Marc Caplan teaches comparative literature at Indiana University Bloomington.
Plutsemdiker Regn (Sudden Rain)
By Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath
Israel Book Publishing House, 128 pages, $15.
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The chasidic master Reb Borekh of Mezbizh once offered the parable of two strangers who, because neither of them knew the people around them, came to love one another. In this same way, today one can say that Yiddish and poetry — both endangered languages — are two strangers made for each other. One cannot assume, though, that every Yiddish word is automatically poetry; in fact, much of what earnest students of the Yiddish language currently pass off as poetry bears as much resemblance to poetry as walking does to dancing. But when an author knows the language of poetry as well as the mameloshn, the result is a noteworthy contribution to both of these embattled languages. One finds such an achievement in the young poet Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath’s new collection, Plutsemdiker Regn (“Sudden Rain”).
Schaechter-Viswanath comes to poetry and to Yiddish honestly: Her aunt is the celebrated Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, and her father is the distinguished Yiddish linguist Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter. (And her sister Rukhl Schaechter is a writer and editor for the Yiddish Forward.) Despite her Yiddishist pedigree, however, Schaechter-Viswanath’s sense of the language is very much her own; her writing steers clear of both tendentious and clichéd formulations. Instead, she concentrates on creating singular images, nuanced dramatic scenes and suggestive metaphors. Only two poems in the collection are longer than a single page; the author leaves no room in her aesthetic for sentimentality.
Instead of “artistic” clichés, the author composes her poems according to two principles: a nearly classical faith in rhythm and rhyme, and a refined sense of empathy. These two principles can be seen in a single stanza from the poem “Computer Life”:
Nor s’iz di natur
Nisht keyn klaviatur—
Di shlislen nisht tsum antdekn;
Iz kvetsht es un drikt
Ven di kikst af tsurik
Akh, vi s’vilt zikh di grayzn farmekn!
The collection is bilingual; Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Yiddish studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, provides the translation for this poem:
But this is nature,
no keyboard, for sure,
the answers aren’t in place.
So depress and strike, when
you look back again—
Oh, the mistakes to erase!
The Yiddish reader notes from the outset the surprising rhyme of “natur” (nature) with “klaviatur” (keyboard), which brings together ostensibly contradictory aspects of existence and integrates them in the poet’s worldview. At the same time one notes that the internal rhymes at the end of the stanza convey a sense of the accelerated tempo of modern life. The computer thus becomes not only a metaphor for modern life, but also a cause of modernity’s quickened pace; the computer accelerates the pace of modern life just as the rhymes accelerate the rhythm of the poem—and the intersection of these two factors illustrates how the poet loses control of her life. But the representation of this lost control through rhythm and rhyme becomes in turn a means of regaining control and resisting the mechanized character of the present moment.
This passage is but one of many in the book that not only demonstrate the author’s empathy—an empathy that extends even to inanimate objects such as the rain, a lost shoe or waves on the beach—but also indicate that her writing illuminates the everyday occurrences of contemporary America. Schaechter-Viswanath is the first Yiddish poet whose artistic habitat is not the city or the country, but the suburbs.
Therefore the acknowledgment—in the collection’s introduction by the prominent Yiddishist Sheva Zucker—of Rukhl Fishman as a primary influence is a bit misplaced: Fishman, unlike Schaechter-Viswanath, is at her best in free-verse poems about nature and life on an Israeli kibbutz. A closer predecessor, also acknowledged by the author, is the modernist poet Malka Heifetz Tussman. Schaechter-Viswanath shares with Tussman (aside from a preference for hyphenated names) a gift for short poems that present unadorned dramatic scenes; both poets convey their worldviews in imagistic glimpses, rather than prosaically detailed tableaux.
Indeed, if there is one flaw in this collection, it is the tendency of too many poems to present an image or a feeling without a context through which the reader can understand its significance. In the final analysis, however, this complaint isn’t so much a criticism as a request: for the author to write more poems, and longer ones. One hopes, as well, that her subsequent collections will be as well produced as this volume, which includes not only Zucker’s wonderful introductory essay (in Yiddish and English), but also sensitive translations of the poems by Shandler and Zachary Shloem Berger. Readers will anxiously await more poems from Schaechter-Viswanath, because a sudden rain can be a marvel, as well as an invigorating experience. But in order for the earth to sprout new life, the rain must fall longer and deeper.