Drunk from the Bitter Truth: Reading Resources

From the interminable grief and joy that radiates from Anna Margolin’s poetry, as from all true and mature poetry, there is the grief of consciousness and the joy of having arrived at that consciousness.” —Reuben Iceland, From Our Springtime, 149

The English-language book of poetry Drunk from the Bitter Truth contains Shirley Kumove’s beautiful and thoughtful translations of Anna Margolin’s work. Each translation sits beside Margolin’s Yiddish original, the majority of which are taken from the poet’s only collection, Lider

Shirley Kumove provides a detailed and engaging introduction, filled with biographical information on Anna Margolin and important context for her work. It’s worth perusing these pages for a rich portrait of Margolin’s life and the environments in which she was working and creating.

Anna Margolin

The complete picture of Anna Margolin will be revealed only when someone is found who will read, sort, and put into order the hundreds of letters she left behind, which fills quite a large valise.” —Reuben Iceland, From Our Springtime, 122

Picture of the poet, Anna Margolin.jpg
Picture of the poet, Anna Margolin. From the cover of Drunk from the Bitter Truth.

Worth reading alongside Drunk from the Bitter Truth is the chapter dedicated to Anna Margolin in Reuben Iceland’s memoir, From Our Springtime, translated from the Yiddish original Fun unzer friling by Gerald Marcus. Reuben Iceland begins the chapter with the sentence quoted above, and with the hope that someone will write a biography about Anna Margolin utilizing the resources he discusses in the chapter. 

Outside of Iceland’s book, it is notable how little primary material is available on Anna Margolin. A short digital biography of Anna Margolin (1887–1952, née Rosa Lebensboym), which pulls from Iceland’s memoir along with a number of other sources, is available on the Jewish Women’s Archive. Additionally, Zalman Reyzen’s 1926 Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur entry for Rosa Lebensboym (also written Lebensboim or Lebensbaum) details her early life and work in Yiddish. Margolin captured the minds and hearts of readers, from her early newspaper articles to her very last poems, and her work continues to do so: a 2007 Yiddish write-up by Chana Mlotek in the Forverts for the 55th anniversary of Anna Margolin’s death attests to that. 

As Shirley Kumove discusses in the introduction to Drunk from the Bitter Truth (pages xviii-xx), key to Anna Margolin’s life was the Yiddish press in New York: she published many of her poems in newspapers, but she also made a living for most of her life writing columns and articles. Her first such job was writing a column in the women’s section of the Yiddish daily newspaper Der Tog in 1913 called "אין דער פֿרויען װעלט" (“In der froyen velt,” “In the Women’s World”), which she wrote under her given name. You can find examples of Anna Margolin’s column in Der Tog, like the one on this page of the newspaper from May 1915, through the Historical Jewish Press website. 

Also in the introduction, Kumove discusses Margolin’s isolated later years. After Lider was published in 1929, Margolin only published six more poems, the last of which appeared in 1932. She continued to write but refused to publish again after being disappointed by the critical response to Lider (or lack thereof). The introduction to Drunk from the Bitter Truth ends with the picture, below, of Anna Margolin’s gravestone. In the second or third to last year of her life, Anna Margolin asked Reuben Iceland to engrave this epitaph—written by Margolin herself twenty years previously—on her headstone when she died. The poem is a lament for beauty and potential wasted.

Anna Margolin's Headstone.jpg
Anna Margolin's headstone, Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Anna Margolin's headstone epitaph: 

זי האָט איר שיינקייט פאַרשווענדט
אַף מיסט, אַף גאָרנישט.

זי האָט עס אפשר געוואָלט, אפשר געגלוסט
צום אומגליק, צו זיבן מעסערס פון פּייַן,
און פאַרגאָסן דעם לעבנס הייליקן ווייַן
אַף מיסט, אַף גאָרנישט

איצט ליגט זי מיט אַ צעבראָכן געזיכט.
דער געשענדטער גייַסט האָט פאַרלאָזן די שטייַג.
פאַרבייַגייער, האָט רחמנות און שווייַג—
זאָג גאָרנישט

[S]he squandered her beauty
on rubbish, on nothing.

