Simkhe: epistolarishe libe-lider (Celebration: Love-letter Poems)
By Troim Katz Handler, translated by Shimon Beyles
International Association of Yiddish Clubs, 73 pages, $18.
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No one who has drunk from the cup of Sappho, much less from the bounty of today’s literary erotica, will blush over “Simkhe: epistolarishe libe-lider,” or “Celebration: Love-letter Poems,” by Troim Katz Handler. Some of the titles are provocative — “Cybersex Machine” or, in Yiddish, “Sayberseks-mashin”— but in the poems themselves, Handler demurely insists on love before sex. Likewise, “My Sex Outfit” promises no more (or no less?) than a top with a “lacy transparent back” that the narrator doubts she will have opportunity to take out of a drawer. But for all its restraint, this book accomplishes a rare feat: It brings Yiddish passion into the 21st century.
The volume’s narrative conceit is the story of Tema, Handler’s alter ego, and Simkhe, a man whose Hebrew name means joy or celebration. The story meets up with the lovers 36 years after a one-day fling, when the two finally learn of each other’s whereabouts and get back in touch. Each is married, but they conduct a love affair by telephone and, on Tema’s part, by poetic love letter. Although Handler promises she has written Simkhe’s part to this dialogue, the volume presents Tema’s point of view only.
An epistolary work nourished by a chaste long-distance love affair may not lay claim to originality (think Abelard and Eloise), but its promise of unquenched desire is lush ground for the poet’s imagination. “The Wax Moth,” compact and effective in Yiddish for its tightly knit rhymes, retains a simple beauty in its English translation.
Der zokher fun vaks-mol
Dershirt zayn nekeyves-reyekh
Durkh flaterl koyekh
Un flit mayln on tsol
Tsu zayn zi.
Mir farmakhn di oygn
Un vern tsuzamengetsoygen
Durkh loshn-drot-papir —
Ikh tsu dir du tsu mir —
Un veysn nit vi.
The wax moth male
Senses the odor of his female
Through his butterfly power
And flies countless miles
To his mate.
We close our eyes
And are drawn together
Through the language of wire, paper —
I to you, you to me,
And know not how.
More distinctive to the collection is the age of the lovers; we never learn exactly how old Tema and Simkhe are, but the reader may guess that they flash golden-age passes to get into the movies. And issues concerning their advanced ages crop up in interesting ways. Despite the reservations Tema has about what the ravages of time have done to her appearance during her extended separation from Simkhe, she tries with her words to establish a kind of surrogate physical presence in her lover’s life. In “Blemished” she describes her aged self (“Not all my teeth are mine alone”) and the vanities she indulges in order to feel beautiful: “I love clothes, jewelry/and lipstick/also long nails/with glossy hue… /I shave my armpits/at least once a week/At night I sleep/with pins in my hair.”
Still, Tema’s descriptions are as close as the lovers come to knowing each other physically. And in this, Handler might be suggesting that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Although they are perpetually apart, Tema never tires of expressing her joy of, and emotional reliance on, their relationship — to the point where the reader wonders how such a passionate woman can derive so much satisfaction from such a retiring love affair. By the same token, the couple’s love is conspicuously unscarred by any prior experience and goes unchallenged by jealousy, betrayal — or even a difference of opinion.
And this lack of drama brings us closer to the work’s main flaw. While areas of it brim with talent that is impressive for a first-time poet, the volume is not wholly convincing. We never catch a glimpse of who Simkhe is, for instance, and why Tema is in love with him. Handler mentions that she has written letters on Simkhe’s behalf, an act that might have allowed her to fill out his personality, at least in her own mind, but Tema’s letters never come to reflect this fullness.
In one poem, “Let’s Have a Quarrel,” Tema playfully invites her lover to spar with her: “Let’s create antagonism about Zionism, communism/or even hedonism.” The quarrel is hypothetical, though, and generates no tension. However temporary, real love is dynamic, and, at its more trying moments, confronts and absorbs pain. Tema and Simkhe’s love exists apart from such realities and never gains dimension. From what we learn of Simkhe, he is what Tema wants him to be and nothing more.
The abstracted quality of Tema’s object of desire might be a result of a kind of Oedipal impulse in Handler’s writing. As Handler explains, she began writing her Yiddish love poems the night after her father’s funeral in April 1991. (Born in the United States into a family of Yiddish writers, she worked as a language instructor for many years before turning to poetry; her abiding devotion to Yiddish and her belated creative calling run parallel to the career of her brother, Dovid Katz, a professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University in
Lithuania and a published fiction writer.) Handler was raised by her grandparents, but there is no doubt that the death of her father, Menke Katz, a Yiddish poet in his own right, was, for her, a traumatic and life-altering loss.
It seems that Menke’s death spurred the poet’s imagining of a fictional lover. Simkhe is a substitution for Menke — not as a sexual object — but as the particular source of joy that Handler’s father was in her life: one bound up with literary creativity and the Yiddish language. Simkhe — made to exist only through the written word — could not be a more apt metaphor for Handler’s personal predicament. As she puts it in “Two Recluses”: “It’s a life of love tangled up in a labyrinth of ink.” Writing to Simkhe provides Handler with the joy of which her father’s death cheated her.
In this respect, Handler’s longing for Yiddish creativity also becomes a eulogy for its fading. Consider “The Empty Seat at ‘Singer and His Demons’ (A Rhyming Letter),” which recounts Tema’s attendance of a Yiddish drama. She imagines that her lover, Simkhe, is with her. “… You, my precious, sit on the empty seat/beside me/You are always at my side.” According to the letter, they enjoy the play and ask the author when it is to be performed next. The playwright informs them, however, that the production cannot make money and will be forced to close. Beneath the rapture, there is something imperceptibly sad about Simkhe as we consider him a figment of Tema’s imagination — and the sadness is all the more palpable in this particular scenario, in which Yiddish culture languishes.
Despite the almost complete absence of an audience, Handler, with admirable brazenness, insists on Yiddish. And her mature beginnings should not dissuade her from continuing to compose. The accomplished American-Yiddish poetess Malka Heifetz Tussman published her first volume of poetry at the age of 53, while some of poet Jacob Glatstein’s ripest verse flowed from his later years. For a lover’s response that never seemed forthcoming from Simkhe, Handler might want to visit Glatstein’s poem “I Come to You” in which a sexual encounter between the poet and a middle-aged woman becomes a parable for Yiddish, which grew old before its time and against its will. It ends thus:
In the morning I search in vain for words
That can be painted on pink paper.
When I find them, I’ll send them to you
And you will hide them in a book of poetry
Next to dry petals of first love.