Mikhl Likht: From 'Procession Three'

For Yankev Beri

Translation from Yiddish by Merle Bachman

[NOTE.  Bachman’s translation from the experimental Yiddish-American modernist poet Mikhl Likht is forerunner to a project now underway by Ariel Resnikoff & Stephen Ross toward a complete translation of Likht’s long poem in nine parts called “Protsesiyes” [Processions].  The (re)discovery of Likht, a contemporary & probable acquaintance of Zukofsky, whose work compares favorably to Zukofsky’s “A” and Pound’s early Cantos & may even be a forerunner to both, seems to me to be a notable event in mapping the full story of experimental American modernism, albeit in another language or possibly just because of that.  In subsequent installments of Poems and Poetics I’ll be posting excerpts from Resnikoff’s comparative study of Zukofsky & Likht; & other selections from Bachman’s earlier writings on & translations from Likht can be found here & here on Poems and Poetics.  The present excerpt of course is only part of “Procession Three,” which is itself only a small part of the entire Protsesiyes – originally published in Bachman’s Recovering Yiddishland, Syracuse University Press, 2007. (J.R.)]


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
to the Overseer :    “Stop tormenting!”

I grabbed satisfaction nourishing myself on nutshell-fat
made cages from wilted mouth-emanations
gathered treasures in meanness from ecstatic apocrypha:
enough! (or should I better say: “Go further?”)

Only: just as a bit of darkened sky starts to clear
in earlymorning East of sunrise-willfulness
so a part of my own 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
tripped up through the tress of a head-nod
woven and interwoven in a list of tomorrows


pindar               pindar
                                    rusty strings
from the old Jewish harp
to the Ukrainian lute
with bloodshot eyes
a fence for a hat
pennies fall
groshns hail down
with yellow rust
                                        breadcrumbs in pants pockets
look through
through the
through the enormous fairs
gathered through lice-infested clothes
filthy with blood
                                       Dubno horse-fair
                                       Yarmelinitz diamond-silk-fair      
the seller to the buyer
with a spit on the hem
a copper coin
                                      “it should all go well!”        
the shul pulls with leaky walls
prays the Afternoon Service
prays                     sings
multiplies, praying                             singing
blesses God for surviving
                        for misfortune’s fortunate outcome 

arm in arm with his God
(churchbells from mountain steeples)
stretches out hands
gropes in the dark
Jew               goy 
Jew              where are you going
goy              where


where does the Jew go
goy, where
somewhere             echo             nowhere
(somewhere) with 36 righteous volumes
crammed with hints one and zeroes in number
with astrological sign-shrouds
the whole kit-and-kaboodle        in-the-beginning things
with pure reason thoroughly explicated
with history               (the Rebbe with his leather whip)
with samovars          ships
telephone and radio
your hand brother misfortune (and how much have you collected already for the Keren                                    HaYesod?)
the heavy doing-hand                   writes prescriptions          chips away quartz
plastered about somewhere             echo             nowhere 

me to you         entirely equal:   somewhere-in-nowhere

child with mother-nipple in mouth
old man with pipe-stem in mouth
mother dies
old man dies
the young one hopes to educate death 
to die      to leave forlorn
the wormy raw earth


come        come        weak eagle         come
wrapped in periphrases, rags
schematic hum
hand over the mothers and fathers 

conceal for a minute
a gas-bill demanding cents
Atlantic?             fine         Pacific?           good
any new ships? 

I’m guilty               one sin:
bathing in Tuneyadevker gossip
not my neighbor’s wife           not his ox
do I long for in my prayers 
a bird         firedove         where
is Mother Rachel’s grave?
Shabbes without delight          no weekly rest
the body’s mystical members          one member

the poor man by the door
must wait long hours
I am busy          one thought
lies in my head: customers bringing sales

my head lies in a caress
not on the Shekhine’s          but foolish on my beloved’s breast

a shatnes pants-belt               no pretty ritual sash
divides heavenly from earthly

folds of scabrous night-nap
on a pillow white as down          black as pitch
ah!          I know my desolate offering
my bulgar-with-beans feast


my beloved little old village                on a rolling hill
of the nearby Carpathians
a fatal handful of your poor clay huts
like a small bunch of horse-trampled field-flowers
now (no longer hearing) I see your stillness that trickles echoless
across the little river of the priest’s orchard
across the school         up to the mountain with the spacious Christian cemetery
like a pointed yarmulke on the mountain’s head
now I see the little street where one Pesakh eve at dusk
the urge seized me to pluck hair
from a horse’s tail for a fiddle-bow
and I succeeded in getting my brow
into a sudden, bloody kiss with a horse’s hoof
and spoiled my whole people’s holiday
now the old priest’s burial comes back to me
his heirs        came running together from the ends of the earth
seeking a share      of the poor village diocese:
the son        from a great city with paved streets
in a godforsaken village rainstorm
one daughter           the wife of a high-placed official
who lives off a great income
in a miasmatic village bureau
another         from somewhere else “a greater more beautiful life”
after a share of the village diocese inheritance
                        and Vasil rascal:
wretched blundering thief —           
     (caught him red-handed, she did, the Bilizerker storekeeper, with a bit of unpaid-for soap
in his goyish hairy bosom            he didn’t
argue too much                          answered back:   “the demon
tempted me                           the cursed spirit                      not my fault
dear Hinde                     not my fault                        blame the devil”)

ah        Vasil!

ah        buried priest!

ah         rare still nights         with shikse-song
with sheygets-whistle             in my poor exotic wild
Ukrainian village
pray for your “prosperous” “all achieving” countryman
on Broadway
. . . . .