Celia Dropkin’s poems are erotically frank and emotionally unabashed, deeply engendered, relentlessly truthful. Like songs, they are terse and musical and carefully constructed to explode with maximum impact. They reveal the relationships between women and men in a way that was unprecedented in Yiddish literature. Although they were mostly written in the 1920s and 1930s, they feel utterly contemporary, which is why we are just now catching up with her. It took us this long to follow the bright light in her poems. Now, after a decade of work by her translators, Dropkin’s poems will be published this year in a bilingual edition, The Acrobat: The Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin.
Dropkin is sometimes associated with the first full-fledged modernist Yiddish poets, a group who named themselves Di Inzikhistn, or The Introspectivists. Such figures as Jacob Glatstein, Aron Glantz-Leyeles, and N. B. Minkov turned Yiddish poetry away from its collectivist concerns into an expression of individual life. They rejected the working-class engagements and socialist ethos of the “sweatshop” or “labor” poets. Stylistically, they carried Yiddish poetry into the twentieth century. “The world exists and we are part of it,” they wrote in the Introspectivist manifesto: “But for us, the world exists only as it is mirrored in us, as it touches us. The world is a nonexistent category, a lie, if it is not related to us.”
Dropkin’s taut free-verse poems shared the Introspectivist agenda for an intimate, experiential, embodied poetry, which rejected symbolic formalisms, but they were even more radically personal, edgier and more unbridled. In 1935, she self-published In heysn vint (In the Hot Wind), the only book to appear in her lifetime, and the few who bothered to review it mostly criticized her erotic sensibility, her outpouring of feeling, the idea that “even her illusions can’t get away from her body—her body won’t let up.” Those who noticed and sometimes admired her work often missed the conscious craft in her poems, which are not diary entries but fully formedobjects, well-made lyrics. Her poems are not mini-autobiographies; indeed, one gets a skewed sense of biography from her work. For example, she was by all accounts stably married for more than thirty years—she and her husband had six children together—but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from her poems. The voice in her lyrics is a construct, a representative, what Emily Dickinson calls a “supposed person.” At times she reminds me of some other ferocious female makers, such as Anna Swir or Alfonsina Storni or Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote that the reason there cannot be “too much” of the lyric is because the lyric is itself the “too much.”
It’s true that Dropkin writes out of a woman’s body. She enters poetry as a forthright lover, a subversive agent of love, not an object of desire, a passive beloved. She is voracious and suggests that all of her widowed mother’s concealed longings transferred themselves to her: “And now her holy, / latent lust, spurts frankly from me.” She is both a feverish lover and a caring mother, and the roles don’t always sit comfortably together. How ruefully she acknowledges the physical consequences of pregnancy: “What reconstructed my limbs to be so ugly / and sucks my marrow and sucks my blood / and bores through my breasts?” She needs the healing powers of nature, and yet there is always a snake in her garden, something sucking her under. She writes out of her own conflicts, her insatiable desires, her visionary needs: “My baby was calling to me,” she confesses in “In Sullivan County,” “But I was welded to the mountain, / and for a long time sorrow swung around me / and for a long time the baby cried and called out / until the valley heard my steps again.”
Dropkin takes the stance of a doomed, rebellious singer—she wrote lullabies that wound—and courted extremity. She speaks as an acrobat who secretly longs to fall, a woman whose heart is eaten by worms (“and that fat worm—passion— / just won’t crawl out / of my juicy body”), who recognizes her own “ruthless lust.” She is brazen and judges herself harshly (“It’s love you think of, only love, / you silly, miserable woman”). She knows what it means to sacrifice oneself for passion, to give oneself up to it, like a religious mystic, to seek the God who lets people sin, “who ruins everything, / who won’t forbid.” In the poem “Zoyg oys” or “Suck,” she turns, somewhat provocatively for a Jewish poet, to Christian iconography, merging the crucifixion of Jesus with sadomasochistic sex:
Hammer my hands,
nail my feet to a cross:
burn me, be burned,
take all my ardor
and leave me deeply ashamed:
suck it from me and throw it away,
become estranged, alienated
and go your own way.
