The Full Pome­gran­ate: Poems of Avrom Sutzkever

Avrom Sutzkev­erk, Richard J. Fein (trans.), Justin Cam­my (intro.)

  • Review
By – August 10, 2020

The pome­gran­ate, full, full with light­ning and dark clouds” is, in Richard J. Fein’s new trans­la­tion of Avrom Sutzkev­er, com­pressed and armored” hid­ing its fright­en­ing appear­ance.” Unit­ing signs from the nat­ur­al world with the pome­gran­ate demon­strates Sutzekever’s impos­ing sleight of hand, inter­pret­ed through Fein. Trans­for­ma­tion, both omi­nous and mag­i­cal, is recur­rent in this gath­er­ing of poems: what is invis­i­ble is revealed and what is vis­i­ble is exposed anew.

In The Full Pome­gran­ate, Fein sam­ples Sutzkever’s impres­sive body of work, extend­ing from the 1930s through the 1990s, though he notes that this selec­tion of Sutzkever’s work is nei­ther com­pre­hen­sive or rep­re­sen­ta­tive.” Rather, Fein trans­lat­ed poems that spoke to him as a poet; he gath­ers poems that asked or invit­ed an Eng­lish trans­la­tion. Thus, the expe­ri­ence of read­ing Sutzkever’s work is done through the lens of a poet read­ing anoth­er poet.

The pre­sen­ta­tion of the Eng­lish trans­la­tion and the Yid­dish orig­i­nal on fac­ing pages invites read­ers to engage in the trans­la­tion­al dia­logue with Fein. While Sutzkev­er is among the most wide­ly trans­lat­ed of poets work­ing in Yid­dish, encoun­ter­ing his work through Fein’s new trans­la­tion is an engag­ing, capa­cious romp, the idio­syn­crat­ic eye of one poet respond­ing to another.

Begin­ning with the com­pact, imag­is­tic poems from Sutzkever’s col­lec­tion Siberia, with poems that evoke snow and cold, and includ­ing poems writ­ten in the Vil­na ghet­to, Sutzkever’s work con­tin­u­al­ly affirms the pow­er of human­i­ty and the resilience of the nat­ur­al world. In I Lie in a Cof­fin,” writ­ten on August 30, 1941, Sutzkev­er writes in the con­clud­ing stanza:

Appar­ent­ly that is the plan:

today here,

tomor­row there,

and now in a coffin,

as if in wood­en clothes,

my words keep on singing.

Sutzkever’s words keep on singing as do Fein’s trans­la­tions. In a poem writ­ten in the 1990s remem­ber­ing Sutzkever’s moth­er, Fein trans­lates, It fol­lows that because my moth­er lived, I have lived, / and in the win­ter her shawl became a mead­ow.” The metaphor­ic trans­for­ma­tion of a com­mon piece of cloth­ing, a shawl, into a mead­ow oper­ates as a sym­bol of both the moth­er and the regen­er­a­tion of the nat­ur­al world.

Equal­ly impor­tant to the trans­la­tions in The Full Pome­gran­ate is Justin Cammy’s sub­stan­tive intro­duc­tion. Cam­my pro­vides an overview of Sutzkever’s life as well as his poet­ic oeu­vre, describ­ing Sutzkev­er as one of Yung-Vilne’s most pro­duc­tive mem­bers and enthu­si­as­tic orga­niz­ers” of the 1930s. He ulti­mate­ly con­cludes that Sutzkev­er is the most spir­i­tu­al­ly nour­ish­ing poet in the Yid­dish poet­ic canon.” Fein’s trans­la­tions pro­vide ample evi­dence for Cammy’s claim.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions