I am sitting in the Quiet Room at Poets House in Lower Manhattan with Jacqueline Osherow. Quiet is as alien to Osherow, who is 58, as stale imagery is to her poetry. Her answers to questions are erudite, funny, infused with stories that travel over long and noisy tracks. Her books, Hoopoe’s Crown, Whitethorn, and Dead Men’s Praise, occupy a small table outside the room, laid out by the Poets House staff in honour of the visiting poet from Salt Lake City.
We talk about her colloquial voice, her rhyme schemes, her place poems (Trujillo, Umbria, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva), but it is not long before she is hauling me into the raucous garden of her obsession, Yiddish. Not the Yiddish of today’s chassidim; the Yiddish of a slaughtered civilization.
Don’t tell me there’s Yiddish on Eastern Parkway;
I want it at its source: its native Europe.
“The language I am imagining when I am imaging Yiddish is the language my parents spoke, the rich, lost language of a sensibility that is also disappearing.”
I ask her what she means by this sensibility, and she tells me a Yiddish joke.
“A rabbi says to his student, ‘What’s red and hangs on the wall and whistles?’
“The student is flummoxed. The rabbi says, ‘A herring.’”
Osherow’s voice fills with the hopeless delight of a kid reconstructing her favourite knock-knock joke.
“‘I can see, rabbi, how it can be red. I can even see how it hangs on the wall. But how does it whistle?’ And the rabbi says, ‘So, it doesn’t whistle.’”
To laurel the dead herring sold in the market with a squiggle of absurdity is Osherow’s example of the Yiddish sensibility.
Osherow herself doesn’t speak Yiddish, but Yiddish charges wildly from her pale skin, colonizing the tiny room. I am not usually fond of obsessives, but Osherow is an obsessive who is able to laugh at herself while defining herself. She told me of her Israeli cousin who brutalized her attempts at Yiddish speaking with the words, “You speak Yiddish like a convert.”
She commemorates this insult in her poem, A Crown for Yiddish, in her latest volume, Ultimatum from Paradise.
In her oeuvre we find Ch’vil Shreiben un Poem auf Yiddish, which sops up all the orbiting oxygen for miles around.
The poem is grandiose, yet it works.
“I will tell you how that poem was written, and it was written quickly. A friend of mine has a klezmer band in Salt Lake City if you can believe it. (She teaches at the University of Utah.) I am not bad at singing klezmer, so I was the vocalist. He wanted a poetry reading to go with the concert. Instead of my poems, I wanted to read the great Yiddish poems I translated for my Viking anthology. As I was getting those poems together, I found myself writing Ch’vil Shreiben:
I want to write a poem in Yiddish
and not any poem, but the poem
I am longing to write,
a poem so Yiddish, it would not
be possible to translate
except from, say, my bubbe’s
Galizianer to my zayde’s Litvak
and even then it would lose a little
I imagine Osherow, a self-professed disorganized wretch, as the prototypical eccentric genius who as a child is delivered to the carefully crafted sadism of a brother or a sister. It may or may not be coincidental that one of her early poems was about Joseph and his brothers:
with no warning they have thrown you in a ditch
bound you in an Egyptian jail.
It’s dark there.
You don’t speak the language.
“I can remember as a child [in Philadelphia] sitting in synagogue [Conservative] hearing ‘Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.’ I loved that!”
For her 28th birthday she was given a book of Jacob Glatstein’s poetry. The great Yiddish poet was known in his mid and later years for his ironic, elegiac works on the destruction of European Jewry.
“I remember thinking, I wish this was more poetic. The problem was I didn’t see the Yiddish tonality as poetic. I thought poetry had to sound like T.S. Eliot or Keats or someone like that. It was hard moving from T.S. Eliot to Glatstein, but Glatstein was where I wanted to be. I dream of being like Glatstein.”
I haven’t read her translations of Glatstein, or any of the Yiddish poets to whom she’s given an English voice. But I have no difficulty recognizing her, and her mad and brilliant rush of words, one step ahead of the hounds of history, as a contemporary Rocky Mountain translation from the Yiddish.
Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer.