Commentaries - September 2013
Eric Zboya’s At the Heart of a Shipwreck
Birdlike, a poem lifts off from the page, leaves words behind, ascends beyond ink.
But then it flies into a window.
For a moment: feathers, flight, song and nascent inside-egg become two dimensional as the bird writhes and attempts to rise against the glass.
A birdwreck from the dimensionless air.
And we readers watch, as readers always do, from the other side.
The poem’s inky body has struck the — until then — invisible surface, has written a record of its flight.
Eric Zboya’s At the Heart of a Shipwreck is a “translation or transformation” of Mallarmé’s typographically inventive poem “Un coup de dés” (A throw of the dice.)
Translation is the thing with feathers. A hummingbird ascending a staircase of air. The Icarus-like energy of language as it struggles against the bright sun of the page. The filigree of water as angels cannonball into the sea. Breath ascending from the heart of a shipwreck to the surface of the page.
How are the words, the lines, the meaning of the original Mallarmé turned into the no-longer French flaps of these beating inkwing traces?
Examing Zboya’s work closely, it becomes apparent that these marks aren’t the creative writhing of an actual winged creature, but instead, a constructed text. From the inky heart of the image to its delicate translucent fluttering, its calligraphic brushing, Zboya explores the poetry of the made mark. His image is an analogue to the vibrance of Mallarmé’s scattering of text across the pages’ open field, the variety of typefaces, of font size, of word length.
Language writes its own Rorschach test. It is a bird. An explosion. The trace of water in the air. The coming together of two different states of matter. The representation of at least one less dimension than is perceived.
Knowledge, once safely ledged, made illegible, taken flight. “whitened// becalmed// furious// under an inclination/ glides desperately// with wing.” (see Mallarmé)
GB: Firstly, I loved how this piece looked at The Power Plant show. I loved how it was on a transparent Plexiglas sheet. An extended page. A three-dimensional two-dimensional object. How you see the extended 'page': the large unbound, two-sided, hanging transparent Plexiglas - as opposed to the small white field of the page?
EZ: Thanks GB. I appreciate your comments, and I am glad you like the work. From the single photo I have seen from The Power Plant exhibit, I believe they may have installed the piece backwards, showing the image back to front instead of front to back. At first I was irritated by this error, but now that I think about it, this “happy little accident” helps to further showcase Mallarmé’s idea that therein lies a higher-dimensional environment beyond the flat and static text that we are always so accustomed to see “face on”—text that feels “trapped” within two-dimensional surfaces. By showcasing the piece back to front, the reader-viewer has the opportunity to see how this image-text exists from the inside of this spatial environment looking out. This is really how I envision the white field of the page - the extended page - as a kind of clear, all-encompassing ether that holds not only volume and density, but something mysterious beyond the scope of human comprehension. We live in a three-dimensional universe (four, if you include time). Text, in the standard sense, I believe, is not meant to be two-dimensional, but three-dimensional, if not higher. Unless text is created as a kind of sculpture, we are pretty much limited to seeing text in two-dimensions due technology’s current capacity. Having the image-text placed inside the glass is really my way of illustrating the idea that the extended page is a gateway into a realm much more interesting than that of two-dimensions.
GB: This is a mathematical transformation/translation of the original. How does the final image relate to the original?
EZ: At the Heart of a Shipwreck is a direct computer-generated translation, or transformation, of the second recto/verso page from Mallarmé’s original text. Since the crux of Mallarmé’s poem centers on a shipwreck (to which the second recto/verso page refers), a shipwreck in which the text of the poem comes to represent the ship’s debris floating about in a kind of ordered chaos, the image-text offers the reader-viewer a kind of hydrodynamic depiction of what the waves generated by a sinking ship might look like. I translated/transformed this recto/verso page many times while simultaneously experimenting with the computer program I use (Photoshop) to create these kinds of images. With the aid of this program, I eventually manufactured the image-text you now see (it could very well be the opposite in that the computer program manufactured the image with my assistance). Now, was it “chance” the program spit out an image that just so happens to look aesthetically hydrodynamic? Mallarmé, and of course, Borges, would say no.