I find Dropkin’s Rilkean poem of advice, “To a Young Poet,” especially telling. It is a directive, a brief ars poetica. The premise is that poetry doesn’t originate in analytical thinking, as the young poet may presume, but comes from somewhere darker, deeper, stranger.
So what if you analyze things deeply?
Your heart, your heart sleeps.
And if, when he came, you looked
at him clearly, as at a son—so what?
You must burn in hell
three times, like me, in a fire
of love burn long and slow.
You must be purified in hell
three times, like me. You must love
without reason or pride; you must
love to death. Then, when you
acknowledge the death in love,
write love poems.
There is an element of magical thinking here, the way she asserts that the young poet, presumably a woman, “must burn in hell / three times, like me.” The repetitions inspire a trance-like feeling (“You must be purified in hell / three times, like me”). The love that counts for her, she argues, the one that matters for the poet, is a love beyond common sense, beyond logic, an irrational love that will one day flame out—it is endangered from the beginning. It is this tragic quality that is the source of love poetry.
Poems by Celia Dropkin translated from the Yiddish by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon.
I am an acrobat,
and I dance between daggers
erected in the ring
My lithe body—barely
touching the blades—
They hold their breath
when they watch me dance,
and there is always
someone praying for me.
The tips shine in a fiery
circle—no one knows
how much I’d like to slip.
I’m tired of dancing between you,
cold steel daggers.
I want—my blood warming
your bare tips—
An Evening in March
You can no longer fathom
wonders like a damp March evening
when the just-lit lanterns flicker dimly
and reflect off the bright asphalt.
It’s love you think of, only love,
you silly, miserable woman.
Lift your unhappy head to see
how the El casts its black net
and women clamber up and down—
their eyes light as spring clouds, their lips
and cheeks painted
like the last traces of sunset.
O, you alone remain pallid—
walking like a gray shadow
through the striking twilight,
still wearing a winter hat and coat,
your wide eyes betraying your secret:
it’s love you think of, only love,
you silly, miserable woman.
O, Secretive Life
What reconstructed my limbs to be so ugly
and sucks my marrow and sucks my blood
and bores through my breasts?
Why do I dream so often of this
bed, the Inquisition bed,
where I lie stretched out in heavy suffering.
Slowly, slowly, you grow and grow
in me, O, secretive life.
A Spin of the Wheel
I gambled my life’s calm
for a spin of the wheel,
and I don’t regret it.
Does it matter what a flower dies of—
autumn, a storm wind.
And you, my storm wind,
are a zealous playboy
and even death at your hands is dear.
A Love Letter
For U. N. Gnessin
I would like to write a love letter
to someone, a letter of love:
the seedling called “love” is rooted
deep in my heart.
The seedling is barbed and wild
and sown with an autumn wind.
No, my love is not a seedling:
it’s a newborn, naked and blind.
With blood and with life, the seedling
fights and fusses and cries:
its mouth searches pathetically
for a breast that is distant or dry.
Love is a hungry newborn:
it cries itself blue in the face.
Who has sown and birthed it?
Who gnaws and shreds my heart?
I would like to write a love letter
to someone, a letter of love.
A deep-green summer is in your eyes,
a summer that pulses from your warm heart,
a summer with a song in its branches,
branches that shadow darkly.
I will go where your eyes lead me,
through fields, valleys, through a dense forest
where paths are crooked and curved
and quiet darkness holds you in its arms.
A Fear Growing in My Heart
A fear was growing
in my heart: I smelled
the putrid odor of my grave
around me. The new, silken
drapes on the door silently regretted
my coming death: Soon
we will remain without you.
How stupid that I prepare
for death with silk.
With strange sadness I thought
that I would not have any silk curtains
or even any underwear of silk
in my earthy alcove.
Suddenly I said to myself:
your limbs are like limbs carved
from ivory. My terror
dispersed like smoke.
I was sheltered from death.