Last July I was very lonely, studying Yiddish in Warsaw. I should have been translating the poems of Aniuta Piatigorskaia, but I had forgotten why I loved translation, why I loved poems. I was alone, and at night in the rain I went walking by the river. “Dusk, when fire blooms in windows and signposts / On the city’s hurried streets / I go between leisurely walkers / My strong sorrow shimmers and moves.” That’s Piatigorskaia, my own unfinished translation. What if I would rather walk than translate poetry? What if a walk is a poem and I don’t want to have to prove it?
Warsaw is full of monuments indicating where the highest concentrations of fascism, and resistance to it, occurred during the war. You know which one. On a run late one night I came across a memorial at the site of the Umschagplatz, the train platform from which more than 300,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. The air felt good on my skin, and I did not want to linger in an empty space representing all the Jews who began their deaths in that place, so I kept running. Every morning on my walk to class I passed a bronze monument honoring the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. I eyed the crowds of tourists taking photos, and thought about how armed revolt is sure to be miserable and deadly. I wondered why there is such a large memorial to Poles who revolted against the Nazis, but no mention on the monument of the fact that Jews did so first. I kept walking.
I don’t mean to blame the Poles; resentment is satisfying, but ultimately it will hurt me. I’m just wary of the tendency to glorify revolutionary violence and masculinity, especially without acknowledging that fascism isn’t defeated; it’s growing. I am wary of the tendency to call people revolutionaries at all, though it’s a vocal gesture in which I too indulge, and when I do, sometimes I feel that I am betraying my allegiance to nuance, my allegiance to language. On the corners of buildings, placards mark the events of the war that happened there. Following death around has become a kind of tourism; none of it moved me—the heavy monuments intended to prove some kind of redemption or to tell a neat story. Who gave Nazis and Soviets proprietary rights to fascism? That same summer, Dara Horn visited the then-new Auschwitz exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in Manhattan, and wrote: “Yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as not to repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.”
At the Jewish Historical Institute—not a monument but a research center, though it has a museum component, which itself is an occasion to remember that the word museum derives from muse, indicating not reification but inspiration—I was moved. The building in which the Institute is located was, before the war (you know which one), the Main Judaic Library and Institute for Jewish Studies. Imagine: neither a memorial nor a grave, but a place for living Jews to study and read and learn about themselves. In 1943, the Nazis used dynamite to blow apart the Great Synagogue across the street. They also tried to torch the library; the main floor is still blackened in places from the flames.
I am tired of using the word revolutionary to mean a man who took up violence against fascism and died for it. I think staying alive is revolutionary. I think taking care of each other is revolutionary. I am by no means the first to say so, and I’m tired of having to say it, and it still needs to be said. Horn again: “It is quite amazing how many things are not the Holocaust.”
In 1919 the writer Uri-Tsvi Greenberg founded the Warsaw literary group Khalyastre (literally “the gang,” known for promoting radical, expressionist aesthetics) with two other Yiddish poets. Then, in 1923, Greenberg moved to Mandate Palestine and became part of another trio of Jewish men. These three called their new organization Brit HaBirionim (literally “the alliance of thugs”); it was a self-proclaimed fascist wing of the Revisionist Zionist Movement. Modeled after Italian fascists, Brit HaBirionim called for an end to communism, humanism, pacificism, internationalism, and socialism. The group’s motto was “conquer or die.”
Yanyi asked me if I would be interested in writing an essay about antifascism, translation, and poetry.1 I was. Here I am writing it, late and anxious. Last weekend a friend asked me to join an accountability process, so I did, and I didn’t finish the draft. Life keeps happening around me, interrupting me. What if life is a poem and I don’t want to have to prove it?
The best translation is an invitation. What I am trying to say is that memorials to revolutionaries didn’t make me any less lonely, but when I am lonely, language reaches in me what I cannot reach in myself. While I inhabit this fugue state, Yanyi emails me: “the writing is how we will always get to each other. through art, what we have touched, reaching for.” A real invitation is its own kind of poem.
