The Acro­bat: Select­ed Poems of Celia Dropkin

Celia Drop­kin; Faith Jones, Jen­nifer Kro­novet, and Samuel Solomon, trans.
  • Review
By – November 2, 2015

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, 15861987 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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

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