“The Beginning-End of Yiddish,” is poet/essayist Richard Fein’s core subject: his love for a language largely eviscerated in his lifetime.
Yiddish Genesis by Richard J. Fein. BrickHouse Books, 90 pages, $15.
B’KLYN by Richard J. Fein. BrickHouse Books 96 pages, $15.
By Susan de Sola Rodstein
The brief, jewel-like essays of Richard J. Fein’s Yiddish Genesis touch on the Jewish short story, translation, poetry, and the Old Testament. The collection, spanning 1968 to 2010, signals the two dominant sources of inspiration for Fein’s work as a poet-translator: the Yiddish language and the Book of Genesis. The title is nearly an oxymoron, as Genesis is origins and creation, while Fein’s beloved Yiddish is shadowed everywhere by death, destruction and disappearance.
“The Beginning-End of Yiddish,” is Fein’s core subject: his love for a language largely eviscerated in his lifetime. The roots of this “love affair” are in his earliest years, in the associative rhythms of a “throng of sounds” overheard but not understood. In mid-life, Fein made the thrilling discovery of its poetry and learned Yiddish in order to translate it, and reflect it back in his English-language writing. Yiddish is a past “that shimmers with a newness only the past can possess.”
Despite this Romantic given, Fein is skeptical towards Yiddish nostalgia. Fein’s call for rejuvenation in new films and works of art is salutary. He imagines Larry Rivers painting Yiddish proverbs as Brueghel painted German ones. Fein is of a generation able to go back, in mid-life, to what shaped him—to a lost overheard language in a “waning Brooklyn version.” Like a reclaimed love affair, it is a return to parts of him “previously rejected,” even with all of their discomforts and confusions. His explorations include ambivalence. As a child, he was repulsed by posters of the actor Menashe Skulnik, dreading “the bony-comic clang” of his name and his “goggle-eyed, shit-eating smile.” He had “hoped that none of him would rub off on me.” The sea-change of later acceptance through the medium of poetry brings questions. “How does that life of Jewish Eastern Europe inhabit those of us who were born in Brooklyn?” Fein asks. One asks further how it may inhabit the next generation, who lack even the formative “throng of sounds”? What is the continued vitality of Yiddish?
Yet, Fein possibly overstates the demise of Yiddish. He calls himself “the last Yiddish poet, who happens to write in English.” He even claims to be one of its last readers—a conceit which may be the poet’s approximation of solitude, a condition Fein deems necessary to poetic creation. Yiddish continues to be spoken and studied in various enclaves in the world, albeit by vastly diminished numbers. Fein mourns the loss of the “transitional generation” of writers equally steeped in Yiddish and the Western canon. There are no Yiddish equivalents to Yeats and Larkin, “who will pick up from where the 20th century Yiddish poets left off.”
Like Jacob, he has “schemed himself into a legacy,” albeit a truncated one. If Yiddish is mother tongue, and lost lover, it is also essentially a ghostly tie to the dead. Fein can speak of visitations from Yankev Glatshteyn and other poets bringing him to a seedbed or a tribal tongue—to an essential, if partial, recuperation of a lost world. He translates with fidelity, but also enters into poetic dialogues with these poets. For Fein, loss is the ground of poetry. In bringing these poets to readers of English, he unlocks his own poetic practice. Fein is not concerned with the ancient origin of Yiddish but with its end, in its last flowering of poetic activity while the very conditions for its continued existence were under siege. This is akin to his poetic practice beginning late in life.
Fein’s other great subject is the Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings. The strength of Fein’s reflections on Genesis is his ability to read the stories in such empathic terms, through the lens of the mame loshn, or mother-tongue, rather than the holy tongue. A spirit of Yiddish sympathy infuses his careful readings, which highlight the stories’ humanity, but he never loses his awe at their sublimity.
In “Sarah’s Laugh,” Fein asks what kind of laugh it may have been–rueful, skeptical, challenging, relieved, ironic–possibly even finding in it the origins of that “redoubtable genre,” the Jewish joke. “We share her laughter—struck as we are by the barren, ill-used, resentful wife who at last becomes fertile. Who are these guests, a bunch of comedians?”
He gives subtle readings of the flawed character of Jacob and of the conditions of prophecy in Isaiah. He analyzes the stories of Abraham and Isaac, and of Moses and the burning bush, without rationalizing them into coherent examples of justice or ethics. Fein’s readings are not specifically religious, but like his explorations of Yiddish, they are at ease with mystery. Fein is held by the cryptic God of miracles and contradiction. Peril and uncertainty drive us to contemplation. These are also points of departure for a poet and a translator.
Also striking is Fein’s reading of the God of Genesis not as a static god, but as an active participant in the Creation who must react, mend and adjust. The first such necessity is to provide clothing for Adam and Eve, newly aware of their nakedness. Noting that God actually sews garments for them, Fein suddenly sees him as the first Yiddish tailor or shnayder, sitting humbly to sew. The introduction of labor to man is at the same time God’s first true labor, and this labor is above all an act of caring. We create the God we need, who in turn creates us.
While Fein sees the humble and the everyday, he is also caught in the dark and daemonic moments of Genesis. Just as the God of Judaism resists total images but is present in synecdoche (a hand saving Lot, a voice speaking to Moses), Fein’s preference is for the deeper places of illogic, centrally in the stories of Job, and most resonantly in the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. He infuses the details with luminous insights, but does not explain away the story’s unintelligibility or use it to confirm a preconception. Fein’s strengths are a fertile, humane imagination and a wariness of too much taming. Failures of understanding and contradictions are what life is like, he tells us. But Fein also refuses any easy moral self-congratulation for his efforts.
The last essay, “Return to Yiddish,” takes us to the recognition scene between Joseph and his brothers. Fein boldly structures the essay as an encounter between two beloved translations, the King James and the Yiddish of Yehoash, forming a counterpoint of fearful wonder and approachability. Joseph, like Fein, “confirms a tie to those he had looked down upon in his youth,” and at this juncture the counterpoint on the page of the majestic rhythms of the King James and the expressive demotic of the Yiddish has its own emotional impact. It is hard not to be moved by Fein’s passionate yet delicate engagements, in which learning, teaching, translating, writing, and Yiddish itself, are infused with all of the intensity of living beings.
His newest collection of poems, his eighth, is titled B’KLYN, the erasure of the vowels perhaps echoing consonantal Hebraic script. It tells us that this will not be a literal Brooklyn, but an elliptical and perhaps symbolic Brooklyn. B’KLYN is the ground for a fertile imagination and a startlingly detailed capacity to remember. Some of the most immediate poems go 70 years back in time.
The world is born again
to a potent lack of purpose…
delivering him up to the residual
intimacies of things…
funding the commerce of sense impressions—
as if each external guise existed only to seek
the tally of itself in the child’s mind (“Second Childhood”).
Fein’s “spots of time” continue to resonate, and are folded into rich, complex poems. “I’m still crossing a corner in Brooklyn while walking the streets I’m on now” (“The Office”). The collection is neither linear nor strictly bound to its titular borough.
Fein’s essays had led me to expect, mistakenly, an irrepressible Yiddish demotic and English inflected by its exuberant rhythms. Fein is not a poet given to impersonation, let alone caricature. The few bits of Yiddish quotation exist alongside exact, honed English, which strengthens the inference that the quoted Yiddish is just as elegant. (As do the handful of beautiful translations here, of Sutskever, Slutski, and Korn.)
Fein’s fidelity to memory also expresses itself in intense, life-long engagements with other poets. In central poems, “The Office” and “A Born-Again Song of Myself,” Fein’s memory of his first encounters with Whitman or Glatshteyn (“I…sliced my way through your uncut deckle-edged pages”), is overlaid with repeated readings over decades that have become part of the fabric of his life (“I bore down and pressed the poem into being…our lives catching fire and passing between us”).
His engagement with Whitman is apparent in the long lines, copia, and generous embrace of some of the crafted first-person narrations. But there are also poems in narrow columns or set stanzas. The variety of form and tone is one of the great pleasures of the volume. A world poised to fall is called up in the single nine-line stanza of “Not a maw enhanced its diet”:
. . . not a syrinx cruised the gamut,
not a paw sublet its haunts,
not a pinion banked a flight. . .
