The following poems are taken from Abraham Sutzkever’s collection, Poems from My Diary. Like many of the poems in the Diary, the selected works concern nature, as well as friendship and neighborliness.
Reading the poems now, I was struck by how the emphasis on respect for potentially perilous nature in “Memory of a Meeting with a Wolf” seems to speak to our past year, from the COVID-19 pandemic, to the wildfires in California.
As difficult as 2020 has been, it’s one in a trying series of years for the United States. I happened to be completing my translation of “A Remarkable Friendship Exists” on the day of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. The coincidence seemed significant in ways that were disturbing but also comforting. The word used in the original poem for “hiding place” is maline, and it specifically refers to hideouts used by Jews during the Holocaust. At a moment when we had been confronted with the reality that Jews are still unsafe, over seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and in a country many liked to think was free of violent antisemitism, translating a poem with the word maline in it felt particularly surreal. At the same time, the poem is ultimately optimistic, and speaks to the solidarity that forms after such atrocities, a phenomenon I observed happening in Pittsburgh and throughout America as I made my edits in the wake of the shooting. I have mixed feelings about whether we should be comforted at such moments; perhaps comfort leads to complacence. Yet, if Sutzkever could believe in the worth of such solidarity, having himself made use of countless malines, I suppose we can draw strength from it too.
A Remarkable Friendship Exists
A remarkable friendship exists, when both friends
inhabit different centuries, different countries.
People meet like wandering roots beneath
tree trunks split in two: Are you that friend? –Yes, I am she.
There is a friendship akin to biblical scrolls, which you find
in caves and which joy and tenderness can unwind.
Unfurl it—Then it will narrate our saga too. Otherwise,
it will flake away and fall to pieces in your fingers.
There is a friendship stronger than love, than hate,
twinned by fate, they must accompany each other:
When trained hounds sniff out a hiding place
and one friend could escape, yet he remains with the other.
Creator, you have gifted me friends of all sorts,
and among them a special one, who remains most devoted:
At dawn, he will rise early to water my garden
so I may distribute his grapes to the spirits.
Memory of a Meeting with a Wolf
Memory of a meeting with a wolf: He is out of his mind
to be wandering alone in this enveloping blizzard at night,
when the snow is higher than the fir trees around us,
thus were my thoughts as we became acquainted.
A red crown. His claws flayed night into pieces. His countenance
was wrathful. With sparks for a smile. Made way for me to pass.
I repaid him the same gesture without hesitation, but he
had already seen magnanimous men such as me.
His tongue sizzled with the milk of snow. The sparks
of his teeth flickered, with a lift of the head he read my ancient thoughts.
There remained only a moment’s splinter, only a splinter
and we were both suspended face-to-face on the same shiver.
And as we remained, sprinkled with snow, suspended face-to-face,
I was finally able to see his thoughts and I read them with haste:
Human-being, you have forgotten: beast am I, and man are you,
now is not the time for Isaiah’s prophecy to come true.
The Same Who Blessed Me
The same one who blessed me, he also cursed me.
I take for love the twinship of vinegar and honey.
I’m thankful for being blessed with friends. Without their strength
by my side my words would flicker out in a day and night.
For my sake they paint, pound and knead,
for my sake they roll poems down from their hearts.
Oh, my own selves are they, these painters and poets,
and my self is theirs, even if I don’t know it.
For their sake I sung once in a coffin*,
for their sake I still wage wars over a comma.
And they die first, but then my friends are born
in the green cradles of my rocking soul.
For my sake, they lend warmth to the cold stars,
for my sake they perform: a fiddle or a cello
offers forth from itself a joyful gushing of my tears.
For their sake I write these very lines. Amen and amen!
*Note: Sutzkever’s line about singing in a coffin is a reference to a poem he wrote in the Vilna Ghetto about hiding from the Nazis in a coffin.
Photo by Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash