On the Trail of a Vanished Poet

Rosa Nevadovska: a grand-sounding name. A sad photograph: face shadowed by more than a hat’s brim, head tilted, eyes looking not at the viewer but—elsewhere. East. Assembled facts (which don’t fit together, necessarily, or create an easy trail to follow): birthplace, Bialystok, 1890; country, Russia, country, Poland, a vibrant Jewish city, a city of notorious pogroms, a Jewish city ghettoized, emptied out of Jews—but well before that, in 1928, the poet has found her way to New York. And she does leave a trail of other, temporary homes in her wake: Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Moscow... (And she did leave a few months’ marriage and a child—who had died at the age of two during a bitter, hungry, wartime winter in Moscow.)

The poet then makes her way, for a time, to Venice-by-the-sea in southern California: very American.

—And yet, not entirely American, as she finds herself in a circle of other Yiddish writers and kultur-tuers, that is, culture makers/activists, immigrants like herself devoted to Yiddish letters and memories, to creating home cities of exile. In these circles, she appears only vaguely marginally, a sketch beside or behind more colorfully-drawn characters. And yet it is there that she publishes her one collection, Azoy vi ikh bin, As I Am, in 1936. (A posthumous collection will be published of works she has left behind, never published in a book—in 1974.)

Back to the poet’s trail: It languishes.

How many times did she crisscross the country? Brooklyn, the Bronx, Detroit, LA Was her second marriage, based in NY, one of immigration convenience? Did it ever formally end? (Nevadovska lived alone for most of her life.)

In what city did she keep the folders of poem-drafts and finished-yet-never-published poems? Or did she take them in a suitcase with her, on her travels? (One of battered leather? alligator?) In what city and at what times did she write most fervently? or love most fervently?

There are numerous portraits one could make of this poet. We have Nevadovska in Europe, the would-be scholar, the wife and tragic mother. And then, in the US, there is the double-life of a working woman, supporting herself as a teacher, journalist and traveling lecturer, and a poet, whose life emerges at night when the city sleeps.

“Home” is not a word that appears more than a handful of times in Nevadovska’s poems (and then, in connection with Bialystok and in poems about her parents and the world she left behind). Instead: One finds poems about wandering and loneliness, about “the path” as a painful yet necessary fate. In all, it is poetry itself that befriends Nevadovska; it is poetry that brings her meaning and, in a sense, watches over her. And while her poetry was acknowledged during her lifetime it was not highly celebrated, and the one critic I’ve found who wrote about her, Sh. Tenenboym, during her California years—referred to her as the “woman alone, by the Pacific.” He characterized her work patronizingly, in the conventional terms of Yiddish literary criticism whenever it encountered women writers: that is, in terms of highly feminine emotionality.

It’s not necessarily a translator’s job to know the answers to the biographical questions—Nevadovska’s life as she lived it, scribbling poem-drafts on pieces of stationery in Miami Beach, in the Catskills; on the backs of envelopes. It may even be good fortune to have to wander so, in the dark. What I don’t know about Nevadovska pushes me back into her poems—and they teach me what might be most important to “know,” to try and understand.

And I have discovered that many of her poems are “about” intense emotion, and—as Avrom Lis notes in his foreword to Lider Mayne, the collection that was published after she died in 1971—Nevadovska typically makes herself the subject in most of her poems.

And yet that was not how I first “met” her.

Rosa came into my awareness in 1999 when I was writing my dissertation, which became my 2008 book, Recovering “Yiddishland” (Syracuse UP). I had an enormous anthology edited by the Yiddish kultur-tuer Nakhman Mayzl, published by the leftist Yiddish cultural organization, YKUF (Yidish Kultur Farband) in 1955: Amerike in Yidishn Vort, America in the Yiddish Word. When I was searching the volume for poems written about African-Americans, hers were among them, and among the best, and I included two in my relevant dissertation chapter. In other words, as often happens in the literature business, I didn’t set out to find Nevadovska, but came across her work.