Several poems, such as “A Photograph of a Yiddish Poet in the Park” and “Dear Yiddish” recast the themes of the essays, as Fein literally ingests Glatshteyn, relishing the syllables, or finds inspiration in a literal exchange of breath. And then, just when we might feel possibly submerged by this intensity and verbal flow, we arrive at spare, exact poems. Fein is also an inheritor of Pound, whose influence is apparent in his clarity and precision. He is superlative when turning his formidable powers of observation upon an object. In “Karakul,” a child touches a pile of fur overcoats heaped upon a bed, singling out one recalcitrant fur, “a resistant twist,” of Central Asian origin. With that seemingly simple warp, Fein conjures up a lost Tadzhikistan:
. . . black knolls unobliging to his forays,
his fingering for the fluent drift—
he saw those coarse loops lustered
to a louring, palm-repellent shag.
That frizzled, defiant Tadzhik thicket
denied a buoyant glide, and though he
coaxed with pat, stroke, poke, press, rub,
wanting the coat to relent under his touch,
the nitid tangle of hairs refused to unclench,
fixed, like frozen ripples on a black lake.
He is a poet who can see the “run of a ruche-flap/hiding the strip of blue buttons” on a nightgown (“Some Like it Hot”) or a bicycle’s “tiny paint blisters” and “geometries between the hub and the rim” (“Sleep-Chasings”). Fein’s agility with the poetic line is reflected in a surprising affinity with mechanics, from the vivid, estranging depictions of hospital equipment in “The Patient,” (“A punctured neck bells out /from a clipboard and a bulbous thumb /presses on a nub,”) to the “clews of a hammock” (“Catskills”) to the car tires’ “paralleling cuneiforms that go deeper/than the rubber they’re grooved into” (“Second Childhood”). He is interested in how things work, unexpected in a poet with such receptivity to the unaccountable, even the supernatural.
In “The Automat,” the precise workings of the coffee automat and the subway turnstile frame the surprising appearance of a ghostly Yiddish poet. Fein’s exactitude leaves us in no doubt as to the authenticity of the experience, even if imagined. In “Priming the Pump,” the near unintelligibility of his grandmother’s request Brengkaltvaserfunpump, contrasts with the accuracy of his memory, from the shining nail heads on the aluminum platform. . . to “the mouth/close to the flanged nozzle” and “frantic/bubbles tempered to beads ringing the lip of water.” But 67 years distance brings a new element to the scene, a finger of an own “third hand” writing his name on the mist of the celery-green pitcher, anointing him. This is an overlay that may not even have been needed, given Fein’s descriptive powers.
These are in full force in section IV in the unsteady symbiosis of “Snow and Tree”: “as the snow’s inclined or driven; to the uneven sleeving of the branches.” “Two Shrubs” are “wrapped to burly abstractions.” Rigor mortis is made oddly beautiful in “Bacon-bird.” These are some of the most satisfying poems in the book, perhaps because of their controlled forms but also because the ghosts are submerged in the objects, just beyond our view.
The seven untitled sections of B’KLYN hint at the days of the week. The last section, the long poem “Sleep-Chasings,” perhaps evokes the timelessness of the Sabbath as it cross-cuts through time. It is a visibly modern poem, with variably formed lines and sudden shifts. In a striking passage, a boy runs errands for his mother and consults a shape-shifting list: “. . . the mobilized articles, the sutures of conjunctions, the motile prepositions, the hinges of intonations. . .” But the teasing uncertainty of this long virtuoso section is perhaps too soon solved, as the “self-sufficient speech of manhood and middle age” finally “arrive for a spell.”
The very last passage of this eight-page poem includes a fragment from each of the foregoing sections. An impulse to summation prevails. This and a handful of poems might have been even stronger with a less courteous guide, less willing to explain. (Fein was for many years a teacher, and one can only imagine what a good one.) But this is a small price of admission for the riches here.
Our stock of literature from the first-hand perspective of old age is relatively small. Flashes of humor shine in the spaces of death and decrepitude, as in the very funny “Assisted Living.” But the wonder of this volume is the capacity of Fein’s work to contain a palimpsest of encounters and a lifetime of reading and re-readings. He gives us the gift of a truth that must be lived to be known: that things do not happen only once but resonate in many directions through time. In one of his most haunting poems, Fein inhabits an imagined poet Yankev Rivlin, and gives us two poetic diary “excerpts,” one from 1934, the other from 1947, a precipice in time Fein crosses and re-crosses with great courage:
Some tips of twigs darkly bud
with aborted life or forgery of spring,
though branches mostly taper at the end.
I strain to find that node of transfer
where a twig ends and alters to air
or air ends and becomes the twig.
We can only marvel at the transfers Fein has created, often in a void of only air.