GB: I know the original Mallarmé explores the visual space of the page -- "the raging/whitened /stalled" page, using typography and textual positioning as part of its visual rhetoric. How do you see your work as relating to this aspect of Mallarme? (I see the rhythmic energy, the visual vitality, the energizing of the rectangular space as relating to both works.)
EZ: Ideally, I wanted to display the work by suspending the piece in the center of a room. Or, by suspending the piece in such a way that would allow for the reader-viewer to walk around it at 360 degrees so that he or she could gaze up the image-text at all angles, very much like a three dimensional object. I wanted to give the reader-viewer the impression that they are very much in the same spatial environment as the image-text itself... To help give the impression of dimensionality and an environment beyond the flat surface of the page. This is what Mallarmé was trying to get at with his typographical play—that a vastitude exists beyond the confines of the two-dimensional space of the page. This is a way that one might connect both works together - through the idea of textual spatiality (or, perhaps spatial textuality).
GB: Your work is clearly 'ink'—the same kind of ink that one prints poems in/with. But there's a kinetic aspect to it. The image seems the result of a kind of impact (a 'splat'? a bird against the window? language colliding with the page, with the mind?) How do you see it relating to printing, to publishing, to typography?
EZ: And so here comes an interesting point, GB. The work, yes, is in ink… But unless I have computer monitors set up displaying the image, ink is really the only way I can show the image-text to the reader-viewer. You see, the image-text you see, whether on page or within glass borders, is, in fact, a three-dimensional object trapped in two-dimensional space. In the cyberspace continuum, the image-text can actually be rotated at all possible angles. The image-text possesses length, height, width, and density. The image-text has a front, a back, a top, a bottom, sides, and guts. The image-text is geometric, it is a Euclidean object. And as I have just mentioned, the only way to showcase the design, for now, has to be through ink.
At the time I created the image, three-dimensional printing was really still an idea. Today, only a few years later, there has been mind-blowing advancements in this printing technology. Give it a few more years and I believe that this technology will be capable of “sculpting” this image-text (and others like it).
This notion falls back to the idea that, since we live in a three-dimensional existence, text really should be represented three-dimensionally. It is a shame that we lose one spatial dimension when we write or print text. I think that once science further develops holography, which many physicists are currently investing a lot of time in, printing will become a retro-like function. To accommodate this transformation, publishing will become an industry that will be just as much mathematical as it will be literary.
In the end, I thing the image-text can most definitely illustrate the notion of collision. The collision between two different languages (the written [French] and the mathematical). A collision between old world poetics and new world poetics. A collision between old school poetic processes and new school poetic processes.
GB: Do you see a difference in the work when it appears on a transparent sheet of Plexiglas, as it did in The Power Plant Postscript exhibition?
EZ: Yes, I do see this work differently within this medium. In glass, the reader-viewer has the opportunity to “see through” the work, and “see beyond” the work, which helps to illustrate the idea that something “dimensional” is taking place.
GB: How do you conceive of 'reading' this work?
EZ: Depending on what lens I might choose to use, I could potentially read this work in three different ways:
a) As a reader-viewer with no point of reference
b) As a reader-viewer with a limited point of reference (in that the image-text is just a computer-generated translation of a text)
c) As a reader-viewer who knows Mallarmé’s work, and who has a literary and critical Mallarméan arsenal behind them
As a reader-viewer who has no point of reference, the image-text might illustrate nothing more than an aesthetically “interesting” piece of visual art - a piece of “art” that may or may not have anything to do with the name the piece goes by: At the Heart of a Shipwreck. I have had many people tell me (folks who have no background knowledge of Mallarmé) how much they are captivated by the image’s “wing-like” appearance. These viewers seem to “read” the work as something possibly more biological, or perhaps even spiritual or religious, despite the work’s name, which does not suggest anything biological or ethereal.
With a viewer-reader who has a limited point of reference in that the work illustrates a computer-generated translation of “some” text, I might read the work only as a transformational process by a machine. I think reading this work only as a process is pretty cool . . . machines translating a language via their own. This idea helps give some weight to the idea that mathematics is also a kind of text-based language, one that I hope to explore further, both critically and theoretically.
As a viewer-reader who possesses the contextual and theoretical arsenal behind them, I would read the work not only as a visual response to Mallarmé’s original text, but as a critical response to those poet-artists who have offered their own unique and wonderful translation of Un Coup, such as Broodthaers, Pichler, Maranda, and Mollinari, to name a few.
GB: How would you relate this to the tradition of poetry generally and visual poetry specifically?
EZ: As a computer-generated translation of a literary work (or a visual transformation through the language of mathematics), I really see this image-text (image-text as process) as a kind of evolutionary step in poetic creation and experimentation, both in the traditional sense and in the visual sense.
Poets should start experimenting more when it comes to the poetic process. I think it is time for poets to start thinking outside the box because we just might end up reinventing the poetic wheel (look at Kenny Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing and Christian Bök’s Xenotext Project). The tradition of poetry is based on experimentation and exploration. Without experimentation, we would not have the variety of forms we have today.
GB: What would a 'close reading' of this work look like?
EZ: Asking this question could yield a multiple page answer, GB. But I will try to condense the answer the best I can.
A close reading of the image-text, at least for me, would yield a direct response to experimental artist Michael Pichler’s rendition Un Coup de dés Jamais n’Abolira Le Hasard (Sculpture) while simultaneously analyzing Mallarmé’s original text.
Mallarmé’s original text, as theorist Maurice Blanchot maintains, acts as a poetic gateway into an environment beyond the two-dimensional page. Within this environment, textual structures create textual constellations that have the ability to transcend margins, change shapes, and exist in a continuum of infinite possibility.
Pichler’s lovely rendition employs the use of lasers to excise these textual structures to expose these higher-dimensional characteristics of Mallarmé’s poem (a very cool process). This erasure, however, removes the topographical significance of the typography within the framework of the poem. At the Heart of a Shipwreck exemplifies a kind of dynamic, spatial equivalence that reproduces the higher-dimensional kernels of meaning found within Mallarmé’s text while transporting the structural lattice of meaning into a higher, planar ascension without the technique of erasure. Within the design, the text remains … it has just transformed. In the end, Pichler’s rendition, along with my own, does help to illustrate the idea of textual transcendence (which, now that I think about it, the image-text’s “wing-like” appearance, as mentioned a couple of paragraphs above can somewhat convey this idea).
GB: Many of us come to the original Mallarme in English translation. Your work is a translation. Can you speak about your extended notion of translation—a translation which means translating a text right out of textual language itself.
EZ: The image illustrates a process of translation through the language of computers. I think that we tend to overlook the fact that mathematics (which really is a system of representation and communications based on semantics) is, in fact, a language; and it is a language that has been ignored and forgotten about as a potential vehicle for translation. (It is interesting to note that the prototypical definition of translation is the translation of one language to another. With Shipwreck, the final product is, in fact, not a language, but rather the visual end result of pixel reconstruction based on mathematical computations. I guess, in this sense, translation comes to mean the conversion, or transcendence, of one medium to another). This is my sole aim - to illustrate the idea that “any form of language” can and should be used and experimented with in the act of creating and in the act of translating. Translation should not simply involve French to English or English to Chinese. It is time we broaden our minds, and our poetic processes and practices, into something more 2.0.
GB: The original Un coup de dés (a throw of the dice) seems to refer to chance operations. In other words, a kind of mathematical process. How does your computer mediated mathematical process relate to this?
On the surface, Un Coup does suggest the idea of chance operations; however, if you delve deeper, the poem actually implies deterministic operations. Like Borges, Mallarmé believes that the poet-artist merely acts as a textual excavator, one who merely uncovers and brings to the surface an already pre-existing text. Chance cannot enter a text, and chance cannot create a text that already pre-exists somewhere beyond the white space of the page. In this sense, the computer-generated image-text that is At the Heart of a Shipwreck, too, would follow the notion of textual pre-existence. All I did, with the aid of a computer and a computer program, was brush away the other computer-generated variations in order to find the right visual.
Eric Zboya is an experimental poet and visual artist who lives and works in Calgary, AB. Eric's works have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals, magazines, anthologies, art galleries, and museums throughout North America and Europe. He was a finalist for the 2013 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and the 2013 Alberta Magazines Showcase Awards selection of poetry.
Translation from Spanish by Molly Weigel
Three little birds up on a wire
were singing "tu amor, tu amor"
or maybe "tu est mort"
the one on the left holding some grass in its beak
the one in the middle saying this is the real wire
the one on the right asking what happens when the wire ends
I thought they were the three stooges
and also the holy trinity
the crackbrained father and son and the crackbrained ghost
in the nest the mother is the only absolute
therefore the son doesn't exist,
or the son is the only absolute
therefore the mother dissolves into
the bark, the mud, the twigs
dissolve beyond the temporal the storm
the poem incompletes itself
if death is feminine and life neutral, nothing is…?
Eve, the poem, had no mother; do I erase her?
either the nest is not a nest,
or I never saw the eyes of a mother,
I always shut the windows on this comedy of errors
there's nobody in the place
the cars brake and look
the naked woman who draws attention
drives the penultimate word
gets distracted and lost
poetry is monologue
the negation of insertion
or poetry is the wire
the exigency of transit
or the monolagabble
an empty nest
a woman with
a man with no identity
flags flutter by rote in the decorated wind
flap flap flap
whatever its colors be
they're the sure summer:
they wear as the last word
in the upper left corner
the molesting item
a sickle and a roulette wheel
the diabolical definition declaims
to skid is to escape the kid
to skip the id
the bourgeois delirium over the rotten apples of the great
the inferno is the contrary of the ferno and the ferno is
the dream of all flags with the eternity of
the desert is the negation of the sert and the sert is
this lumpen mammal that never manages to exist
outside of dreams and deliriums
when the evidence that there's no death dies
wham! the prison sentence to the instant is reborn
the handsome brother was wounded by my hand
the hand that I severed and that is now hers
politely I persevere: it's the world not us
that's landed belly up
could it be otherwise?
my son abandoned me to look at me
lying belly up
from far, far away
he abandoned me because he was scared
does that mean I abandoned him?
why did I abandon him
why have you forsaken me, why have you forsaken me
I remember the anecdote:
why did you abandon me
I put a bandoneon on the bar
so as not to play it
so as not to mull it
I listened to the murmurs and shouted, no, no, no!
Saint Peter's question:
how do you tell it to a little pore
and to an even smaller one?
is there anything smaller than the smallest pore?
and I said there wasn't, no,
I had to cover my mouth:
I had contracted doubt
I had negated infamous infinity
I drive back
answering the trinitary question:
I've been dead for quite a while
the three birds on a wire:
gone: they flew:
there is no eternity:
a prayer and an order:
if nothing comes to pass everything comes to pass
I said no, that had not, that
is to say, that no
and I said no, no, no
I said: no
I said: no
[NOTE. The Shock of the Lenders (Action Books, 2012), from which this poem is taken, is the first major attempt to bring Jorge Perednik’s poetry into English. Before his death in 2011 he was known to many of us as an active & powerful presence in Latin American & world poetry, both through his always surprising & eruptive poetry & through his direction of two key experimental journals, Xul and Deriva, both published from his writing base in Buenos Aires. My own chance to be with him came during a visit to South America in 2004, when he dazzled me both with his own poetry & with a translation of “Cokboy,” a poem of mine with features like pseudo-dialect & related word play that make it difficult to translate into most other languages. For the record, then, the following is the opening of Cokboy along with Jorge’s attempt at a transcreation of my partially yiddishized English into a similarly yiddishized Spanish:
saddlesore I came
a jew among
vot em I doink in dis strange place
mit deez pipple mit strange eyes
could be it's trouble
could be could be
(he says) a shadow
ariseth from his buckwheat
has tomahawk in hand
shadow of an axe inside his right eye
of a fountain pen inside his left …
llegué lastimado por la montura
un judío entre los indios
quié hague yo en este lugar extrañe
mit este gente mit ojes extrañes
poide ser sea problema
poide ser poide ser
una sombra surge de su trigo sarraceno
tiene en la mano un tomahawk
en su ojo derecho la sombra de un hacha
en el izquierdo la de una pluma fuente …
My admiration & pleasure in what he’s done here & elsewhere are as great as I can make them. (J.R.)]
