Page 35 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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WISSE / THE GHETTO POEMS OF ABRAHAM SUTZKEVER
suddenly become an avalanche/of light and wonder.” Siberia,
the universal symbol of punishing cruelty and isolation, became
Sutzkever’s most powerful image for the immediacy of poetic
awakening. The poet is the child, ever faced with real adversity,
but blessed with a magical gift of regenerating it as beauty. In
Sibir,
his first major poem (later illustrated by that other joyous
Jewish artist, Marc Chagall) Sutzkever evokes his fledgling self-
discovery in the brilliant landscape of his youth:
In our dovecot the newborn bird
Picks its way out of its broken shell.
This dove, which becomes Sutzkever’s personal emblem of the
muse, lures him away from the buried “hut” of his father’s
coffin in the frozen earth, upward toward sun and life.
EARLY WORK
Sutzkever’s formal beginnings as a poet in the early 1930s—
about a decade after the family’s return to Vilna—were marked
by a similar reaction to and almost conscious recoil from the
social and economic problems of the day. Jewish Vilna in the
1930s, in the grip of severe poverty and rising anti-Semitism,
was a highly politicized society, especially in the literary circles
to which the young writer was drawn. The Communist Party
was outlawed, but it enjoyed the active support of many younger
Jewish intellectuals; others supported competing political move-
ments—Zionism, Terri torialism, the Bund. In this atmosphere
Sutzkever was an avowed original, avoiding or transcending
political considerations. He was turned down in his first attempt
to join the literary group,
Young Vilna,
because the poems he
submitted for consideration, ballads about Kirghisian horsemen,
seemed irresponsibly asocial and naive. In contrast to the
ideological orientation of most of the artistic milieu, Sutzkever’s
poetry explored the natural world and the nature of words. On
the very eve of the war Sutzkever was completing a modern Yid-
dish version of an Old-Yiddish classic, the
Bove-Bukh
or
Bobe-
Mayse,
an epic verse adventure whose title had long since
become the Yiddish idiom for fairy-tale.
It would be a mistake, however, to identify Sutzkever’s poetic
playfulness and the absence of ideological direction, as some
critics did, with escapism. His aestheticism is actually born of