Avrom Sutzkever: 'Green Aquarium,' a poem newly translated from Yiddish by Zackary Sholem Berger

(l. to r.): Avrom Sutzkever, Abba Kover and Gershon Abramowicz in the Vilna Ghet
(l. to r.): Avrom Sutzkever, Abba Kover and Gershon Abramowicz in the Vilna Ghetto, 1942.

[The post-Holocaust fate of Yiddish writing is something that’s troubled my mind since the murders of the last century appeared to have decimated both language & culture.  Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010), who fought as a partisan during the years of the khurbn, was one of the outstanding survivors with many kudos & honors in his later years, but the secular mysticism & near surrealism/realism of some of his work wasn’t easy to grasp as he came over to us largely in that more ethnic context & in a translated language not his own.  What follows here & has lately caught my attention in Zackary Sholem Berger’s new translations is an example of a poetry-in-prose that opens to what the Surrealist master André Breton spoke of as “the Great Mystery” in which he saw “the future resolution of those two states, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.”  No mere fantasizing it was central too to what Gary Snyder noted as the real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure & actual boundaries of the mind.” 

            It’s my intention by posting this here to place Sutzkever as well among our predecessors in one of the core projects of what remains to us of international twentieth-century modernism.  (J.R.)]


Green Aquarium



“Your teeth are bars of bone. Behind them, in a crystal cell, your chained words. Remember the advice of an elder: the guilty ones, who put poisoned pearls in your goblet -- let them free. As thanks for the pardon, they will build your eternity; but those others, the innocent ones, who falsely chirp like nightingales over a grave -- don’t spare them. String them up, be their hangman! Because as soon as you let them out of your mouth, or your pen, they’ll become demons. May the stars not fall if I speak the truth!”


Years ago, I was left this will in the lively city of my birth by an old bachelor, a poet somewhat touched in the head, with a long ponytail in back like a fresh birch broom. No one knew his name, where he came from. I only know that he wrote rhyming notes to God in Aramaic, dropped them into the red mailbox near the green bridge, and thoughtfully, patiently strolled by the Vilia, waiting for the mailman in Heaven to bring him an answer.




“Walk through words like through a minefield: one false step, one false move, and all the words which you have threaded onto your veins your whole life will be torn apart, and you with them...”


That’s what my very own shadow whispered to me, when both of us, blinded by the reflector-windmills, traveled by night through a bloody minefield, and every stride of mine set down for life or death gouged my heart like a nail into a violin.




But no one warned me to be careful of words drunk from otherworldly poppy-blossoms. Thus I became the servant of their will. And I can’t understand their will. Certainly not the secret, whether they love or hate me. They wage war in my skull like termites in a desert. Their battlefield pours out of my eyes with the radiance of rubies. And children go gray from fear when I tell them, Good-dreaming.


Recently, on an ordinary day, when I was lying in the garden, with a branch of oranges over me - or was it kids playing with golden soap bubbles - I felt a movement in my soul. All right, my words are heading out! Since they had won a victory over somebody, they obviously decided to take up positions where no words could previously. On people, angels, and why not stars? Their fantasy plays, drunk on otherworldly poppy-blossoms.


Trumpets sound.

Torches like burning birds.

Accompanied by lines. Frames of music.

I fell to my knees before one of those words, apparently the overlord, who was riding ahead in a crown in which my tears were sparkling.


“That’s how you leave me, no goodbye, no see-you-later, no nothing? We wandered together for years, you ate from my time, so before we break up, before you go off to conquer worlds -- one request! Give your word you won’t turn it down.”


“Agreed. I give my word. But without long sentences. Because the sun is bending on the blue branch and in just a moment it will fall into the abyss.”


“I want to see the dead!”


“That’s quite a wish...okay, fine. My word is more important to me …. See now!”


A green knife cut open the earth.


It turned green.






Greenness of dark pines through a fog;

Greenness of a cloud with a burst gallbladder;

Greenness of mossy stones in rain;

Greenness revealed by a hoop rolled by a seven-year-old girl;

Greenness of cabbage leaves in splinters of dew that bloody the fingers;

First greenness of melted snow in a circledance around a blue flower;

Greenness of a half-moon, seen with green eyes from under a wave;

And celebratory greenness of grasses hemmed around a grave

Greennesses stream into greennesses. Body into body. And the whole earth has now turned into a green aquarium.


Closer, closer to the green swarming!


I look in: people are swimming here like fish. Numberless phosphorescent faces. Young. Old. And young-old together. Everyone who I saw my whole life, anointed by death with green existence; they are all swimming in the green aquarium, in a kind of silky, airy music.


Here, the dead are alive!


Under them rivers, forests, cities -- a giant plastic map, and the sun floating above them in the shape of a fiery person.


I recognize acquaintances and friends and doff my straw hat to them:


“Good morning.”


They answer with green smiles, like a well answers a stone with broken rings.


My eyes slap with silver oars, race, float among all the faces. They search, looking for one face.


Found it, found it! Here is the dream of my dream...


“It’s me, darling, me, me! The wrinkles are just a nest for my longing.”


My lips, swollen with blood, are drawn to hers. But - oh, no - they are stuck on the glass of the aquarium.


Her lips swim to mine too. I feel the breath of burning punch. The glass is a cold cleaver between us.


“I want to read you a poem, about you, you’ve got to hear it!”


“Darling, I know it by heart, I’m the one who gave you the words.”


“I want to feel your body one more time!”


“We can’t get any closer, the glass, the glass...”


“No, the border will soon disappear, I’m going to smash the green glass with my head...”


The aquarium shattered after the twelfth smash.


Where are the lips, the voice?


And the dead, the dead - did they die?


Nobody.  Facing me - grass, and overhead, an orange branch, or is it kids playing with golden soap bubbles.


[Published originally in Baltimore Review, Spring 2013.]