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Avrom Reyzen meets Philip Levine meets Jacques Prévert

August 2020

Three poems, three didactic exercises in three classrooms – one, a small-town Jewish religious school, probably somewhere in modern-day Belarus in the late 19th century; one, a very specific Detroit public school classroom in 1942; another, a math class, perhaps in early 20th century France. This edition of Juxtapoetry presents Avrom Reyzen “May-ko Mashme Lon?” by Avrom Reyzen (1876 – 1953) together with “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School – Detroit 1942,” by Philip Levine (1928 – 2015) and “Page d’écriture,” (“Exercise Book”) by Jacques Prévert (1900 – 1977). Individually and in juxtaposition, the poems offer illuminating takes on education, authority and youthful self-discovery.

May ko mashme-lon

May ko mashme-lon? The rain:
What’s it have for me to hear?
Just its drops upon the windows
Rolling down like sullen tears.
And my boots are ripped and torn
And the street is getting muddy.
Winter will soon be coming
I have no coat to bundle up with.

May ko mashme-lon? The candle:
What’s it have for me to hear?
The tallow spits and gasps and drips
And it soon will burn no more.
I too sputter in this classroom,
Like a weak and flickering candle,
And I too will be extinguished
On the quiet eastern mantel.

May ko mashme-lon? The clock:
What’s it have for me to hear,
With its painted yellow numbers
With its ringing, with its swearing?
It’s an artificial vessel.
It does not live and does not feel.
Come the hour, it must strike,
Without choice and without will.

May ko mashme-lon? My life:
What’s it have for me to hear?
Wasting, withering in my youth,
Grown so old, though young in years.
Eating days and gulping tears,
Sleeping on hard fists gone numb,
Dying here in this cruel world,
Waiting for the world to come.

מאי-קא משמע-לן

מאי-קא משמע-לן דער רעגן?
וואָס-זשע לאָזט ער מיר צו הערן? —
זייַנע טראָפּנס אויף די שויבן
קויקלען זיך,װי טריבע טרערן.
און דער שטיוול איז צעריסן
און עס ווערט אין גאַס אַ בלאָטע׃
באַלד וועט אויך דער ווינטער קומען –
כ׳האָב קיין װאַרעמע קאַפּאָטע…

מאי-קא משמע-לן דאָס ליכטל?
וואָס-זשע לאָזט עס מיר צו הערן? —
ס׳קאַפּעט און עס טריפט איר חלב
און ס׳וועט באַלד פון איר נישט ווערן.
אַזוי צאַנק איך דאָ אין קלייזל,
ווי אַ ליכטל, שוואַך און טונקל,
ביז איך וועל אַזוי מיר אויסגיין
אין דער שטיל, אין מזרח-ווינקל…

מאי-קא משמע-לן דער זייגער?
וואָס-זשע לאָזט ער מיר צו הערן? —
מיט זייַן געלבן ציפּער-בלעטל,
מיט זייַן קלינגען, מיט זייַן שווערן?
ס׳איז אַן אָנגעשטעלטע כּלי,
ס׳האָט קיין לעבן, קיין געפילן,
קומט די שעה, דאָ מוז ער שלאָגן,
אָן זייַן רצון, אָן זייַן ווילן…

מאי-קא משמע-לן מייַן לעבן?
וואָס-זשע לאָזט עס מיר צו הערן? —
פוילן, וועלקן אין דער יוגנט,
פאַר דער צייַט פאַרעלטערט ווערן;
עסן ״טעג״ און שלינגען טרערן,
שלאָפן אויפן פויסט דעם האַרטן,
טויטן דאָ דעם עולם הזה
און אויף עולם הבא וואַרטן…

Listen to the great tenor Louis Danto sing this poem

“May-ko Mashme Lon” is an Aramaic phrase meaning “What does this tell us?” It is a prompt for a student to give a Biblical or Talmudic analysis, and it would have been very familiar to Avrom Reyzen and virtually any Yiddish reader with a traditional Jewish education. The speaker of the poem is presumably a young boy in a religious school who uses this rhetorical question to ponder his material existence. With the rhythm of the phrase marking each stanza, he lets his mind wander over the worldly objects he sees in the classroom, drawing from each one a profound image of sadness and mortality. The similes are uncomplicated but moving, and they show perhaps the first critical thinking of a boy taught by rote (like a clock, which “must strike / without choice and without will’) and likely ignorant of any secular studies, including the science behind the dripping rain, the sputtering tallow candle or the ticking clock.

For all the value generally placed on religious education in Eastern European Jewish society, the life of a yeshive bokher was often brutal. The exhausted, malnourished students were expected to study night and day in the yeshivas, and their instructors could be emotionally or physically abusive. Poor students studying far from home, for whom scholarly achievement was generally the only means of socio-economic ascendance, were dependent on “esn-teg” (“eating days”), a system in which a local family would feed a student for one day per week out of charity. In the poem’s final, heartbreaking verse, Reyzen plays with this phrase, placing “esn-teg” in a hunger diet of misery and wasted time alongside “shlingen trern” (gulping tears).

The young student despairs over the possibility that his prized religious education — and the values on which it is based — amount to nothing but complacency with poverty and inequality. Avrom Reyzen and so many others of his generation would not be content to merely wait for “oylem habe” (“the world to come,” meaning life after death or the time of the Messiah). Many would leave the insular world of the Yeshivas and work as secular poets and revolutionary activists to build an “oylem haze” (“this world”) worth living in and fighting for.

In his own title, American poet Philip Levine offers some context for the anecdote described in “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School – Detroit 1942.” But it begs many questions: M. Degas? As in Monsieur Edgar Degas, the impressionist painter, who died in 1917? OK, probably not… But why are art and science being taught as one subject? Have the teachers been drafted to fight in World War II, and is this the school’s way of cutting corners? Or is merging of subjects just the student’s interpretation?

Like Reyzen, Levine centers his poem around a repeated, rhetorical question: “What have I done?” Unlike Reyzen, Levine presents the action that prompted the question: the drawing of a single, diagonal line on a chalkboard. The students’ attempts – at turns sarcastic, groveling, and sincere – to make sense of the teacher’s cryptic action are interspersed with the narrator’s impatient visions of life outside the classroom.

Transported into the mind of this child, we ourselves are forced to wonder: What is Degas doing? Does he have an answer in mind? Is he trying to teach them a lesson, or is he just killing time? The tension builds, and like the narrator we begin to resent the stuffy, uncertain classroom and crave a Milky Way bar and the “new winds” of April. The end of the poem (“I looked back for help, but now / the trees bucked and quaked, and I / knew this could go on forever”) seems to mark a lifelong break in the child’s thought process. He has realized that education is not a matter of pleasing one’s teachers, or giving the right answer before the lunch bell rings: instead, the world is an endless series of curious, mysterious and unanswerable things, things that puzzle even adults.

What Levine is depicting is the rather traumatic-feeling birth of an artist or a scientist, one who in their own way tries “to separate the dark from the dark” and searches forever for answers to their own questions.

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, “What have I done?”
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, “You’ve broken a piece
of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile.
“What have I done?” he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle.” Degas mused.
Every one knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. “It is possible,”
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
“that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn.” I remember

that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the play grounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I’d be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, “You’ve begun
to separate the dark from the dark.”
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.

Listen to Philip Levine read his poem.
Recorded on October 8, 1991 at the French Institute Alliance Française, New York City.

Jacques Prévert’s “Page d’écriture” (Exercise Book) features some of the same existential questions as Reyzen and Levine’s classroom poems. From the very beginning, we hear the boring, ineffective and irrelevant rote memorization of arithmetic.

The kids in Prévert’s class seem a bit younger than Reyzen’s yeshiva bokher or Levine’s Detroit middle schoolers, and maybe their minds are a bit more free and resilient in the face of their teacher’s drudgery. They don’t even need to limit their daydreaming to what is in or directly outside the classroom: the child summons a lyrebird, which, as it turns out, is a real bird, but native to southeastern Australia and not usually found flying around the suburbs of Paris.

The lyrebird is famous for its vocal versatility and its ability to mimic other birds as well as non-animal sounds it hears around it. The child pleads for the bird to “save” him, but from what? The day’s boring math lesson? Or maybe a more sinister way of viewing and explaining away the world? Were it not for the song of the lyrebird, the math exercise could literally (with apologies and a nod to Philip Levine) have gone on forever. But no, the child discovers that “twice sixteen makes nothing / least of all thirty-two.”

While the first-person narrators of Reyzen and Levine’s poems express a deep loneliness of perspective, all the children in Prévert’s class are able to hear the bird, and they all join in the game, chasing off the numbers as if they were pests.

When “the walls of the classroom quietly crumble,” we see a parallel with Levine’s narrator, watching as “the trees bucked and quaked.” I think Prévert is playing with the notion of what “elementary” means. Numbers and arithmetic are elementary, in one sense, but once the schoolchildren finish counting backwards (unlearning, so to speak) they manage to see how everything around them in the classroom is, in the simplest sense, artificial: made from something else.

I don’t believe that Prévert is making an argument for music or poetry against math. Like M. Degas at Durfee Intermediate School, the lyrebird is teaching both art and science, new ways of hearing and seeing. Unfortunately, not all students have the privilege of learning from a M. Degas. And I wonder how many students accused of and punished for “playing the fool” are really just playing and singing with their own lyrebirds.

Exercise Book

Two and two four
four and four eight
eight and eight sixteen…
Once again! says the master
Two and two four
four and four eight
eight and eight sixteen.
But look! the lyre-bird
high on the wing
the child sees it
the child hears it
the child calls it.
Save me
play with me
So the bird alights
and plays with the child
Two and two four…
Once again! says the master
and the child plays
and the bird plays too…
Four and four eight
eight and eight sixteen
and twice sixteen makes what?
Twice sixteen makes nothing
least of all thirty-two
and off they go.
For the child has hidden
the bird in his desk
and all the children
hear its song
and all the children
hear the music
and eight and eight in their turn off they go
and four and four and two and two
in their turn fade away
and one and one make neither one nor two
but one by one off they go.
And the lyre-bird sings
and the child sings
and the master shouts
When you’ve quite finished playing the fool!
But all the children
are listening to the music
and the walls of the classroom
quietly crumble.
The windowpanes turn once more to sand
the ink is sea
the desk is trees
the chalk is cliffs
and the quill pen is bird again.

— Translated by Paul Dehn

Page d’écriture

Deux et deux quatre
quatre et quatre huit
huit et huit font seize…
Répétez ! dit le maître
Deux et deux quatre
quatre et quatre huit
huit et huit font seize.
Mais voilà l’oiseau-lyre
qui passe dans le ciel
l’enfant le voit
l’enfant l’entend
l’enfant l’appelle :
joue avec moi
oiseau !
Alors l’oiseau descend
et joue avec l’enfant
Deux et deux quatre…
Répétez ! dit le maître
et l’enfant joue
l’oiseau joue avec lui…
Quatre et quatre huit
huit et huit font seize
et seize et seize qu’est-ce qu’ils font ?
Ils ne font rien seize et seize
et surtout pas trente-deux
de toute façon
et ils s’en vont.
Et l’enfant a caché l’oiseau
dans son pupitre
et tous les enfants
entendent sa chanson
et tous les enfants
entendent la musique
et huit et huit à leur tour s’en vont
et quatre et quatre et deux et deux
à leur tour fichent le camp
et un et un ne font ni une ni deux
un à un s’en vont également.
Et l’oiseau-lyre joue
et l’enfant chante
et le professeur crie :
Quand vous aurez fini de faire le pitre !
Mais tous les autres enfants
écoutent la musique
et les murs de la classe
s’écroulent tranquillement.
Et les vitres redeviennent sable
l’encre redevient eau
les pupitres redeviennent arbres
la craie redevient falaise
le porte-plume redevient oiseau.

Watch and listen to a delightful rendition of Prévert’s “Page d’écriture” as performed by French crooner Yves Montand. And below, hear the amazing mimicry of the Australian Lyre Bird, introduced by David Attenborough on BBC Earth.
JUXTAPOETRY curator and writer: Ben Kline
Avrom Reyzen, “May ko mashme-lon,” translated by Ben Kline
Philip Levine, “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942,” from What Work Is: Poems, 1991
Jacques Prévert, “Page d’écriture,” translated by Paul Dehn
Top Image: Karl Hubbuch, Die Schulstube, 1925