By Avrom Sutzkever, translated by Maia Evrona
Avrom Sutzkever (1913–2010) is legendary in the Yiddish cultural world. Born in modern-day Belarus, he spent much of his childhood in Siberia, to which his family fled during World War I. He survived the Holocaust in the Vilna Ghetto before immigrating illegally to Mandatory Palestine just before the founding of the State of Israel. He lived out the rest of his life in Tel Aviv.
Sutzkever began his poetry career with nature as his subject and muse. He drew inspiration from the natural world throughout his life, from many different environments. Sutzkever often said that poetry was his religion, his “only messiah.” He viewed nature as an artistic creation too, made by an unseen creator. Reading his work now, in this era of climate change, feels strikingly timely.
This poem comes from the expanded edition of his collection Lider fun togbukh (Poems from My Diary), published in 1986.
Memory of three Lake Victoria flamingos,
unveiled before me in their splendor and glory:
Three strings stretched taut over a wave, and a bow
beginning to move above them, a bow like a rainbow.
Music like this could not be birthed by fiddles or lyres,
this sort of triple instrument cannot be purchased.
The master longed to put his masterpiece to the test,
to play on the living strings made by his own fingers.
A desert has been made from skeletal nights and days,
yet I am unable to forget those three stringed flamingos.
They shimmer still in that same revelatory pose,
colored pink-rose like the dawn sun, on their own wave.
And this insistent question is what gnaws at me now:
Do those three flamingos recall to whom they belong?
Only once in life is there fated such an encounter,
fated such a thing to see, such a thing to hear.
Maia Evrona is a poet, writer, and translator. Her poetry has been supported with two Fulbright scholar awards to Spain and Greece, while her translations of Sutzkever were awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Yiddish Book Center included Maia’s English language poem, “Hidden Yiddish,” and her self-translation into Yiddish in Radiant Jargon: Six Poems about Yiddish. She was a 2019 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow.