By Peretz Markish, translated by Jordan Finkin
The Yiddish poet Peretz Markish (1895–1952) was fascinated by the natural world. His early work in particular contains numerous sequences engaging with the landscape of his native Volhynia and allegorizing a variety of natural features. During the Russian Civil War he found himself in Crimea and wrote a remarkable cycle of poems, Chatyr-Dag, constructed around the image of one of the peninsula’s prominent mountains. The first fragment of Markish’s cycle was modeled on Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz’s famous Crimean Sonnets and appeared in the journal Eygns (One’s Own) in 1920, followed by the full cycle of twenty-four sonnets a year later. (An expanded thirty-six-sonnet version was published in 1931.) Markish’s poems explore the power of natural forces and the dramatic potential unleashed when they clash, under the impassive gaze of an indomitable mountain.
Markish’s remarkable body of poetry and prose, and his active participation in many of European Yiddish literature’s modernist movements, makes him one of the foremost Soviet Yiddish writers.
Chatyr-Dag. With footsteps marking your wandering paths
I approach the hem of your cloud-patched cloak.
You recluse of stone with almond trees overgrown,
What lapidary tidings do you await from world’s end?
Sanctioned by storm, swelled in disputes with the sun,
The skies lie upon you like the blessing of the firstborn.
Bruisèd Chatyr-Dag, your head cradled to the sunbaked waste,
Have you still not counted the stars in the sky’s blue swath?
Chatyr-Dag, what do you see in that expanse unrolled?
What do you read up there in those star-studded scrolls?
I approach you, star-seer, drunk from the lash of the sun.
I will not land my ark on you; I’ve stranded it on aching dreams.
Your knees remain restful, your back dreamily still.
Here shall I be slaked by the stillness of your shoulder, Chatyr-Dag!
A mountain holds Alushta on its knees before you.
A distant land, your subject, has sent you tribute;
Ripe vineyards and valleys planted green.
Will you not accept it, Chatyr-Dag? Is it beyond your ken?
On one side, with its shaven head, the mosque;
On the other, huts like pins stuck in a body.
The mullah cries out, calling; he trills his prayer
All night long, his twisted bones lying prone on the ground.
I too approach you with your green luster and stately cypress,
Your vein-winding paths and flocks of colorful sheep.
Do you not hear, Chatyr-Dag? Are you asleep?
Your swollen base is covered with Tatar huts,
And little thickets steal along like Romanies with black lacquer beards
As I drink your stony apprehension, Chatyr-Dag!
And where shall the Black Sea hide its glowing husk of dawn?
And to whom shall it show the sun, crumbled on its azure riff?
It drives its waves toward you, Chatyr-Dag, like hellfire billows,
And, singing, sends you golden foam, stippling above!
And, Chatyr-Dag, to whom shall you display your golden head at eventide,
Your red-stag crown emplaced there by the sun?
I see you rising from the savage, hoary waters.
I see you rocking, suckled on the thousand-bosomed sea.
And you’ve shared yourself like a brother with the sea,
Along with the lightning-shining sheep, along
With the sun’s gilt treasures, its hell-red suckling flame.
Barefoot with the golden gait of youth amid a drove of thriving calves
The sun rises flaming from the distant reaches of the sea,
And younger still it sets, naked, behind your head, Chatyr-Dag.
Jordan Finkin is the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He is also the director of Naydus Press, a nonprofit publisher of Yiddish literature in English translation. He was a 2015 and 2017 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow.