"To a Fellow Writer" and "Shloyme Mikhoels"

Two poems

Written by:
Rachel H. Korn
Translated by:
Seymour Levitan
Spring 2016
Part of issue number:
Translation Issue 2016

These poems were published in one of Rachel Korn’s final volumes, Af der sharf fun a rege (The Cutting Edge of the Moment; 1972), though they originate in experiences at different times in her life.

Her poem to Shloyme Mikhoels, the great actor-director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, is based partly on her memories of the man from 1944, at the time of her wandering during the Second World War. It is also a vision of Mikhoels playing his most famous role, Shakespeare’s Lear (whom she mistakenly conflates with Gloucester after his blinding), on the stage and then on the streets of Minsk, where he was run down and killed by Soviet law enforcement in 1948. The killing of Mikhoels marked the beginning of a series of arrests and executions that has come to be known as the liquidation of Yiddish culture in the USSR.

The poem “Tsu a khaver-shrayber” (“To a Fellow Writer”) is dated 1971. By this time, Korn saw herself as an “heiress of grief,” owing a tax of tears to all who died in the Holocaust and entrusted with the obligation to remember them. At the same time it is a plea to a colleague requesting a poem for a forthcoming publication to pardon her for the little that she can contribute. The writer she is addressing is most likely her close friend Kadia Molodowsky, a fellow poet and the editor of the Yiddish journal Svive (Surroundings).

To a Fellow Writer

I have your letter asking me to send a poem.
Would two be better yet, or four?
My day returns tired from markets and fairs
and casts a gray shadow on the paper.

The sheets of paper, icy, white, and bare,
also wait for me to cover them with verses
and breathe on their cold, smooth surface
the breath of words nesting in narrow lines.

In dreams I often hear a voice come close,
open and pull aside the dark drapes of night,
lips long since stifled in ash
entrusting me with a name they cherish.

I’ve become the debtor to everything and all,
everyone on earth and beneath,
like an heiress of grief owing tax 
even on the tears fated to me here.

And where are the poems? Forgive, my friend, forgive.
The thorn in the desert hasn’t yet blossomed—
for now allow at least
these words
from your
Rokhl Korn.

November 1971


Shloyme Mikhoels

To the memory of the great artist, man, and Jew

“Only on your right foot,” he would say to me
where the world turned left without mercy or God,
every word an informer
for imprisonment and death.

“Only on your right foot,” and a kiss,
a fatherly kiss on the brow to ward off all lurking suspicion,
the seal on a passport of life
in the harsh time of my wandering.

“Only on your right foot,” himself a hostage,
with proud lion head and eyes full of knowing,
playing, playing a part to protect the others,
conversos and Marranos, like himself.

“Only on your right foot,” his full underlip drooping
even more and trembling
under the weight of words not said
that might seem wounded and embittered.

“Only on your right foot,” his look asking
whether I see his meaning and intent—
the high, scholarly forehead relaxes
when he sees I comprehend.

“Only on your right foot,” Mikhoels says to himself
as he makes ready to be Lear onstage—
driven out to ridicule and contempt,
a blind king without a crown or people or domain.

“Only on your right foot,” and now Shloyme the Clever
envies the weary old man
whose blindness kept him from seeing
all that his insight forces him to see. 

“Only on your right foot”—did he mutter those words under his breath,
distracted on that winter night
of evil riddles and signs
on the familiar and so-trusted streets of Minsk? 

And under the cold, starless sky
did he tear the mask from his face
on the snow-covered stage
where he encountered death?

Seymour Levitan of Vancouver was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Simon Fraser University. His translations of Yiddish poems, stories, and memoirs have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, and he lectures widely on both translation and Yiddish literature. He is the 2008 winner of the Louis Rosenberg Award of the Association of Canadian Jewish Studies.

Paper Roses, his selection and translation of Korn’s poetry, was the 1988 winner of the Robert Payne Award of the Translation Center at Columbia University. The poems here will be included in a forthcoming McGill-Queen’s University Press edition of Korn poems, edited by Esther Frank and selected and translated by Levitan.