Celia Dropkin is having a bit of a moment. Her poems have been popping up in hip literary journals like The Drunken Boat, Narrative Magazine, and Jacket2; Kathryn Hellerstein’s A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586 – 1987 included a wonderful chapter devoted to Dropkin and Anna Margolin. All this is especially impressive given that Dropkin died in 1956 and, although she lived in New York most of her life, wrote almost exclusively in Yiddish.
And now comes Dropkin’s Selected Poems, with an introduction by Edward Hirsch.
The three translators of The Acrobat, Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon, note in a brief essay included in the book that they have “felt [Dropkin’s] presence” in their readings in European and American modern and contemporary, in writers as diverse as Walt Whitman and Jean Valentine. In these gorgeous translations, Dropkin fits easily into the American poetic idiom. She is a brilliant watcher of nature and equally adept at urban pastoral. “Lift your unhappy head to see / how the El casts its black net,” Dropkin writes in “An Evening in March.” In moments like these, Dropkin anticipates the grit and loveliness of Grace Paley’s poetry and stories. In Dropkin’s short poems, one hears anticipations of Valentine, who values not so much compression as simple, straightforward utterances.
A few of Dropkin’s poems have datelines, but most are undated. It is clear from those few poems that do have years or dates that the translator-editors of the volume have decided not to arrange these poems chronologically, leaving the reader wondering about the basis for this organizational decision, and even more curious to know more about Dropkin’s poems, including their years of composition, and where, when, or whether they were published. A poem titled “The Border” is dated 1948 by Dropkin, and begins and ends with the same line: “The border between life and death is so thin.” Although no language in the poem specifically suggests it, many of Dropkin’s readers will recognize 1948 as the year Israel was founded, imbuing the poem and its emphasis on borders with another layer of meaning. The poem “New York at Night by the Banks of the Hudson” is dated, as well. Knowing when Dropkin wrote the lines “Seeping from the cells of your skyscrapers / in golden honey — light / through millions of windows” in 1933, after the Great Depression ended, before the second World War, adds some ineffable texture to the poem.
This accomplished and exciting volume is, according to Hirsch’s introduction, the first-ever English language collection of Celia Dropkin’s poems, a step toward bringing more necessary attention — and publication — to Dropkin’s bold voice.
- Yiddish Literature Reading List
- Songs to a Moonstruck Lady: Women in Yiddish Poetry by the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture
- A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586 – 1987 by Kathryn Hellerstein
Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.