Prehistoric Landscapes

by Melech Ravitch, translated by Helen Mintz

Melech Ravitch (1893–1976) was a poet, essayist, playwright, editor, educator, and cultural activist. During the 1920s, he played a leading role in the avant-garde literary movement Di khalyastre (The Gang), serving as the editor of the movement’s journal, Di vog (The Scales). From 1924 to 1934, he was executive secretary of the Fareyn fun yidishe literatn un zhurnalistn in varshe (Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw). He helped found Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages), the main Yiddish literary journal in interwar Poland. Ravitch lived for extended periods in Australia, Argentina, New York, and Mexico before settling in Montreal in 1941, where he worked at the Jewish Public Library, co-founding and for several years directing the library’s Yidishe folks universitet (Jewish Public University).

Ravitch’s autobiography, Dos mayse bukh fun mayn lebn (The Storybook of My Life), comprises three volumes, each containing numerous short chapters that can be read independently. The chapter translated here, “Prehistoric Landscapes” (referring to the title of one of Ravitch’s poetry collections), is drawn from the second volume, which covers Ravitch’s life from 1908 to 1921. In this volume Ravitch writes about his early development as a Yiddish writer, his service in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, his older brother’s suicide, and his experience with tuberculosis, which he contracted while serving in the military. The illness remained dormant until 1919, when he came close to dying, an experience he describes in one of the earlier chapters of his autobiography.

Ravitch dedicated the poems in the collection Prehistorishe landshaftn (Prehistoric Landscapes) to his older brother, Moyshe Bergner-Harari (1892–1921), whom he describes as “a person who had neither delegated the poet to speak in his name nor given him permission to do so.”

 

 

This took place in Vienna during the early summer of 1920, a year after I’d been dead for twenty-four hours. I’ve described how I died and came back to life in a separate chapter.

The Christian poems from Ruinengroz already felt remote, very remote from me. The poems from the book Spinoza also felt distant. They had not brought happiness to my world. Wild naked poems burst from my heart, my brain, and from under my fingers, poems that rebelled against God and his Messiah in the name of a person who had neither delegated the poet to speak in his name nor given him permission to do so, someone who was far removed from the entire matter.

And most important, I had been dead for twenty-four hours and was now in my second incarnation. Perhaps it would be necessary to start again. From the very beginning. From aleph. From before aleph. Yes, from before aleph.

Because I was ill, seriously ill with the same illness as my hero, Spinoza, in the early summer of 1920, I was sent to the Alps for several months. And because there was little money, I was sent to board with a peasant in an isolated area, a wilderness of boulders and water and forest, almost a primeval forest. Foxes at night, eagles at dusk, vultures constantly winging over the dense canopy, and snakes and all kinds of frogs clustered around the tiny, shadowed, camouflaged springs and the even more deceptively hidden swamps. And because the area was far from a city or even a village, and the peasant was poor, I was his only guest.

And in my soul, there was such a longing for original light, before aleph, before the wheel, before the machine, even before consciousness.

One evening at dusk I was standing with my host, the peasant, in front of the gate to his little garden and hut that were perched on a knoll. We were silent. Eagles circled overhead, streams gushed and murmured all around us, the forest rustled although there wasn’t the slightest breeze. The huge shadows on the mountains moved ever higher, the sunlight was obscured until finally it fell only on the mountain peaks and then disappeared, giving way to darkness. Fear crawled out of every corner; it dropped from every treetop and wandered down the paths. Abruptly interrupting the silence, I said to the peasant standing next to me, “A prehistoric landscape.” He gave me a questioning look and I repeated, “A prehistoric landscape.”

And that evening, by the light of a tallow candle, I began to write poems without rhythm and without verses, without line breaks and without punctuation or fixed structure. I felt like I was creating a new world literature. Again, from aleph and from even before aleph. From Adam and from even before Adam. I wrote twenty-three poems. All in four or five days.

One evening it rained very hard—there was rain and thunder and flashes of lightning. Every lightning bolt illuminated my hut for several long seconds, and every minute or two a new lightning bolt struck. I summoned my strength and wrote the final poem for the collection Prehistoric Landscapes. I wrote it in almost complete darkness, or so it seemed to me because after every flash of lightning the glow from the tallow candle paled, barely casting any light. The hut trembled and seemed, at times, to be floating in water. Something kept gurgling on the other side of the thin walls. The peasant and his daughter—he had no wife—had long been asleep behind their closed shutters. The gurgling grew louder and more powerful. I felt a kind of primitive fear, a prehistoric fear, both powerful and tenacious, and I walked to the entryway and opened the door. At that very moment a lightning bolt cracked the night open, and in front of me I saw water and more water and trees submerged in water halfway up their branches. Everything was swimming off in a wild torrent. The peasant’s dog, still on its chain, was on the roof of the hut, and a goat clung to the branches of a tree to avoid being washed away.

Because the peasant’s hut was on a knoll, the water immediately in front of his door wasn’t too deep, and walking the few steps, hugging the walls, wasn’t too dangerous. So I braced myself, made a run for it, and began knocking on the peasant’s door to alert him to the danger. A very long time passed before the door opened. The old peasant and his spinster daughter stood in the doorway, their hair disheveled, angrily demanding to know what was going on. I started to explain and a flash of lightning helped me out, peeling open the darkness. They waved their hands dismissively. “Can’t you see the water’s already receding? Go to sleep!”

So I went back to my hut, no longer afraid. Not to sleep but to feverishly revise all six ballads about Adam included in Prehistoric Landscapes. This poetry collection did not usher in a new world literature. I was later told that this had already been tried in other literatures. Soon after that I also abandoned the obsession.

This completes the story of Prehistoric Landscapes, first published in a single volume in Warsaw in 1924.

 

 

Helen Mintz’s translation of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016) was awarded the J. I. Segal Award for Translation, the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Translation, and Honorable Mention for the Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her translations have appeared in Pakn Treger, In geveb, and Jewishfiction.net, and her writing about translation has appeared in B.C. Studies (No. 201: Spring 2019) and Words Without Borders (January 2019). Helen was a 2014 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. She is translating Melech Ravitch’s Dos mayse bukh fun mayn lebn.