Back in April 2013, I featured in this commentary an instance of Jake Marmer’s improvisational work, under the title “Improvised poetry: palimpsest of drafts.” Recently, Marmer recorded an another poetic improvisation. The improvisation is based on one of his poems — and is a departure from it, “a new radical spontaneous draft.” It was remixed by Israeli bassist Jean-Claude Jones, who also recorded an improvised a bass track for it. Above is the handwritten “shape poem” version (to borrow Hank Lazer’s phrasing) which Marmer says he found specifically helpful in the improvisatory process.
Here is the recording, as composed and performed by Jake Marmer and then remixed by Jean-Claude Jones (with added bass): MP3.
Ariel Resnikoff: Louis Zukofsky and Mikhl Likht, A Test of Jewish American Modernist Poetics, Part Two
[The first part of Resnikoff's essay on Zukofsky & Likht appeared September 11, 2013 on Poems and Poetics, while a significant section of “Procession 3” was posted here on September 3. The thrust of all these postings is toward the recovery/discovery of Likht as a Yiddish-American experimental modernist whose long poem, "Protsesie," may well stand alongside Zukofsky's "A" and Pound's Cantos as a major example, in whatever language, of early American avant-garde poetry. A complete translation of "Processions" by Resnikoff & Stephen Ross is now in progress. (J.R.)]
Likht’s “Protsesie dray” [Procession Three] in contrast [to Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The’” is a poem that rejects the possibilities of a Jewish American English-language literary culture—yet it reads, writes Merle Bachman, as if Likht “is thinking in English and writing in Yiddish” (Bachman 189). Its structure, like “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ follows a musical form, beginning with a Prelude, followed by three sections, A-B-C (ג–ב–א), followed by an Interlude, another three sections of A-B-C, and two versions of a Postlude. As Bachman has suggested, “the sense of development and recapitulation [in “Protsesiye dray”] is achieved not by progressing from “A” to “B” to “C” as much as the linkages and echoes between the parallel sections” (emphasis is Bachman’s). The “A” sections deal with violent representations of an eastern European past and the “B” sections describe a move away from eastern Europe to New York; the “C” sections introduce a poetic subject, a pensive “I” (ikh) who reflects on the impossibility of reconciling the fragmented experiences expressed in the “A” and “B” sections. The “Interlude” is the only section of the poem that commits to a narrative, rendering reminiscences of an eastern European childhood; and the “Postludes” recall the eight previous sections. Likht’s poem is an extraordinarily difficult text to read and was censured (as was much of his poetry) by many of his Yiddish intellectual contemporaries for its “incomprehensibility” (in Yiddish: umfarshtandlekhkayt) . This “incomprehensibility,” is a critical feature of Likht’s poetics, however, since it ensures and promotes a Jewish American literary culture as exclusive and erudite as Eliot’s Anglo-American modernism.
