By Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Translated by Matthew Johnson
Born in 1886 in Zolochiv (in what is now Ukraine), Moyshe-Leyb Halpern was raised in a largely Yiddish-, Hebrew-, and Polish-language milieu. While still in adolescence, he left for Vienna, where he studied, worked as a sign painter’s apprentice, and began writing in German. In 1908 Halpern immigrated to the United States, where he quickly became a leading and controversial voice in Yiddish modernism. His poetry stands apart in its variety, boldness, and complexity; it is at turns confessional, intellectual, uproarious, and sardonic, and it oscillates between the exalted and the abject, the surreal and the realistic. Halpern remains one of the best known Yiddish poets, especially in the American context, but only a handful of his translated poems have circulated widely in anthologies and on syllabi. His later poetry, much of which was first published in book form after his death in 1932, remains largely untranslated and, at least in recent decades, unread. His status as an important chronicler of American urban experience, as evinced in his remarkable debut collection In New York (1919), has also arguably overshadowed his intensive engagement with German-language literature and culture, which began during his time in Vienna and persisted after his immigration to the United States. “Monument Goethe” is an example of Halpern’s “late style” and of his long-standing argument with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “world-poet,” who stands, as literal and symbolic monument, in contrast to the ailing and impoverished speaker. This poem was, to my knowledge, first published in the Communist newspaper Frayhayt in 1927 and then in the journal Tsushtayer in 1931. It appeared in book form in the first volume of the posthumous anthology Moyshe Leyb Halpern in 1934. In the course of its publication history, the poem morphed and assumed various forms that I will explore in future translations. In the translation below, however, the source text is the anthology Moyshe Leyb Halpern. I am grateful to the mentors, staff, and fellows (across multiple cohorts) of the Yiddish Book Center for their support of this translation.
Thank you, my world-poet, set upon stone,
for reminding me that my beloved wife
asked me to bring back stationery—
since she can’t leave our kid all alone.
I notice that your shoes are made of stone
and, it seems, so are your clothes—
I don’t care about their beauty—
but I wonder if you can walk in them, if they last.
I have a pair with “McClinton” soles,
trousers with the factory label “Joseph-Ber,”
but they’re no good—as soon as you take a step,
you’re barefoot, walking around exposed,
exposed—my great poet.
I just spoke with my beloved wife,
yesterday at dinner, about you and me,
she just looked at me with worry:
—I don’t eat, I look thin, like a knife.
I will tell her that I saw you here.
But first I need to walk a bit more.
I have to look bruised and sore,
she needs to believe that I took the air.
I will paint her a picture of how you and I met
here with the snow on your shoulders and hands,
how you stand with your eyes turned
to the sky, as the sun lies down to rest—
lies down to rest—that’s how it is.
Why you’re up there, set upon stone—
I'll say that it’s a mystery.
There are times when I can’t even climb
onto the table without help.
I’ve already fallen down once,
even while holding a lamp,
and after, I looked hardly like myself,
my swollen head sparkled like a crown,
and my beloved wife broke down:
a person with healthy hands and feet,
she said, should not climb up the walls,
only an ape could last up there,
last up there—that’s how it is.
My beloved wife shouldn’t be upset with you—
just as you’ve been transfigured, I’ll say,
you only need a horse and a sword
to look handsome like an officer.
Or like a priest, when he rides through the snow
to a sick man, who is dying—they ride also,
but they hold a cross in their hands, on their belly.
That reminds me: somebody once held
an ax over me, when I was still a child.
The goy had wanted to split my skull,
to split my skull—that’s how it is.
I’ve already told my beloved wife about this:
It happened on a walk.
While holding my mother’s hand, I caught sight,
set upon stone, of a man in the garden,
hanging against the sun,
with blood running
from his hands and feet and head—
and because he cried as if he wanted down,
and because I knew how to climb so well,
I climbed up.
But now I’ve figured it all out. I only avoid
a man set upon stone if I see that he’s alone.
And should he cry, I can believe him no longer,
believe him no longer—that’s how it is.
I know when I feel, at times, like crying,
I don’t need to be up high—quite the opposite,
in a corner with nothing, on the ground,
I bend over, crying out—
and the sun is completely superfluous.
A fire from a little town at night
—or even from a shtetl that I imagine—
is enough for me, with a head like lead,
to survive an entire day and night.
And if I were to become sick from it—I’d swallow
something, whatever it might be.
As well as something to make me sweat,
to make me sweat—that’s how it is.
Only if my wife were to ask me
why I haven’t heard from you,
I’d say that I did call you,
and even told you how
to come down—but you didn’t hear—
and if not for the ice that’s encased you
up there, and because it’s not dusk,
I might have climbed up. I did think
to take off my red boots—but I won’t tell her that.
She knows my feet, and complains.
She says that they give off a chill, as from the dead,
as from the dead—that’s how it is.
I also won’t tell her, of course,
about the red bird; it won’t give her
any joy, as it rummages and crows
in your ear—as the sun sets above you.
And to save myself unnecessary strife—
I also won’t paint your teardrop, which I see,
falling from your nose—but rather from your eyes.
I will say that you cry like a child awakened from sleep,
or like a child who had played with a penny
and lost track of it somewhere—
or even like a child standing and crying at night,
because the light in their room has gone dark—
gone dark—that’s how it is.
And now—all right—and forgive my hurry,
my eyes are brimming with tears from the cold,
and I agreed to meet two young men
in a tavern that’s three or four miles away,
and yes, they’re black like the earth,
because they eat little and dream a lot!
They work, as well, in our trade,
and we’re all letting our beards grow out,
but theirs are black, while mine is red.
Their beards also grow a bit faster,
they already blow in the wind.
But mine? Take a look—it hangs like a dead man,
hangs like a dead man—that’s how it is.
Matthew Johnson is a PhD candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Chicago. He is currently completing a dissertation about the imbrication of German- and Yiddish-language literature in the long twentieth century. His research has been supported by the YIVO Institute, the IFK Vienna, the Fulbright Commission, the Posen Society of Fellows, and the German Literature Archive Marbach. In 2020 he was a Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, where he worked on a project about the late and unfinished poetry and prose of the modernist writer Moyshe-Leyb Halpern. “Monument Goethe” comes from that project.