Dream the Living into Speech: A Selection of Poems and a Homage to Yiddish

by Seymour Mayne

Seymour Mayne has been teaching at the University of Ottawa since 1973 where he is a Professor of Canadian Literature, Creative Writing, and Canadian Studies. A four-time winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award and recipient of The American Literary Translators Award for his translations from Yiddish, Mayne is the author, editor, or translator of over 70 books. The publishers of Shirim: A Jewish Poetry Journal devoted an entire double issue to Mayne’s own poetry and his translations of Yiddish poets Rachel Korn, Melech Ravitch and Abraham Sutzkever.

Mayne dreams the past into speech by inviting us into his old Jewish neighbourhood and its warm culture where first-generation Canadian Jews spoke Yiddish at home and English or French on the streets of Montreal. Although Mayne’s poetry and prose are personal, they are representative of many Canadian and American Jews who grew up in urban areas with large Jewish neighbourhoods in the 1940s and 1950s. As a Jewish girl brought up in Brooklyn, New York, during that period, I would have felt entirely comfortable if transposed onto Mayne’s “streets of the Northern Corner of Montreal’s Mile End”. Shopkeepers in my neighborhood tallied their bills in Yiddish and counted out change in Yiddish when I ran errands for Mom. I learned to count in Yiddish before I could count in English.

Many of Mayne’s poems pay homage to his grandparents. About his Zeydeh, with whom he walked to Shul on Shabbos mornings or hiked the woods, Mayne recalls in “Der Zeydeh’s Tallis”, listening to “…the fast murmur / of [his Zeydeh’s] recitations / the road runner of holiness / racing up an ascent to God”. He remembers his grandmother who “smuggled three sons through Bolsheviks’ lines and then through Polish encampments”, on their way to Canada, where “bread grows on trees”.

In “Devotional”, Mayne uses charming metaphor to describe snow as “January’s tallit / bereft of blue stripes”, and sees “Tefillin chimney tops / hold to the foreheads of homes”.

Some of his poems are thigh-slappingly hilarious such as “Curses Upon the Thief or Thieves Who Stole the Old Blue Couch from my Front Porch during the Early Hours of June 7, 1986”. His curses are completely original but echo the well-used “May you grow like a tzibbele mit dina feese in drosen und dina kup in d’red”. (May you grow like an onion with your feet in the air and your head in the earth).

Curses Upon the Thief or Thieves Who Stole the Old Blue Couch from my Front Porch during the Early Hours of June 7, 1986

May you lie on it

with a splitting headache.

May you moan upon it

with a migraine throbbing

into full strength.

May your veins bulge

and your vessels swell

behind your brigand’s brow.

May you toss and turn

in excruciating torment.

May you fall off

and break your arms

and legs in a dozen places.

May you groan upon it

with aching wounds

and bruises and plaster casts.

May you finally expire on it.

May you be stretched out

on it as upon your bier.

May you be buried with it

– the blue couch on top –

so you will never crawl out

to steal any other treasure!

Mayne is well known for his invention of “Word Sonnets” which are literally composed of 14 lines with one word per line. Traditionally, sonnets are composed of 14  lines but with specific rhyme and metre possibilities. Contemporary poets have experimented with various schemes for sonnets but Mayne has pared it down in the extreme. Some of his word sonnets are not extraordinary but others, such as “Guest”, read like aphorisms one wishes to copy and save:
















Twelve of the poems in Dream the Living into Speech: A Selection of Poems and a Homage to Yiddish are translations of three beloved Yiddish poets: Melech Ravitch, Rachel Korn and Abraham Sutzkever, all of whom Mayne knew. He either saw them, heard them read, or met with them at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, a hub of the Jewish community. Ravitch immigrated to Montreal in 1941, Korn in 1948. Sutzkever, who was trapped in the Vilna Ghetto during the early part of World War II, became a Partisan and later settled in Israel. Many of the poems Mayne chose to translate, written during or after the Shoah, justifiably evince death and loss, and question God. In “Carved on a Tree”, Sutzkever writes: “Not for you are the festivals / not for you the flags. / You’re just a gravestone / not even rooted to the ground”. “I feel like saying a prayer,” he writes elsewhere, “but to whom?”

In Your Words: Translations from the Yiddish and the Hebrew is a fitting companion to Dream the Living into Speech. It is a collection of translations of the above-mentioned Yiddish poets as well as several Israeli poets, including Mosher Dor and Shlomo Vinner. Dor’s lyrical poems reflect concerns of contemporary life. In “Dusk, June 1982,” he writes, “Violet are the helicopters / bursting out of a womb of water and metal. / Violet are the sounds of the jukebox / announcing to the street seven kinds / of ice-cream and death”. Vinner’s exquisite, expansive nine-part poem, “Jerusalem As She Is,” wraps the city with such reverence and love that the reader can hear the “archaeologists / battle with orthodox Jews”.

Were it not in the title, I would never realise that these poems were translated from Hebrew. Mayne’s English renderings of these works are marvelous, colloquial, and accessible. It is thanks to the work of translators such as Mayne, a skilled poet endowed with a sensibility of Yiddishkeit, that these and other works are accessible to a wider audience.

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