Photo by Frank Vena
Like many of his klezmer contemporaries, Geoff Berner, the Vancouver-born accordionist and songwriter, has a lyrical flair for pairing social commentary with the comically absurd. And he’s been able to do it with tongue-in-cheek storytelling and a Tom Waits-ian sense of balladry.
Two of his most recent studio releases, “The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride” (2007) and “Klezmer Mongrels” (2008) featured songs such as “Traitor Bride” (on “Mongrels”) and “The Whiskey” (on “Wedding Dance”), that set Berner’s trademark kookiness against delightfully truncated instrumentation. As a result, Berner has earned a North American and European cult following, a distinction he irreverently addresses on his fifth studio album, “Victory Party,” released in early March.
Perhaps the greatest American poet ever to have lived, Walt Whitman was not always regarded as such. Thanks, in part, to the emergence of modernist forms in poetry toward the end of the 19th century, Whitman’s work did not attract critical attention until after his death in 1892. But for Jewish immigrant poets living in New York City at the turn of the century, Whitman was an iconic figure — a poet and even a prophet. The famous American Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld wrote an ode to Whitman, shortly after his death, which concludes “Prophet, immortal, I praise you / I fall now into the dust before your dust and sing!” And the legendary Yiddish writer Avrom Reyzn, in a study delineating Whitman’s influence on Yiddish poets, called him the “Prophet of New America.”
Something happens to the human psyche when an event reaches the 100 year mark, as is the case this month with the Triangle Factory Fire. It’s as if it can finally be relegated to the “dust bin of history” or tales of “long, long, ago.” But we can choose to remember, and we can read the work of poets determined to enshrine the daily life of people in verse. One poem, “Mayn Rue-Platz” by Morris Rosenfeld, captures the dismal world of the modern industrial worker, and continues to remind us of the dark conditions met by America’s new immigrants.
Rosenfeld, one of the “Sweat Shop Poets,” wrote of the disturbing nature of the garment industry, where he himself had worked for years. “Mayn Rue-Platz” contrasts natural beauty and pleasure with the realities found in American industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each step begins with the hoped for American experience but ends with the inevitable and oppressive realities of the industrialized world.
The forlorn nature of the poem suggests a single voice speaking to a dear friend or love, perhaps one yet to arrive in America or about to disembark at Ellis Island. The narrator reminisces about the splendor of their shared dreams and contrasts them with the realities the listener is bound to find. While dreaming of the simple pleasures of youth, springtime greenery, and singing birds, the reader is shocked by the simple truth, “you will not find me there.”
Each Thursday, the Arty Semite features reviews and excerpts of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, however, the poet and poem are contemporary in spirit, if not in fact.
Morris Rosenfeld, born in 1862 in Russian Poland, became famous in the early 20th century as one of the Yiddish “sweatshop poets” of New York. When the Triangle Waist Company fire killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911, Rosenfeld responded with a poem printed on the front page of the Forward. (To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire, the Forward is sponsoring a poetry contest — see here for details.)
It didn’t take a tragedy, however, to prompt Rosenfeld to lament the poor labor conditions that characterized the lives of many immigrants. In another poem titled simply “The Sweatshop,” translated by Forward Association Vice President Barnett Zumoff and published in “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” Rosenfeld described the drudgery of menial labor and the constricting effect it had on the life of mind and spirit. While the world of Lower East Side garment factories is now part of history, sweatshop labor has far from disappeared.
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