Perhaps she wanted it, perhaps lusted after it:
the unhappiness, the seven knives of anguish
to spill life's holy wine
on rubbish, on nothing.

Now she lies with shattered face.
Her ravaged spirit has abandoned its cage.
Passerby, have pity, be silent—
say nothing.

The above epitaph excludes the first two lines of the original poem. The full poem is in Drunk from the Bitter Truth (p. 272-3).

Lider: Reception

lider title page 1.jpg
Title page, Anna Margolin's Lider, signed by the author.

Margolin’s first and only book of poetry, Lider, was published in New York in 1929. In the collection of eighty poems, Margolin explores her experiences of isolation as an immigrant and as a woman in New York, and quite openly questions and examines the relationship between her and her lover Reuben Iceland. 

Margolin’s poetry was largely neglected by the male critics of her time, and her only collection was no exception. In New York, Reuben Iceland wrote about the collection in Literarishe bleter, but it is unclear if the collection was reviewed by critics or covered by anyone else in the American press. While it did not inspire the attention or enthusiasm she had expected in the United States upon its publication, her book of poetry did receive acclaim in Europe from important literary figures. Aaron Zeitlin and Melech Ravitsh wrote about Lider. Ber Horowitz lectured about Anna Margolin in the Literary Club, and Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik even wrote her the following letter (included in Iceland’s memoir on p. 157 in the English, p. 166 in the Yiddish):

לכבוד הגברת אַנה מאַרגאָלין, 
ניו -יורק.
גברת נכבדה!
אַ דאַנק אײך פֿאַר אײער בוך לידער. ווער זײַט איר? דאַכט זיך, אַז ביז איצט האָב איך אײַער נאָמען ניט באַגעגנט. אײַערע לידער זײַנען עכט. איר זײַט אַן אמת׳ער פּאָעט. איך האָב דאָס בוך אײַנגעשלונגען באַלד ווי ס׳איז מיר אַרײַנגעפֿאַלן אין האַנט. אַ שײנעם דאַנק אײַך. 

ח. נ. ביאַליק

Dear Anna Margolin,

Thank you for your book of poems. Who are you? It seems that until now I have not come across your name. Your poems are genuine. You are a true poet. I wolfed down your book as soon as it fell into my hands. Thank you very much.

C. N. Bialik

Though Bialik enquires here about Anna Margolin’s identity, he was actually a friend and frequent guest in her home (as Rosa Lebensboym) in Odessa with her first husband, Moyshe Stavski. Margolin did not reveal the truth of her literary identity to him, however, for fear that he would change his opinion of her poetry or think less of it somehow if he knew.

Lider and Song: New Adaptations

The title of Anna Margolin’s book of poetry is simply Lider, which we can translate as “Poems”; however, the word “lider” also means “songs” in Yiddish. Many musicians and composers would adapt Yiddish poems into songs. This tradition continues today, and contemporary artists have been inspired by Anna Margolin’s words.

Below are a handful of contemporary musical adaptations of Anna Margolin’s poetry:  

  • Chava Alberstein’s original composition, performed by Alina Ivakh, Leonid Morozov, and Ilya Saytanov: “Di Goldene Pave” (“The Golden Peacock Flew Off”)
  • Swedish/Danish singing duo Ida & Louise’s new adaptation of Anna Margolin’s poems “Dos shtoltse lid” (“The Proud Song”), “Shlanke shifn” (“Slender Ships”), “Mary’s Prayer,” and instrumental music for “Epitaf” (“Epitaph”) in their multimedia stage show and album, Shtoltse Lider (For information about the project, consider Jewlia Eisenberg’s article for In geveb, “Northern Voices: Yiddish Song in Sweden.”)
  • A musical composition by Alex Weiser, “Mayn glik” (“My Happiness”), sampled from a larger project entitled “and all the days were purple

Anna Margolin’s legacy continues. Her gravestone epitaph asks passersby to have pity, be silent, say nothing; yet, even as we respect these requests, there is still a world to explore in silence with Anna Margolin. Though the epitaph mourns a squandered existence, Anna Margolin was, and continues to be, an icon for Yiddish poetic achievement.

Suggested Resources:

—Sarah Quiat, 2018-19 Fellow