thought of it as a vocation until 1920, when she was discovered and published by a group of Yiddish writers in Kiev. It was a heady time for Yiddish poetry, which had lagged behind Yiddish prose in its development. (The vernacular tongue of East European Jewry, Yiddish was first used for serious fiction in the 1870s by the great comic writer Mendele Moykher Seforim, who was followed in the late 1880s by Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz.)
Barely in existence as a serious literary form only two decades earlier, Yiddish verse had now established vigorous centers of accomplished modernism in America, in Poland, and in the Soviet Union, where young talents such as Jacob Glatstein, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Melech Ravitch, Anna Morgolin, Perets Markish, Moyshe Kulbak, and many others were at the beginning of their careers. "Realizing that her poems were now a part of a public discourse," Hellerstein writes, "Molodowsky developed standards for judging and revising her own work."
Those standards were high, and made her a wonderful poet. Still, one finds in her verse the sometimes whimsical and sometimes melancholy suggestion that she is just an ordinary woman whom life, or some power beyond life, has seduced into a career of poetry. In two other poems in Dzshike Street, the imagery from "Jeremiah" recurs, this time applied to herself. One of them, "A Letter," begins,
Write such long, long letters to me,
Make the distance between us so great
That the way I appear--for God,
Will not cause you more regret,
and continues in the third of its four quatrains:
I sometimes forget my city, my name.
I stand before God, a stripped tree,
Uplifted like a thirsty leaf
To sun, to wind, and to grace.
The other poem is called "I Still Don't Have a Gray Hair, Not a One":
I still don't have a gray hair, not a one,
But I'm commonplace enough,
My shoulders sway and rock as if
At night when I sit crying for no reason.
My legs still are like the firm trunks
And my arms, like branches bending
in the breeze,
Then why do my brows frequently
And my lips purse in silence with
I'm over thirty--a thought of
The very middle of our generation,
Like flocks of swallows they'll rise up--
To shun me like the grandfathers
"For behold I have made thee this day a defenced city and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land," Jeremiah is told. Molodowsky had surrendered her commonplaceness to what Harold Bloom has called "the poet's agon," and clearly she felt that her surrender had its price.
A part of the price on which she may not have reckoned in 1933 is the vicissitudes of poetry in translation, especially for a Yiddish poet who today can be read in her own language by only a dwindling number of readers-- and most especially for a Yiddish poet such as Molodowsky, who made extensive use of rhyme, the Achilles' heel of every verse translator. Hellerstein can be quite good with Molodowsky's rhymes, particularly when she slant-rhymes them with couples like "....wind-beaten/...for no reason" that allow her to sound natural while remaining close to the sense and diction of the original; but she is less successful when striving for full rhyme. "A thought of consternation," for example, is not only awkward English, it is pitched wrong for the Yiddish shver iz gleybn, which simply means "it is hard to believe."
Molodowsky herself, it is true, loved to defy the conventional wisdom that, apart from light verse and children's verse, rhyme should be a function of meaning rather than the other way around; but her rhymes are never sloppy or forced. They are at their sharpest when she most plays up their arbitrariness, pairing off the Germanic, Hebrew, and Slavic components of Yiddish in improbable combinations, and picking up speed and direction from them like a skater pushing off on a skate. Occasionally this gives her verse a clowning quality that seems to say: "Look at me! I may not have asked to be a poet but I sure can rhyme on a dime--and a good thing, too, for how else would I get from here to there?"
Even when this is not the case, many of Molodowsky's poems have a strong sense of contingency, a sometimes self-reflective awareness that, had a different rhyme or image occurred to her, they might have ended up somewhere else. Thus, in a little torch song in Dzshike Street, Molodowsky writes:
You leave. I can't recall the streets, alas,
And those I recognize are strange, inert.
The first line can be rhymed with
The second with a shirt.
But I don't want to rhyme --
For you don't love me. I'm sad all the
As if the sun had set for years and years
As if a field ceased rustling its cornstalks
But I don't want a simile,
I'm sad because you don't love me.
Here, though, Hellerstein slips badly, for "alas" and "inert," added lamely for the rhyme (the original Yiddish has neither), obscure the poet's wry, sly point: that while the poet's first two lines have come to her with a flawless spontaneity, she flounders the moment she tries turning them into the "public discourse" of formal verse, and yet this floundering is itself mere theater, the teasing stumble of a skater who then triumphantly glides away under perfect control. Moreover, Hellerstein's "hay" is similarly tacked on to Molodowsky's "cornstalks," and rhyming "time" with "rhyme" reverses the syntax of the Yiddish es iz mir umetik vos du host mikh nisht lieb, "I'm sad because you don't love me," so that, encountering the line again at the poem's end, we fail to recognize that it is being repeated verbatim.
This is a favorite technique of Molodowsky's. As in a rondel, she often circles back to her beginnings in her endings. She can thus give a poem a satisfying sense of completeness while at the same time feigning the helplessness of having begun it, lost confidence in how to proceed, and scrambled back to the safety of her starting point. Throughout her work strength masquerades as frailty and frailty as strength, the "I cannot speak for I am a child" of Jeremiah with his brasen walls.
Childhood is a frequent subject in Molodowsky's poetry. The tone in which it is written about, when not the playful one of the children's verse that she continued to write all her life, is wistful and grieving--an extended elegy for the innocence, the brightness of vision, the protective warmth and love of parents, the trust in the new and unchanged world to which a child wakes every morning for all the things that a happy childhood (as hers appears to have been) does not let us take with us. And mixed with this elegy is a heavy burden of guilt: about those left behind to face catastrophe in Europe, from which Molodowsky emigrated to New York in 1935, and about the father and mother from whose traditional Judaism her bohemian life and her left-wing sympathies distanced her. A fine poem called "My Father's Fur Coat" that appears in Freydke, a collection published several years after Dzshike Street, reads in Hellerstein's translation:
Remember your heavy, familiar fur,
A legacy from Uncle Shaye,
With heavy sleeves, like bears,
Sincere and faithful as a pillow.
In its deep pocket, I find your old glasses.
They watch me philosophically
and mutter irksomely:
Oh, Kadya, Kadya,
How tedious for you to loll beneath
And write those endless tales, each one
And believe me, all those poems will
What the white gravestone says to the
And about what green spring grasses
With the old gardener, the gray
And not even how the song of the racing
Quarrels with the footsteps of the poor
I saw -- the glasses have vanished on
paths high and far,
So I crept up to my ears beneath the fur.
But even there, in the hidden quietness,
I hear the constant buzz of father's old
The coat, while real enough, is also allegorical, just as khad-gadya, the name of a long Passover song, is also colloquial Yiddish for a tall or overly involved tale; "the gray householder" (dem groym balebos: "the gray proprietor" might have been better) is God; the literary efforts that her father's glasses chide her for seem to the poet crude and pretentious next to the prosaic eloquence of a field, a Hebrew inscription on a tombstone (perhaps her father's), or the rumble of a train (perhaps taking her away from Eastern Europe); and the glasses themselves, used to read the sacred books of Judaism, remain a permanent reproach in their coat that the poet is too small to fill and can only "loll beneath" (the Yiddish verb valgern has the deprecatory sense of "to sprawl around in").
The Jewish God and the Jewish father are deeply implicated in each other here. It is not so much that God is a projection of the father as it is that it is the father in Judaism who stands before God, especially in the eyes of a girl who cannot become the father when she grows up or perform the religious commandments that are a male prerogative. Yet with a sullied sense of sexuality, and childless in her own marriage, neither could Molodowsky become the mother, one of whose few ritual preserves is the lighting of the Sabbath candles, the most religiously poignant moment of a Jewish woman's week. One of a series of "Women-Poems" published in Molodowsky's first collection, Night of Heshvan (1927), goes:
I will come to the one
Who first brought me woman's delight,
And say: Man,
I trusted someone else with my quiet gaze,
And one night laid my head down
Now I bring my sorrow
Like bees stinging around my heart,
And have no honey to soothe the hurt.
And when my man takes me by the braid,
I will drop to my knees
And remain on the doorsill like the
petrifaction of Sodom.
I will raise my hands to my head
As my mother used to, blessing the
But my fingers will stand up like
ten numbered sins.
Although Hellerstein's translation of the Yiddish word man as "husband" is biographically tenable (Molodowsky was married in 1921 to a man with whom she lived until his death in 1974, a year before her own), this poem strikes me as being rather about the betrayal of a husband or first love with a more sexually aggressive and satisfying partner, and I have accordingly taken the liberty, in lines three and nine, of re-translating man as "man," a meaning it can also have. In either case, her fingers, negatives of the Ten Commandments, held before her eyes as in candle lighting, the poet looks back frozen with contrition like Lot's wife. And in a poem from Freydke, "When Nobody Calls Me," we read:
My mother does not call me by name--
Because my mother is dead.
My father does not call me by name--
Because my father is gone.
And God does not call me by name--
Because God plays at a Purim
He's disguised himself as a dog
And mourns or "wails" loudly in the
I beat him off with a stick.
These lines were written in the 1930s, as Hitler's shadow spread over Europe and its Jews. From this point on Molodowsky watches fearfully and then devastatedly from New York, the elegiac note deepening as exile from childhood, the eclipse of God, and the annihilation of European Jewry merge in a single immense loss. But is the God-dog a wild beast unleashed upon the world or a poor, begging stray deserted by humanity? And is God in reality dead like the poet's parents, or will he revert to being God when the mummer's play of the purim shpiel, the "Purim masquerade," is over? The poem is ambiguous.
It had to be ambiguous, if Molodowsky was to do in it what she later did in much of the verse that she wrote during and after the Holocaust--poetry in which she conducted her argument with Judaism in the vocabulary and the imagery of Judaism, turning the world of her childhood against itself so as to attack it bitterly and defend it desperately at the same time. It is in these poems that she both attains her greatest force and, paradoxically, almost disappears in a Jewish tradition as old as Abraham and Moses, as when she writes in 1945:
Choose another people,
We are tired of death and dying,
We have no more prayers.
Choose another people.
"Sacred parody" is the term, borrowed from David Roskies, by which Hellerstein describes the rhetorical strategy that sets God on his throne only in order to knock him off it, yet knocks him off it only in order to have set him on it; and while I am not sure that "parody" is the right word for something so anguished, Hellerstein puts it well when she observes that " the poem affirms even as it subverts. Although the prayer darkens into a curse of the deity to whom it is addressed, it confirms, albeit with much ambivalence, a yearning and desire to believe in God as a presence who can still be addressed." In striking such a pose, Molodowsky was responding to the Holocaust in much the same way as other prominent Jewish writers such as Jacob Glatstein, Uri Tsvi Greenberg, and Elie Wiesel.
Hellerstein observes in a tone approaching disappointment that this response to "the historical trauma of the Holocaust ... by identifying with the 'universal' and the 'mainstream' in the Jewish cultural tradition , which has a male-identified voice," is also characterized by "the absence of an explicitly feminist voice in the poems Molodowsky wrote after her emigration to America." Yet setting aside the silly judgment that not being " feminist," as opposed to merely feminine (which Molodowsky always is), is something for which a woman poet or her admirers need apologize, there is scant evidence of "feminism" in Molodowsky's European period, too. Its verse often speaks of suffering as a woman, but only in the same sense that a man suffers as a man (the strongest influence on it, as far as my ear can make out, is Rilke-- of all great modern male poets the one most sympathetic to women); and from the start Molodowsky had the intellectual and emotional maturity to realize that the problem with Judaism was not that it excluded women, but that a modern sensibility excluded it. Perhaps she was helped to this realization by the fact that she was a Hebrew teacher and had full access to the language of tradition in a way that few women of her generation did; and perhaps being given this indispensable tool of a male Jewish education made her feel an equal among equals. In any case, there is no anger or resentment in her sense of incompleteness, just the sadness of knowing, like Milton's Satan, that there is no way in which "I could repent and could obtaine/By Act of Grace my former state."
It would be unfair to stress this sadness too much. There are rents in it everywhere through which glow a strong love of life, a shrewd sense of humor, a shy self-appreciation; a happier voice announcing, "I am a woman/ And smile often, like the moon/for no reason"; a louder voice declaiming from the top of the Empire State Building while a construction worker shouts nearby, "New York is all light,/It is sunny white,/ It is sky-green--/Mister Joe interrupted the words of the poet:/--Max, my machine!"; a more comforting voice that lullabies:
My father calls to me
And says to me, Child.
And all the burdens fall away.
The white night of love
Is in me--
I am at the gate
Molodowsky's children's verse can be marvelously zany; in it she recaptured not just the freedom of childhood but also its giggles. And in some of her late poems she does a striking thing, using the rhythms and diction of the children's verse in such a way that we are no longer sure through whose eyes we are seeing, those of childish faith at life's start gently smiled at, or-- her rondel completed--adult faith regained at life's end. A poem entitled " Angels Arrive In Jerusalem," written during a three-year stay in the new state of Israel in the early 1950s, and alluding in its refrain to the prophet Ezekiel's stupendous vision of national resurrection, begins in my own translation:
Angels arrive in Jerusalem.
They open Jewish doors and step inside.
They teach the children love of Torah,
They teach silent knowing,
Teach how to provide.
Every day they arrive,
Every day they arrive,
They arrive until all the dry bones
Angels arrive in Jerusalem.
They arrive on a still unpaved road.
They carry the sand,
They carry the stone,
They help God-bestirred Jews bear
Every day they arrive,
Every day they arrive,
They arrive until all the dry bones
S'kumt yedn tog ayner,
S'kumt yedn tog ayner,
Biz s'veln dervakhn di trukene
By Hillel Halkin