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H. Leivick meets Adrienne Rich

October 2020

In this Juxtapoetry, a Yiddish poet imagines a fragment of his skeleton being found by perplexed future generations, and decades later an American Jewish poet imagines searching for it, amongst the damage and the treasures of the past.

A Stubborn Back — And Nothing More

Come, let us hide ourselves in caves,
in stony crevices, in graves
where stretched full length on the hard ground
we lie, backs up and faces down.

We shall not record, we shall not say
why we’ve immured ourselves this way.
No notch in a wall, our stony page,
shall mark the historic year or age.

We shall not leave behind as clue
one thread of ourselves — not the lace of a shoe.
No one shall find, hard though he look,
one shred of a dress, one page of a book.

Whether he search by night or by day,
no one shall find a trace of our clay.
But if someone should, let his find be poor:
a stubborn back — and nothing more.

Let him stand wondering, mouth agape,
why we fled to a cave for our escape,
what the last words of our distress
in these depths of stoniness.

And let him seek and still not find
if conscience here were undermined,
if the tormented heart grew faint
and blood and courage suffered taint;

If we were tortured by a fiend,
or maybe by someone just and kind;
by ax, by bullet, by lynching herd
or maybe by a casual word.

If he asks our bones mixed one with the other:
Are you the bones of a foe or a brother,
the answer will come: horror struck dumb
and from his own mouth white bubbles of foam.

Long will he stare — not comprehending —
till he turn — eyes bulging, arms extending —
to flee in his fear and consternation
from generation to generation.

The greater his fear, the faster his flight,
running till history flounder in night,
while we go on lying as heretofore:
a stubborn back and nothing more.

— Translated by Robert Friend

האַרטער נאַקן – און גאָרניט מער

קום, מיר וועלן זיך באַהאַלטן
אין גריבער פון ערד, אין שטיינערנע שפּאַלטן, —
מיר וועלן זיך אויסציִען מיט אונדזער גוף
מיטן פּנים אַראָפּ און נאַקן אַרויף.

און מיר וועלן ניט רעדן און ניט דערציילן
פאַרוואָס מיר פאַרמויערן זיך אין היילן
און מיר וועלן ניט פאַרצייכענען דאָס יאָר
און ניט די תּקופה און ניט דעם דור.

און מיר וועלן ניט איבערלאָזן פון זיך קיין סימן,
ניט קיין שטיקל קלייד און ניט קיין רימען,
ניט קיין שנירל-בענדל פון אַ שוך,
און ניט קיין בלעטל פון אַ בוך.

און עס זאָל אונדז קיינער ניט קאָנען געפינען
ניט אין נאַכט און ניט אין באַגינען,
און וועט אונדז אַ מאָל יאָ געפינען ווער —
זאָל ער געפינען אַ  ה אַ ר ט ע ר  נ אַ ק ן , ניט מער.

ער זאָל גאַפן און ניט באַגרייפן
פאַרוואָס מיר האָבן געמוזט אין הייל אַנטלויפן,
און וואָס איז געווען אונדזער לעצט וואָרט
אין דער טיף פון שטיינערנעם אָרט.

און ער זאָל קוקן און זיך גאָרנישט דערוויסן,
צי עפּעס איז געטאָן געוואָרן מיט אונדזער געוויסן,
צי ווער האָט פאַרפּייַניקט אונדזער מוט,
צי ווער האָט אומריין געמאַכט אונדזער בלוט.

צי ס׳האָט אונדז געפּייַניקט אַ כּולו-שלעכטער,
צי אפשר גאָר אַ כּולו-גערעכטער;
דורך האַק, דורך תּליה-שטריק, דורך קויל,
צי אפשר גאָר דורך וואָרט פון מויל.

און אַז ער וועט פרעגן בייַם רעשט פון גלידער:
ווער זענט איר — רעשט פון שׂונאים צי פון ברידער?
וועט אַן ענטפער זייַן: — שטומער גרויל
און ווייַסער שוים אויף זייַן אייגענעם מויל.

און אַזוי לאַנג וועט ער קוקן און ניט באַגרייפן,
ביז וואַנען ער וועט נעמען אין מורא אַנטלויפן
מיט אויגן אַרויס און הענט פאָרויס,
און לויפן אַזוי דור אייַן — דור אויס.

זייַן געלאָף אַלץ גרעסער — וואָס גרעסער די מוראס.
ער וועט לויפן אַזוי ביז סוף פון דורות, —
און מיר וועלן ליגן, ווי ביז אַהער,
אַ האַרטער נאַקן — און גאָר נישט מער.

Listen to a performance of H. Leivick’s “A harter nakn – un gornisht mer” in the original Yiddish by the actor Hertz Grosbard.
Grosbard (1892–1994) was the most popular “deklamator” (declaimer) of Yiddish throughout the world. A project at Columbia University has made his famed “word concerts” available, including this recording of Leivick’s poem.

A sense of doom and the macabre runs through the work of Yiddish poet and playwright Leivick Halpern, who went by the pen name H. Leivick. Over his lifetime, he became personally familiar with the political prison camps of Czarist Russia, the tuberculosis sanatoria high in the Colorado Rockies, the dread of fascism’s rise and the desolation of its aftermath. He first published “האַרטער נאַקן – און גאָרניט מער” (“A Stubborn Back – and Nothing More”) in a 1937 anthology, and the poem displays an extreme pessimism, even by Leivick’s own standards.

