By Moyshe Kulbak, translated by Paul S. Stevenson
Moyshe Kulbak (1896–1937) was born in Smarhoń in what is now Belarus. He wrote poetry in Hebrew and later in Yiddish, and he eventually branched into Yiddish novels. After spending time in Lithuania, Germany, and Poland, he returned to Soviet Belarus. There, like so many Yiddish authors in Stalin’s Soviet Union, he was arrested and executed at a young age.
“In a Forest of Fir” is one of a number of poems printed in the colorful literary journal Milgroym, which was published in Berlin from 1922 to 1924. This meditative poem about a quiet spot in the woods offers a notable contrast to the crowded world of shtetls and cities more commonly portrayed in Yiddish writings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It is silent. Silent. Where there glints red
a wild strawberry,
where there silently climbs
a little worm
in the intertwining of branch with branch
in the gathering of trunk and roots
and deep is the bushy thicket
the one in fertile ground;
it is one with gushing springs and sprouting toadstools
beside the stumps,
with their green beards—
one where there whispers
a blade of grass to a blade of grass,
a thin little trickle from a spring,
one where there leaps
a poor little hare,
and darts, this little gray arrow
through fern and dead nettles
on old rot,
echoes in the forest
the blue of concealment.
Paul S. Stevenson has extensive experience as a translator, working in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He has master’s degrees in linguistics and Semitic languages, as well as a doctorate in the latter field. He is fascinated by the intersection in Yiddish of different language families. The fact that such a small fraction of Yiddish literature has been made accessible to modern readers motivated him to start translating Yiddish texts into English.