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.