The poem begins with a declaration of poetic authority:
Whereas a great world willfulness
fences in dismal lives infringing on their inclinations
in a skeleton of inflexible bars
I hereby give a signal to the Master
the Overseer: ‘Stop tormenting!’ (lines 1-5)
The poet/speaker here asserts himself as a force against those who are fenced “in dismal lives infringing on their inclinations.” He is positioned “in early morning East of sunrise-willfullness” (line 11) and uses this moment of emergent dawn to break the “skeleton of inflexible bars” and facilitate a consummation: “so a part of my word-chaos couples/ with the clarity of unambiguous meaning// And: the newborn that is maliciously stamped ‘hypermodern’/ is yesterday dressed in the present’s bonnet…” (lines 12-17) It is worthwhile here to consider Likht’s philosophical essay, “Fragmentn fun an esey,” in which he describes the “crystallization” of sacred Hebrew and Christian European influences, which produced the Yiddish literary form. Likht regards his Yiddish literary expression as a gemstone, which, since its “crystallization,” has progressed upon a pure linguistic track, arriving logically (and inevitably) at his own high modern(ist) Yiddish. He consummates his “Protsesiye dray” by reminding the reader that this “newborn” Jewish American literature is not in fact “hypermodern” but steeped in the tradition, of “yesterday,” only “dressed in the present’s” garb.
Likht builds on this notion of Yiddish literary purity throughout “Protsesiye dray” by developing a series of ideal oppositional binaries. In her “Approach to ‘Procession Three”’ Bachman comments that she is drawn “toward the poem’s recurrent phrases: ‘Jew…where are you going/ goy…where’ (in the first half of the poem); and ‘ben Amram the smart one knows and/ does not want to understand it/ ben Yoysef the simpleton…the innocent wants to…and cannot grasp it’ (in the second half)” (252). These opposing associations engender a tone in “Protsesiye dray” that privileges the individual over the collective, the pure over the mongrel. The interlinear spacing in Likht’s poem adds to this tenor. In the first “A” section (to which Bachman refers) the sixth and seventh stanzas appear as such:
stretches out hands
gropes in the dark
Jew where are you going
The physical shape of Likht’s text helps convey the ideological underpinnings of his poem. Hands stretch out and “grope in the dark,” but even in the light—that is, the exposed materiality of the work—Jew and goy (gentile) remain divided, though parallel.
In the first “C” section of “Protsesiye dray” Likht reveals the catalyst that impels the eventual breakdown of the pure distinctions in his poem. “My head lies in a caress,” he writes,
not on the Shekhine’s but foolish on my beloved’s breast
a shatnes pant-belt no pretty ritual sash
divides heavenly from earthly…(lines 99-102)
Rather than laying his head on “the Shekhine’s” (female embodiment of God) breast here, the poet/speaker foolishly lays his head on his “beloved’s breast.” The dichotomy between the “heavenly” and the “earthly” functions as a conceit for a broader problematic dynamic which Likht wishes to address. The poet/speaker wears “a shatnes pant-belt” suggesting a mixture between two forbidden substances (shatnes, from Hebrew, meaning a material made of mixed linen and wool, which Jews are forbidden to wear by Jewish law). “The sense of opposites or opposing forces held in tension,” writes Bachman, “which runs through the Procession can be seen here…” What Bachman misses, however, is the way in which these “opposite or opposing forces” coalesce in this stanza, through the image of a mixed substance that is explicitly proscribed. The second “C” section, brings to light the repercussions of this mixing: ‘“Look through the partition,” Likht writes,
‘that divides us up from them
‘see how, struck by misfortune
‘your brothers my children beg for aid
‘from every fool from every false leader
‘who has no more than a good word for them
‘and nearly drinks up the swamp at times…(lines 250-257)
The partition (Yiddish and Hebrew: mkhitse), which traditionally separates men from woman during prayer services, takes on a radically different significance in this stanza. Likht’s partition divides the poet/speaker and his cohort from their “brothers” who, “struck by misfortune…beg for aid” from “fool[s]” and “false leader[s].” It is important to read these lines within the context of the early twentieth-century Jewish American milieu in which Likht found himself upon immigrating to the United States from Europe in 1913. The “brothers” across the “partition” may be interpreted as Jewish Americans who have given up their distinctiveness (embodied by Yiddish language) in the face of sociocultural “misfortune” and “beg for aid” from the “false” (non-Yiddish) American cultural institution.
Yankev Glatshteyn’s 1935 essay,“Der marsh tsu di goyim” (The March to the Gentiles), speaks clearly to this dynamic. In this work Glatshteyn scorns Yiddish writers who make an effort to have their works translated into English for the sake of wider cultural recognition, referring to them as “vulgar assimilators.” Likht himself turned his back on English writing at the start of his career in the United States, committing himself wholly to Yiddish literary endeavors, including the translation of a large body of Anglo-American English poetry into Yiddish. For Likht, the Jewish American turn from Yiddish to English letters represented the collapse of pure Jewish American literary expression and proved just how necessary a Jewish American modernist conservation of Yiddish truly was.
The mythic/religious quality of the second “C” section of “Protsesiye dray,” cited above (which reads as a hallowed lament for the poet/speaker’s lost brethren), is constantly at play in Likht’s poem. This is true of the image of the “shatnes pants-belt” as well. Likht is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish difference and linguistic-cultural purity in his Yiddish version of the “modernist ‘long poem’” (Bachman). His Jewish American modernist poetics idealize the moment of Yiddish literary crystallization, when, as he depicts in his “Fragmentn fun an esey,” a Jewish literature of equal stature and with an equivalent tradition to the Christian European literature, was consummated; “Protsetiye dray” bemoans the decline of this literary tradition, doing its best to shore the fragments of its ruins.
The relationship between Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ and Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” is chiasmic. Although the works converge along the lines of Jewish American modernist expression, they simultaneously diverge as a function of Jewish American language choice. Zukofsky is able to construct an alternative epic, as well as an alternative “ruin” for American literature in “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ by weaving his Jewish/Yiddish cultural heritage into an English reply to Eliot’s The Waste Land. Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” replies to Eliot’s poem in a language that would have been unintelligible to the Anglo-American modernist writer and translates Eliot’s “catastrophe” into Jewish American terms through a Yiddish modernist apparatus. In the end, it is literary translation that ties these poems together most tightly and infuses the differences between them with cultural and historical significance. While Zukofsky’s translation of Yehoash faces frontwards and rallies for a twentieth-century American literature modern enough to translate Jewishness into its narrative, Likht’s translation of Eliot (which is not explicit in “Protsesiye dray” but certainly fuels the poem’s elegiac logic) faces backwards and attempts to glean the relics of a once pure Jewish literary tradition from (and for) a declining Jewish American intellectual milieu. In this way, though both poems are important Jewish American modernist works, they utilize a Jewish American modernism toward opposing ends. The modernism of “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ situates itself at the start of new mongrel American poetry, while the modernism of Likht’s Protsesiye dray” attempts to tie up the final split ends of a “pure” Jewish past, quickly fading into the American melting-pot.
This essay focuses on the respective English and Yiddish works of Zukofsky and Likht as two case studies within a Jewish American modernism that surely deserves further investigation. There is still a great deal of research to be done on the question of the multilingual dynamics of Jewish American literature, especially on the relation between twentieth-century American Hebrew literary output and the work of the Jewish American English and Yiddish modernists.
The question that has everywhere been implicit in this particular study is: how well, if at all, did Zukofsky and Likht know each other? On November 28 1928, Zukofsky wrote William Carlos Williams to tell him he had been recently translated into Yiddish:
And you've been not traduced but translated -- as something is just translated on a level or even to heaven -- you, and Ezra, and Cummings, and Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, and Mina Loy (all these names don't mean the same thing to me of course but I'm trying to outline the effort for you). And the fellow who did it – one Licht – asked me to ask you to forgive him for not asking your permission! If a half dozen read his work and understand it as Yiddish I'll be – but it is Yiddish and literature too! (2003: 21-22)
It is difficult to say how well Zukofsky knew this “one Licht,” but the suggestion that they might have been associates at this time is a tantalizing proposition. Here, Zukofsky refers to translations Likht published in 1927 in Undzer Bukh, which were later collected in Moderne amerikaner poeziye (1954). How well did Zukofsky know Likht’s work, and vice versa? This is the next major inquiry that must be made.