Poems by Abraham Sutzkever

Translated from the Yiddish by Maia Evrona


Ever Since My Pious Mother Ate Earth on Yom Kippur…


Ever since my pious mother ate earth on Yom Kippur,

ate dark earth on Yom Kippur, mixed with fire,

I, a living man, must eat dark earth on Yom Kippur,

and be, myself, a memorial candle made of her fire.


The masts sink mercilessly down from the sun as it sets,

like a bird, a star skips over to a second distant star,

but since my mother eats earth on Yom Kippur and does not fast,

ever since I must eat earth on Yom Kippur, year after year.


A swarm of locusts has allowed no more on my lips

than two stalks of syllables from a singular word: mother.

My lips swim separated from my life-and-limb

to the kingdom where once my pious mother used to fast.


The silence between us grows ever stiller. Silent all the way down.

And she who eats earth on Yom Kippur hears her son’s thoughts

and says a prayer, that her prayer should shield him

when the memorial candle begins to flicker out.



A Wedding in the Garden


A wedding in the garden. Even the birds are tipsy. They dance,

too, along with the bride and groom and they, too, effervesce.

A sole sober voice extinguishes her wine, extinguishes her liquor:

A little girl in the garden alerts: roses are being slaughtered!


Roses are being slaughtered. And slaughtered is the perfect weather.

People fan by in the bushes with a steel-bare luster.

And their silver lining sweeps the leaves of the trembling aspen

inside out against night’s beginning: roses are being slaughtered.


Who is slaughtering roses? Somebody is on the slaughter.

A child won’t lie: they’re swimming like red crowns on a river,

like bunches of hair. And behind the last branches a cloud wants to save them—

it, too, is slaughtered, just as the roses have been.


It rains a rain of roses, breathing and warm.

The bride’s veil does not want to bare the bride’s terror.

And guilty is this sweet girl who caused an uproar

in the garden during the wedding music: roses are being slaughtered.




Abraham Sutzkever, born in 1913 in modern-day Belarus, is a legendary figure of the Yiddish literary world, with a poetic oeuvre numbering well over 1,000 pages. A survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a former partisan, he immigrated to Mandate Palestine just before the founding of the State of Israel and passed away in Tel Aviv in 2010, at the age of 96.


Maia Evrona‘s translations from Abraham Sutzkever’s Poems from My Diary have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. Her own poems, as well as excerpts from her memoir on growing up with a chronic illness and her critical work, have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, New South, The Los Angeles Review of Books and other venues.



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