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Translator's Note: The Son of the Wall

by Leon Wieseltier

Avot Yeshurun was the pen name of Yehiel Alter Perlmutter, who was born in Neskhyzh, in western Ukraine, in 1904, to a family of Hasidic lineage. When he was five, his family moved to Krasnystaw, which he later immortalized in his poetry. As a young man he read Hebrew and Yiddish literature voraciously—not exactly a Hasidic curriculum of study—and also European literature in Polish translation. (He recalled that the first Hebrew book he read was Les mystères de Paris in Hebrew translation.) Called first to Hebraism and then to Zionism, he immigrated to Palestine—again, not what a child of Hasidism was raised to do—in 1925. For many years he kicked around in various menial jobs, eagerly Levantinizing himself, and becoming sympathetically fascinated by Arab life. He published his first book of poems in 1942, and his last book appeared in 1992, on the day before he died.

Harold Schimmel, who was the first to bring this prodigious poet into English, has justly remarked that Avot Yeshurun has "the most individual tone in Hebrew poetry." Some of this is owed to his lexical and grammatical originality, which never fails to startle. There are no other Hebrew rhythms like his. He regularly shatters Hebrew words into little syllabic cups of meaning. Arabic, Polish, and especially Yiddish words are scattered everywhere in his verse. In his later works he even devises his own system of vowelization. He was, in sum, a great experimentalist—an eccentric giant of Hebrew modernism. And yet his power is never merely formal. The exotic and gorgeous quality of Avot Yeshurun's verse is owed to its raw juxtaposition of experiment with sentiment. Though he writes about the Israeli-Arab realities in which he finds himself, the paramount obsession of his work is nostalgia and its literary transfiguration. The poet is memory's uncannily resourceful servant. Memory provokes rapture, and—since the family that he left behind was destroyed in the Holocaust—it provokes guilt. The "" of which he writes are almost always retrospective—backward yearnings for what is no more. Yet the most common emotions are transformed by the most uncommon poetics. Extraordinary words are discovered or devised for ordinary emotions (ordinary, that is, for a Jew of his time and place). He misses his mother so much that Hebrew cannot remain the same. The low sentimentalist as high formalist: these are pleasures that do not often go together.

These two poems are taken from Adon Menuhah (Lord of rest), my favorite of all his books, which appeared in 1990. The dates at the bottom of the poems appear as they do in the originals (where the Hebrew dates appear alongside them). In "The Son of the Wall," the Polish word przedmiescie denotes the outskirts or suburbs of town (I know this gratefully from Professor Gershon Hundert); and the unexpected centrality of Jesus in the poet's account of his unhappiness prefigures a significant theme of his final book. In "Memories Are a House," the Yiddish words in the last lines, quoted from his mother's letter, mean "I've become sleepy." "Yehiel alter lebn," which may be translated as "Yehiel, may you have a long life," involves a bit of wordplay, since it is also a pun on the son's given name. These Yiddish and Polish words function like relics, like salvaged objects—things from the past that the poet pastes onto the poem, almost as in a collage. The distinction between the abstract and the concrete is magically dissolved in an art consecrated equally to language and longing.

These translations are for Harold Schimmel, on his balcony.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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