The poem’s speaker appears so disillusioned and dismayed with the state of human civilization to the point of imploring his readers to dwell in caves and purposefully leave no historical record other than their own bones: specifically, the “nakn” or cervical spine. He doesn’t mention his motives, but instead focuses on how best to be forgotten. This aspirant to oblivion knows what “clues” future archæologists and historians will be looking for: “No one shall find, hard though he look, / one shred of a dress, one page of a book.” Not only does the speaker want to destroy all physical evidence of his prior life, but he also aspires to erase “the last words of our distress.” He imagines (with some pleasure perhaps) a curious human of the future, “horror struck dumb,” foaming at the mouth and fleeing the incomprehensible bit of bone that reveals nothing except that it perhaps once belonged to a human. What’s not clear is whether the poem’s speaker feels spite or mercy toward this unborn discoverer, or some combination thereof.

Leivick’s reaction to the unfolding horror of European fascism contrasts with the actions of Jewish historians who lived under German occupation: Emanuel Ringelblum’s Warsaw Ghetto “Oyneg Shabes” archive comes to mind, as does Simon Dubnow’s legendary last words during the liquidation of the Riga Ghetto: Shrayb un farshrayb! – Write and record! As a poet, Leivick must have known the contradiction of rendering his sentiment in the form of a poem. As a Jew, he surely understood the cultural impulse of Ringelblum, Dubnow, and others to write and record, and he knew that material evidence would certainly survive the destruction taking place. Something always survives. Maybe in writing “A Stubborn Back,” Leivick was expressing an impossible hope that future generations would not have to face the evil their human ancestors did to one another, and would not know enough about destroyed civilizations to be able to mourn them.

Though Leivick predicted that “fear and consternation” toward the unknowable past would run “from generation to generation,” Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” proves that this would not be the case. Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, and published her first collection in 1951. Over the course of her career, Rich’s work took a radical turn in both form and content, as she became increasingly involved in feminist, anti-war, and civil rights activism. Published in 1973 in a collection with the same title, the “Diving into the Wreck” takes the perspective of the sort of explorer that Leivick may have imagined while writing “A Stubborn Back.” Instead of entering a dark cave, Rich’s speaker is scuba diving to the ocean floor, a quest that brings its own perils. The discoverer’s journey begins with a reflection on her solitude and self consciousness at her “absurd flippers / the grave and awkward mask.”

I love the image of the boat’s ladder, crossing the barrier of the water’s surface. It is a symbol of the human impulse to dive and to delve, a reminder that, though the diver is alone in her current mission, she is not the first to undertake it.

Rich carefully describes the intense physical sensations of entering the ocean and reflects on the adaptation and humility necessary for a human who wishes to move through this alienating medium: “the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element.” The diver is searching for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” The physical encounter with the remains inside the wreck does not produce a terrified frothing in the mouth, but rather an absolute identification between the diver and the drowned: “I am she: I am he / whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes.”

I wonder at the distinction Rich makes between “the thing itself” and “the myth.” If myths serve to answer unknowable questions about the past, then material evidence and archæological interpretation have the potential to answer those questions and disprove those myths. But there will always be gaps in the historical record that are impossible to fill: the diver’s impressionistic encounter with “the thing itself” is not objective or scientific, nor does it claim to be. It takes imagination and empathy to identify with something that has been destroyed, to commune with it across the thresholds of time and death. In such deep waters, one might even begin to channel “the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course” and dare to wonder what that course may have been, to dream of a time line in which the wreck never occurred. I say “dare,” but Rich clarifies that we may find ourselves facing the wreck either “by cowardice or courage.” For some, it may be fear of the myth and the willful ignorance that rules above water that draws us down into the deep.

Given Adrienne Rich’s activism and poetic interests, we can interpret the book of myths held by the diver as histories from which women, lesbians, and other marginalized people have been excluded or erased. The myth could also be what the historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” which reduces millennia of civilization to “a stubborn back” and not much more — without H. Leivick’s pathos or irony. I find particular resonance between “A Stubborn Back” and “Diving into the Wreck” in the fact that Adrienne Rich, though she did not grow up in a Yiddish-speaking environment, herself became an accomplished translator from Yiddish to English. I like to picture Rich diving into a flooded cave and finding the cervical spines of H. Leivick and other Yiddish poets. Maybe she also finds the Oyneg Shabes archive, stored in milk jugs for posterity. Even if she finds just “one page of a book,” she will emerge illuminated: “The words are purposes. / The words are maps.” If not, if she finds “a stubborn back and nothing more,” her dive won’t have been in vain. At the very least, she’ll be able to write herself into the ever-evolving book of myths.

Luckily for us, H. Leivick did not to take to the caves to die, decay, and be forgotten, and neither did his contemporaries. Luckily for us, Adrienne Rich was not the last poet to dive into wrecks and confront the unknowable past.

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Listen to Adrienne Rich read her poem from a 1974 recording:

JUXTAPOETRY curator and writer: Ben Kline
“A Stubborn Back — And Nothing More,” by H. Leivick, translated by Robert Friend, translation copyright © Jean Shapiro Cantu for the Estate of Robert Friend.
H. Leivick, “האַרטער נאַקן – און גאָרניט מער” from Lider fun gan-eyden 1932-1937.
Recording of Hertz Grosbard, from Word Concert Volume 5, courtesy of Agnieszka Legutko and The Grosbard Project of Columbia University.
Top Image: Fernand Léger, “Plongeurs sur fond noir (Divers on Black Background),” 1941, Walker Art Center.
Center Image: Virginia Frances Sterrett, “She Peeped into the Opening of the Cave,” 1921, Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom Image: Eric Ravilious, “The Diver, HMS Dolphin Submarine”, 1941, WikiArt.