Naomi Replansky’s Career Began in a Factory

Poet Learned To Be Wordsmith on the Assembly Line

By Benjamin Ivry

Published October 02, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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After the war, Replansky’s attention was drawn to the practical necessity of earning a living, as her 1957 poem “Night Prayer for Various Trades” makes explicit. The poet is a longtime leftist, and her muse definitely works in a union shop:

Machinist in the pillow’s grip,
Be clumsy and be blind
And let the gears spin free, and turn
No metal in your mind
[…]
Laborer, drift through a dark
Remote from clay and lime.
O do not tunnel through the night
In unpaid overtime.

Although fully aware of the dangers of excessive retrospection (in “Fire in the City,” from 1972, Replansky noted: “We’ll turn into salt / if we turn to look back”) she nevertheless retained an awareness of wartime losses and, specifically, of the fate of Europe’s Jews. She translated Bertolt Brecht and other German poets, and also verse by the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, which is included in the new anthology. “Korczak and the Orphans” also dates from 1970, with Replansky expressing, more than a quarter-century after the events described, her emotions about the story of Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish educator who refused to abandon the Jewish children in his charge, accompanying them instead in deportation to the Treblinka concentration camp from the Warsaw Ghetto:

He made his choice.
He went with them.
Their eyes so large,
Their ribs so plain
[…]
In the bookkeeping
Of the butchers
How small an entry
This would make:
192 children,
13 adults.

For some decades, Replansky has shared her life in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with the American Jewish author Eva Kollisch, a professor emerita at Sarah Lawrence College. Born in Vienna in 1925, Kollisch was rescued from the Nazis on a 1939 Kindertransport to the United Kingdom, eventually arriving in America in 1940. Like Replansky, Kollisch started out working in factories during World War II, but eventually became a specialist in German and comparative literature. In 2000, Kollisch published the memoir “Girl in Movement,” about her life as a young Viennese Jewish refugee in Staten Island, and in 2008, she published, “The Ground Under My Feet,” a meditation on being a Holocaust survivor.

Despite all this, Replansky has retained an inner blitheness that has drawn her to other high-spirited writings by such poets as W.H. Auden, Marie Ponsot and the late British author Stevie Smith. Not only did Replansky admire Smith (1902–1971) — a strong influence on her later work — and conduct a correspondence with her, she even made a pilgrimage to the ailing Smith’s home in Palmers Green, a London suburb, in 1969. Unlike Smith, whose most famous poem is titled “Not Waving but Drowning,” Replansky, through her art, has been waving, and decidedly not drowning. While some Jewish women writers, such as Tillie Olsen have expressed resentment about the interruptions to their literary productivity caused by life and work, Replansky seems to bear no grudges. Instead, she is modestly apologetic for her less-than-prolific output over the years. In the foreword to her collection, she writes, “Forgive me my unwritten poems:/ how many have I trampled, / how many ignored.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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