Sutzkev­er: Essen­tial Prose

Avrom Sutzkev­er, Zackary Sholem Berg­er (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – July 12, 2021

Beloved Yid­dish poet Avrom Sutzkev­er enjoyed a long, wide-rang­ing career as a writer, edi­tor, and advo­cate of Yid­dish-lan­guage work. Eng­lish-speak­ing read­ers may be famil­iar pri­mar­i­ly with Sutzkev­er through his sub­lime poet­ry, avail­able in a recent trans­la­tion by Richard J. Fein, and through his role in the Paper Brigade. Now read­ers can encounter his prose works in a won­der­ful new trans­la­tion by Zackary Sholem Berg­er, pub­lished by the Yid­dish Book Center’s White Goat Press in 2020.

Sutzkev­er: Essen­tial Prose gath­ers four vol­umes of work, Green Aquar­i­um, Messiah’s Diary, Where the Stars Spend the Night, and The Prophe­cy of the Inner Eye, into a sin­gle book. Sutzkever’s prose imag­ines vast new uni­vers­es, informed by his ear­ly life, and ren­ders them mag­i­cal­ly on the page. Heather Valen­cia notes in the intro­duc­tion, as read­ers, we sus­pend our dis­be­lief and enter with the poet into his mul­ti­fac­eted uni­verse.” Sutzkever’s poet­ic mas­tery is evi­dent on every page. Each prose piece is both sto­ry and poem with vital nar­ra­tive ele­ments com­pressed with poet­ic lan­guage and com­bined with the pro­found, the tran­scen­dent, the meta­phys­i­cal. For exam­ple, in The Vow,” Sutzkev­er writes, I carved out an amulet for you from this very vow.” Sutzkev­er makes the tri­par­tite vow from the sto­ry phys­i­cal — an amulet — then con­cludes the story:

So many secrets, quite dark and with a reflect­ed mer­ci­ful rev­e­la­tion, are engraved into the amulet; so many inter­con­nec­tions and images; such a holy music, which one hears only once in a life. The third part of the vow, as well, which only God heard, was engraved by me into the amulet too. Now I will hang it on your heart, and it will sway over you like a water lily over a wave. Van­ished, I will wit­ness from a distance.

The lyri­cal inter­play between the speak­er and the beloved, between the speak­er and God, inti­mates the stakes of these sto­ries: life, inti­ma­cy, holi­ness, inter­con­nec­tions, wit­ness, and much more.

In his poet­ry, a vital ele­ment of Sutzkever’s bril­liance dwells in the lyric moment, extend­ing its pow­er and beau­ty. In his prose, the lyric moment melds with the pow­er of nar­ra­tive to form a pow­er­ful effect. For read­ers who love Sutzkever’s poet­ry, Sutzkev­er: Essen­tial Prose will be a delight­ful intro­duc­tion to his prose work. For peo­ple who enjoy Yid­dish short sto­ries, this vol­ume also will bring enor­mous pleasure.

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry

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