Tracing an Arc From Whitman to Glatshteyn

By John Felstiner

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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I Think of Our Lives: New and Selected Poems

By Richard Fein

Creative Arts Book Company, 115 pages, $13.95.

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I think of our lives — Walt — and they work something like this — At Castle Garden — where you heard Jenny Lind sing — and where my grandparents came through as immigrants…

Richard Fein’s lively, variegated poetry takes partly after Walt Whitman: personhood present on every page, the voice filling out long lines, by turns sensual, witty, plunging, rife with detail and riven by sentiment, dyed American. For Fein, an arc runs between Whitman and Yankev Glatshteyn, whom he has translated: between the motley, jostling energies of American experience and the resonant, receding Jewish past. He can bond with Whitman at Timber Creek, and shimmy into a booth in a New York coffee shop with Glatshteyn.

Within the endless spectrum of possibilities for being an American Jew these days, how does Fein stand? Not strictly religious, to be sure, but intimate with the psychic and physical actuality of numerous biblical figures; closer to the texture and terrain of late 19th- and earlier 20th-century European existence than to Israel, and worthily in touch with the resilient strain of Yiddish language and its poets, who people his imagination as insistently as does his own vivid family lineage.

Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Fein went to Brooklyn College and taught for many years at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Somewhat late in life, he came back to a Yiddish spurned in childhood, publishing “Selected Poems of Yankev Glatshteyn” in 1988, and also late to writing poetry, with “Kafka’s Ear” in 1990. But instantly the two currents blended, poet with translator. You can sense both in Fein’s version of Mani Leyb’s sonnet, “A Plum,” where the poet picks a ripe fruit and raises it to his wife’s lips, a fruit Fein likened to the Yiddish tongue today.

Lovingly, she thanked him and gnawed the plum in his hands, down to skin and pit and speckled pulp.

A sense of life and language still dense with savor emanates from Fein’s poems. Certainly they are pervaded by the past, and not just by poets such as Glatshteyn, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Mani Leyb, Avraham Sutzkever, Aharon Tseytlin, Peretz Markish, Halper Leyvick and Yehoash. At the same time, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Boris Pasternak, S. Ansky, Bernard Malamud, Primo Levi, Meyer Schapiro and the Rosenbergs animate his pages, plus his parents, grandparents and peddlers, as well as victims of Stalin and Hitler.

Within a few pages, daily joys and mysteries will arise from a child or grandchild, from erotic memories still vibrant, from sallies into the pastoral or urban world. Whether meditative and conversational or taut and sensuous, Fein’s verse feels natural, convincing. His 1994 collection, “At the Turkish Bath,” contains a packed, throbbing lyric, “The Nest of the Bumblebee,” which calls the hive “this knuckled cluster” of wings, feet, humps and delicate antennae

a frenzy of sorties by day, a silo of bodies by night.

In the same collection, Fein has Glatshteyn join his translator in an East 86th Street coffee shop to report on the afterlife, in a poem that features long conversations with William Butler Yeats and Marianne Moore.

“The Nest of the Bumblebee” also appears in the new collection, marking the near end of that tensile arc between Whitman and Glatshteyn. “By the way,” the older poet confides,

I never mourn Yiddish anymore. We gather in Peretz’s salon-cloud — Our Yiddish will last forever there…

Glatshteyn advises the younger writer to “grow into the gift that finally came” and with a zay gezunt he slips from the booth:

as he moved out he jarred the table and my coffee shook.






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