“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:
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 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.