In her early years in the States, prior to the Holocaust (before diaspora hardened into exile, and like many other Jewish immigrants, she lost the bulk of her family and old friends, as well as her “Jewish city”—her hometown, Bialystok)—in these early years, her poems trumpeted her belief in an international movement of peoples committed to social justice and equality. I don’t think it’s important to label her politics Socialist, Communist, or anything in-between: as an immigrant, Yiddish-speaking Jew, she leaned Left. Given Jewish religious culture and their intimate experiences with oppression and violence, almost all of them did.

Although my work as a 2015 Translation Fellow for the National Yiddish Book Center (Amherst, MA) has focused on poems in Nevadovska’s posthumous collection, Lider Mayne, which are darker and more concerned with personal anguish, I have chosen to translate a few that reflect the conditions she saw around her, in her early days in New York. The scene of the sweatshop we find in the first poem is well-known, harking back to the days of Jewish garment workers in NYC (and there are even “sweatshop poets” one can find who wrote about their personal experiences in the shops, in the late 1800s). The second poem focuses on a different space—one familiar to those enmeshed in the vertical life of NYC:

The Shop

So Leah returned from the sweatshop,
So Leah rode homeward, rode home.
The pines broke into a prayerful sway,
And her heart uttered a bitter moan.

The days were on the cusp of spring
With pure mornings, frozen dew.
How the girl yearned, longed without end
For forest and field, the sky’s blue. 

Then Leah traveled again to the shop,
To sew clothes—to sew up the days.
The subway still pounded inside her head,
While her longing beat out its own way.

So Leah went into the dimly lit shop,
Cheeks stained, and lips painted, red.
Her own youthful blush she had already stitched
Into clothing for strangers.
(Lider Mayne, p. 245) 

The Girl Who Operates the Elevator

Day never penetrates this place.
An eternal dusk reigns, 
Whether the door is open or the door is closed.
The route goes up and down,
A pail pulled from a well...
Full of people who trickle away like water.
At different floors, they come, they go. 

The girl who operates the machine...
I cannot forget the silent misery
Of her bony limbs. 
When I roam the noisy streets,
She follows me. And the elevator’s darkness
Has become part of her.

I see her colorless face, her sunken cheeks...
Like wax, daubed red with cheap powder.
Her silenced mouth still cries to me. 

Cries out of shadowed days in the elevator’s nook.
Her delicate hands, pale fingers with painted nails,
Extend like withered branches on a tree... 

Her gloomy eyes reflect the light of a little bulb
That burns all day over her head
Like a Yahrzeit candle.
(Azoy vi ikh bin, p. 14)

Rosa Nevadovska experienced a great deal of personal suffering in her wandering life. The poems above (like the ones you can find in my book, Recovering “Yiddishland”) represent her highly defined ability to empathize with the suffering of people around her.

I’d like to wrap up these musings with one more poem, radically different—and yet a piercing example of how she longed to transcend her personal story, the burden of her own life. It’s on p. 26 of Lider Mayne:

I would flay my own skin,
Undo the burden of flesh and bones.
Let me be held together with rays of light
So I can befriend the winds of the world—
Be done with my body and become
Easy and bright
As the mid-month night,
Radiating into the darkness.

Bachman, Merle L. Recovering “Yiddishland”: Threshold Moments in American Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2008.
Birnboym, Ya’akov. Entry on Rosa Nevadovska in Naye Leksikon fun der Yidisher Literatur (New Lexicon of Yiddish Literature). Ed. Efroyim Oyerbukh, Ya’akov Birnboym, Eliahu Shulman and Moyshe Shtarkman. Volume 6. New York: World Jewish Congress, 1965. 
Nevadovska, Rosa. Azoy vi ikh bin (As I Am). Los Angeles: Rosa Nevadovska Book Committee, 1936. Lider Mayne. Tel Aviv: I. L. Peretz, 1974.
Tenenboym, Sh. Di Aynzame Froy Baym Pasifik (The Lonely Woman by the Pacific). In Literarishe Bleter. 17: 780, 246-248. Warsaw, Poland, 1939.