In the introduction to her own new book, In Her Feminine Sign, the poet Dunya Mikhail writes, “I wrote these poems from right to left and from left to right, in Arabic and in English. I didn’t translate them; I only wrote them twice. … To capture the poem in two lives is to mirror my exile, with all of its possibilities and risks. But as home is flashed through exile, a poem is sometimes born on the tip of another tongue.” Mikhail is from Iraq, now living in the US after a long stint in Jordan. Her book only contains the English poems. One of them is “My Poem Will Not Save You.”
my poem will not
block the shells
when they fall
onto a sleeping town
My poem will not defuse
We know this already, that a poem will not cure or halt the destruction of the physical world, but fascism wants us to forget our hearts. I cannot forget my heart, the way it hurts me, the way it leaps at intimacy. Because of my fallible heart, later lines of the poem land heavier, harder, even if they’re clunky:
Many mistakes in life
will not be corrected by my poem.
Questions will not be answered.
I am sorry
my poem will not save you.
My poem cannot return
all of your losses
I read this poem and I grieved the loss of its potential for beauty, grieved the loss of the possibility and risk that Mikhail described in her introduction.
But in the long poem “Tablets” that makes up the second section of the book (the other sections are called “The Tied Circle,” referring to the Arabic suffix, which renders a word feminine, and “T/here”), the sense of loss and astonishment is more subtle, palpable, alive. “Tablets” opens with a drawing by Mikhail, modeled after ancient Sumerian clay tablets—implicit is the tablet’s inscrutability, writing in a language that is no longer used today, but in whose history Mikhail, and her poems, their language, live. “Tablets” is itself divided into four sections, numbered II–V. There is no first section; some beginning is absent, something has been lost, and, reading, I found I began to grieve that loss without knowing what it was:
I wanted to write an epic about suffering,
but when I found a tendril
of her hair among the ruins
of her mud house
I found my epic there.
What a relief, to feel something instead of coming up against the hard stone of myself that those memorials in Poland reflected, reinforced. I don’t want to learn the art of losing, but without that skill there is no further into grieving, which is to say feeling, which is to say living, that I can go.
Fascism’s goal is the end of variation and particularity, the violent cultivation of homogeneity. I want to say that a poem’s power is its particularity, but of course every person is particular, and some people are fascists, invested in their own erasure. A poem can be fascist too. Remember Uri-Tsvi?
Is memorial the word for a poem that remembers itself? Elena Fanailova, like Dunya Mikhail, writes into the limitations of her own poetic work to admit the limitations of her own poetic self. “Lena, or The Poet and the People” starts like this:
There’s a clerk in the all-night store
Where I stop after work
To buy food and drinks
(I hate that word, drinks).
One time she said to me, “I saw you on TV
On the culture channel
I liked what you were saying.
Are you a poet? Let me read your book.
A few lines later, the narrator allows, “I wasn’t at all sure / She’d like the poems.” The clerk’s name is also Elena, but this miracle of circumstance is not enough to bind the two women together. Or perhaps they both expect affinity, and its absence expresses in fury:
So I read your book.
I didn’t understand a word of it.
Too many names of people no one knows.
I had the feeling that you write
For a narrow circle. For friends. For an in-group.
Who are these people, who are they, Elena?
The ones you name?
Are the bounds of translatability the same as the bounds of understanding? Unlike Mikhail’s, Fanailova’s poems are moved into English from Russian by her translators, then laid out side by side with the Russian originals on the page. The Russian Version, a collection published originally as part of Ugly Duckling Press’s East European Poets Series in 2009 and just reissued in 2019, contains writing spanning nearly 20 years, beginning in the mid-1990s. Operating on a premise of disbelief, Fanailova writes with a bleak post-Soviet humor that refuses to take her own voice too seriously. Still, she acknowledges the ongoing violence that the ordinary world contains:
He saw neither angels nor household ghosts,
Believed only in the presence of the living.
He kept quiet and despaired, the old fool.
He went to the cemetery to spend the night.
And out of fear took another wife,
So nothing would ever remind him
Of how he chopped down that bush, how he buried my mother.
That’s from the poem “Land of the Dead,” which opens like this: “… In tired Petersburg, on and on, / In bent-kneed form / The soul sleeps, leaning over the throne.” That ellipsis, the exhaustion of trying to live in a city that has seen so much death. To Fanailova,
death has acquired such a light taste,
Such hygienic laconicism
And a meager vocabulary learned by heart.
And death has acquired such an easy style.
An easy style, exactly. Playing with the edge of rhyme (in Russian, but rarely in her translators’ English), Fanailova teases out what’s pleasurable and astonishing inside fascism’s aftermath: “who taught them to live with … this yawning, singing, oblivion.” In his introduction to the collection, Aleksandr Skidan writes of Fanailova’s later poems that they are “not about war, but by means of war: her writing does not simply resemble reportage from the front line but itself spits out short bursts of fire … She already holds ‘in both hands two astral machine guns: / To shoot back Macedonian-style.’”
Which is to say that war does not stay neatly outside the body, or the poem, until a bullet ruptures the false coherence of its flesh. Fanailova’s poems suggest that the flesh of the poem is riddled with bullet holes, but still, somehow, staggering, goes on living, making beauty in its lines.
Giving in to fascism in its most intimate form means wanting to be erased, which almost sounds like transcendence.
But is beauty the point? Fascism loves beauty. Not to make this all about the Holocaust, but think about the Aryan race. Hitler was gunning for blonde uniformity. And what I love about reading Kim Yideum’s poetry is how she luxuriates in what’s particular, grotesque: “As I’m walking down the street, my panties get soaked in menses, which is starting earlier than usual. I’m going to meet up with a guy and I’m wearing panties I stole off the mannequin at the Venus store. Red as tomatoes, the squishy mush trickles down my crotch. The seaside motel stinks like mudflats.” The first time I tried to buy groceries in Poland, the cashier took them and would not give them back. I had not understood that I was obligated to weigh the produce myself, then print stickers indicating the price. The poems in Cheer Up, Femme Fatale have titles that seem to have been fished from the internet in the years of peak personal essay: “Avoidance Addiction,” “Is Anybody There?,” “My First Love and I’m Already Bored,” their subject matter even more frank and dissociated. Yideum writes in Korean and, like Fanailova, has translators. Only English appears on the page.
In the universe of Yideum’s poems, alienation is intimate: from the body, from society, from self. Everything is connected but only because everything is disconnected, as in these lines from “Hometown Refugee”:
none of these trivial matters will ever make it into the local newspapers.
Instead there’s a photo of a smiling congressman holding
a box of ramen in front of a decrepit door.
The news has nothing to do with what’s true or worth telling:
This is my life.
A pathetic pebble.
Eroded by air.
Suicide, murder, forgiveness, love, renunciation, resignation,
and what else?
Yideum’s voice is numb, funny, a little existential: in “Don’t Be Alarmed,” she writes, “you can’t sink any lower than the basement.” Fascism grinds but Yideum doesn’t let it grind all the way down. Later in the same poem:
While I sleep, levees collapse,
a submarine explodes.
Children kill their parents,
teachers kill their students.
Of course, some go in the opposite direction
but they’re too mundane—like the daily news, like suicides.
Writing this essay, lonely still, I have carried these books with me for months, flipping through them on buses, in parks, in cafes and bars, in my bed. I slept with them in my bed, sometimes too sad to read. The poems I did manage to read most often were Yideum’s, bleak like I felt bleak: “The important point is that it’s all pointless. / Silently and swiftly / poetry makes nothing happen.” Fascism wants me to give in and give up, but being reflected in my abjection provided some relief.
I am trying to translate myself for you and I feel myself doubting, failing. What if I am a poem and I don’t want to have to prove it? It was hard to return from Poland with its constant memorials, strange as they were, to the US, where I live, and which is so invested in the suppression of history. Giving in to fascism in its most intimate form means wanting to be erased, which almost sounds like transcendence. It’s easy, dangerous, to get them confused.