from 'A Conversation with Jerome Rothenberg: On Poland/1931 and the Pathways of Translation'
[The following is a segment of a longer “conversation” between me and Dorota Czerner, to accompany her translations into Polish of poems of mine from Poland/1931 and Khurbn, to be published in the journal Chidusz, in Wroclaw, Poland, later this year. The discussion of translation and reverse translation (into Polish and Yiddish) may be of particular interest here. (J.R.)]
In 1970 Frank Stella was given a copy of “Heaven’s Gates,” a book on wooden synagogues by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, experts on Jewish architecture from the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. None of these buildings survived the war. Nonetheless, Stella was so fascinated by the geometry and what he later referred to as ‘interlocking-ness’ of the wooden constructions that an original series of abstract paintings, known as The Polish Village, was born.
So, momentarily putting aside your personal ancestral quest — do you see a resemblance to Poland/1931?
I mean, in the fantasy aspect, as well as the distances traveled from the root-source, and the fact that so much of it has vanished?
I can see a connection there in our regard for the vanished, where Stella of course is most taken by the form and beauty of what he sees and what leads him to a series of hard-edged and gloriously colored images in response. For myself, by contrast, the work of Poland/1931 over all doesn’t base itself on formal principles or procedures and leaves room — very much so — for the dirty/soiled and ugly, the full range of what I describe as “ancestral sources of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves & madmen.” In this, if the imagination is involved in the construction of a fantasized Poland, it is reenforced by procedures of “investigative poetry” (American poet Ed Sanders’s term) and appropriation/collage — what Marianne Moore spoke of elsewhere as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Once let loose, this opens as well to the comic and ludic — dark humor, as I feel it, and dark game playing — and occasionally, mostly by translation, a fragment of the gorgeous and divine, from mystic sources mostly. And all of that informs my workings in A Big Jewish Book as well, where I try to erase, as with other big books of mine, the boundaries between a mystical and secular poetics.
Still, thinking back to Stella and what you make of him, the closer resemblance is to my use of gematria, the numerological juxtaposition of letters and words, where I take a form of mystical exegesis I find in the ruins and turn it to my own purposes as a means of composition, alternately angelic and demonic, wherever it brings me. That would, however, take me a long time to explain.
Unlike Stella’s cycle, your poems engage with what remains: the immaterial, the wisdom, the song. You once described Poland/1931 as “an experimental attempt to explore, and recover, ancestral sources in the world of Jewish mystics, thieves & madmen.”
In the chronology of your work, Poland/1931 comes at least a decade before Khurbn, which directly addresses the loss of life, the destruction. But even if much darkness is present in its undertone, your Poland (or Polands?) celebrates exuberance.
Did you feel a need to first affirm the continuity, to re-collect by drawing a live bridge between the old and the new?
There’s a whole world there, and in so far as it came to me in bits and pieces, the fullness of what I was assembling did feel to me like an overabundance and in that case an inescapable exuberance. I was also able to lose myself in that, the mystery of my life before my birth — the phantasmic “Poland” of “1931”, which I could only capture by imagining it into being. And yes, the Khurbn/Shoah/Holocaust was there beneath the surface and not quite mentioned, which made the life of what came before that much more turbulent and, as you put it, “exuberant.” All of that, I think, was in my mind while I was writing, without which a poem of this kind would have been more muted and paler than the reality I was trying to sense or create.
Also: the convergence of old and new has always been a concern for me.
While working on Poland/1931 I’ve become increasingly aware that the process of putting these poems into Polish, of all languages, may be furthering/amplifying your original project. I hope you won’t mind my saying that. In this case the translation takes place in front of a mirror. Probably more than in any translation. The language turns quite literally into a mirror.
You are a wonderful translator who speaks of the process as an important mode of composition. You maintain that the translation doesn’t threaten, on the contrary enhances the originality of your work as a poet.
What would be your advice to me?
My people were obviously from Poland or from a town in Poland but did not think of themselves in any meaningful way as Polish. The same for the language of course — my father had little of it; my mother, who went through a secular gymnasium, was educated in Polish but almost never used it in my hearing. Both however were fluent speakers and literate readers of Yiddish — the mother tongue or mamalushn, for which they were strong advocates. And in a curious way, while writing Poland/1931, I thought of myself as doing a translation, somehow, of an imaginary Yiddish ur-text, which could only make sense as a perfect and strongly idiomatic English — with some rare lapses, let me add, into a kind of cockeyed and comic dialect or accent.
In a Polish translation of course, the situation becomes more complicated, but my advice would be to emulate the straight English text as much as possible, using a literate but idiomatic Polish with occasional yiddishisms where that works for you and matches more or less what I was doing in English. Or better yet, think of the writer of the poem as a fluent Polish speaker imagining that she’s translating from a Yiddish original that doesn’t otherwise exist, and see what you come up with. I will trust you almost completely there — as long that is as it brings you pleasure.
P.S. On several occasions, poems from Poland/1931 were translated into Yiddish, which read to me like the otherwise imaginary urtexts that only then came into being.
About the opening poem of Poland/1931, “The Wedding.” It’s been translated into several languages. Five of the versions are collected under a single entry of the blog, Jacket2. This was the first poem of yours I tackled. There was a moment when the sheer force of accusatory questioning, aimed at Poland, that “poland poland poland …” made me wonder if the task was not above my paygrade.
But elsewhere you say:
lightning is like oil the motor
once it starts keeps
The poem works very much like this, once the reader’s imagination gets ignited with the initial image of a black wedding, the machinery of the underlying rhythmic structure pulls her through, all the way to the exiting line, the crow-ing conclusion …
In this case my work was equally informed by the text itself and by your reading (as available online in the archives of PennSound).
So first, can you say something about the importance this particular poem?
Then, more specifically about the place that you’ve always given to performance in your poetic practice.
The poem and the “black wedding” image are crucial for me, but also the Yiddish translation by Amos Schauss, which I used along with the English on the PennSound recording and began to think of as the Yiddish urtext I was searching for. In its common usage there, the term “black wedding” has an ominous but somewhat comic side, in a more serious way a cleansing ceremony performed in a graveyard during a time of plague. Looking back at it, then, the “black wedding” touches off a series of megarituals with large, quickly shifting images to help me create a kind of Poland montage, a reality more Poyln (Yiddish) than Poland or Polska, or all of those realities coming together and racing toward what I wanted to be a fierce ending, with executions and gang rapes and the sound of screeching birds. And beyond that, when I performed with musicians and composers like Bertram Turetzky and Charlie Morrow, among others, the rhythm of the juxtapositions allowed me to soar, as nothing before that really had.
Something, I hope, that would come into much else that I was writing then and after.
One more observation about “The Wedding,” I want to mention hearing you read the same poem in Yiddish. It was a much later occasion, in an intimate room of a pandemic Zoom-gathering. It struck me as a more ironic interpretation. The whole thing took off in a different register, no less hard-hitting, but almost resigned in a sense, and because of that even more expressive. It reminded me how Tadeusz Kantor would admonish his actors for taking a too ‘serious’ approach. He loved circus, dada, and equated the absence of humor with a lack of intelligence. I mention Kantor, specifically, because he dealt with similar material but from inside the Polish landscape, where oftentimes humor was the only tool available to calibrate the human disasters (plural) of the country.
You are an American poet and thus are not building your Polish historical scenes from direct personal experience, but from conveyed memories. Nonetheless, the absurdism is very much the same. Why the madmen? The Trickster? Is the Yiddish language, and Yiddish folklore, one of the keys here?
The question of course brings me back to things that I’ve already touched on (at least that part of it concerning Yiddish), but put in the context of Kantor and others like him, opens it in other directions. For me the “mystics, thieves & madmen” were a shorthand for what was missing in the normative Yiddishkeit with which I was also familiar, so I made those things and others (political, social, sexual) the targets of my explorations in Poland/1931. For that I was grateful to the Poylish/Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom I met briefly along the way and whose writings opened up a world for me, with the idea that my writing here wanted a fullness of words and images, with no holds barred, to make it more inclusive, even in some ways to overturn stereotypes (both negative and positive) by adopting or adapting them.
So, the absurdism which you also mention signaled me from a whole range of sources, an image of the world I shared with many and that came to me newly as I was exploring Poland/Poyln. In the duration and aftermath of the wars and holocausts of the last century, it opened for many of us as a way — not the only way but a way — to view human existence and the unreachable and mindless universe as a whole. For myself it permeated all my work and thoughts in the 1970s, whether Dada, Seneca Indian, or Jewish/Poylish — more overtly with the Dada artists and the Indian tricksters and sacred clowns, less so with the mystics, thieves, and madmen I was hoping to discover or create in Poland/1931. All of these connections are there when I look back at them, like that of “Yiddish Dada in the street” as it comes to me in “The Holy Words of Tristan Tzara” or the play between Jews and Indians in “Cokboy” — absurdist and real.