The poetry of Yossel Birstein
The Yossel Birstein so well loved in Israel, the fiction writer and storyteller, is cheerful and wise, with a soft heart that goes out especially to the weak and downtrodden. As a young Melbourne poet though, his persona was somewhat different - sensitive, lonely and forlorn, as this site shows.
One of our aims has been to fill out the Yossel Birstein story for Israeli readers – and we are glad to have excellent translations into Hebrew, by Hanna Galay of Tel Aviv.
We do contend though, that the poetry of Yossel Birstein deserves attention in its own right. Some of his best work is the series of 15 poems which open his book “Under Alien Skies,” in which he records his responses to the martyrdom of his family, and of other Jews of Biala. As discussed in the article “How Unter Fremde Himlen was received”, at the time Yiddish critics were allergic to such writing. We anticipate that today these poems will be read quite differently.
No less interesting to us today are Yossel’s pre-War poems, of alienation and displacement. He carefully selected the best of these for his book, the title of which reflects his preoccupation.
“Browse the Book” gives all of the poems, together with the drawings by Yosl Bergner, as well as selected translations in English and Hebrew. A full 37 of its 46 poems have been translated into English.
In “Archive” are given
2. Notes on a young man’s poems
Yossel Birstein was a published poet between the ages of 19 and 30. His verses are always rhymed, written to be heard. The earliest poems often sacrifice clarity for musicality; but his technical mastery develops rapidly. Numerous poems convey his experience of estrangement as a young newcomer to Australia (in a time before the introduction of institutional supports for migrants.)
When we compare the poems in the book with the Other Poems, we have to agree with Yossel’s selection – none of the Other Poems is as good as the best of the Book poems.
However some of them still make interesting reading, as we discuss in what follows.
1940 - 1943
August 1940: in this, his first published poem, Yossel declares his vocation. A sad youngster lies in bed writing poetry: about a dream, that is becoming fardart (dried out) for lack of understanding.
A dream of being a Yiddish writer? Perhaps: we know that the lack of interest in Yiddish of his migrant peers distressed him greatly.. Whatever the dream, it is filled with angst for him, as the second half of the poem indicates. Within him a spark still glows – “humans are meant to have will and desire, there must be something to life.”
Yossel is grappling with the big existential questions here and struggling not to give in to despair. His sadness suffuses the poem.
Soon after come two Cemetery Poems. The first, Tsvishn Metseyves, has him lying on the grass among the tombstones to pretend he has never even existed. He seeks relief from hoping, believing. A passer-by first asks him what he’s doing there, then abuses him.
Yossel lived near the Carlton Cemetery and may have experienced something like this. But the poem lacks clarity. Why is he so dispirited? It’s a mooning, muddy poem.
Shtume lider, another cemetery tale, is better. When he feels lonely and bored the poet goes to the cemetery.... where the gods of silence have built themselves nests. He has no one here, so why does he come? In search of his own remains. And suddenly he feels like weeping. But the tears won’t come. They were all cried out in childhood. So he stands still “bowed, dried up, silenced.”
Though the tale is continuous it has been broken into four brief sections, each with its subtitle. This form is a bit too grand for its content, but it helps sustain the Gothic atmosphere he has created.
Milkh, his next poem, is one of my favourites. Early morning milk delivery, by horse and cart from home to home, is a childhood memory of mine. Here it is seen through the wondering eyes of a newcomer from a harsh unneighbourly land. Yossel can’t believe his eyes – the doors are left unlocked, the milkman runs the milk inside and then emerges, carefully closing the door after the “white gifts sent by the night.”
But though wonderful it is seen through a prism of sadness. The stars in the sky look like yortsayt candles, the streets are deserted like cemetery paths, and the dewdrops – are tears awaiting comfort.
After an interval Yossel publishes Zuntik Baynakht. This has him wandering the Carlton streets by night, rather than the cemetery. The roofs are lonely and silent and they watch, as cats and dogs slouch along in the shadows. Beasts know not of time as humans do, who go towards their deaths.
The personification of the roofs is reminiscent of Yisroel Shtern’s poetry. This is the first poem in which Yossel is hardly present at all.
Soon after, his Fabrik Lider are published – seven brief impressions of a clothingfactory. Among Yossel’s friends in Melbourne were Soviet sympathizers, Jewish and non-Jewish, and social realism was the mode for the short stories of Judah Waten and John Morrison. Here we see Yossel experimenting with something similar in verse.
These are angry poems. Some are more successful, like the shocking Undzer Portret and the tender Di Finisherin. The second last poem, Fremd, expresses his horror of working under constant observation.
Much more accomplished is At the Factory (p.65), which was first published in 1947. Inanimate machines are compared with workers – but to enliven them, with results quite different to Yisroel Shtern’s poems.
Vel shoyn was apparently intended for a series about his grandmother. He stays home and comforts her with wonderworking stories of the Besht; they are sad together. The poem’s lyricism is assured, but the cause of their sadness can only be surmised. The poem appeared in October 1941; the Germans had recently invaded the Soviet Union, but they had been in Biala since 1939.
In February 1942 the newspaper publishes his poem Oyfn Geto-Mark, (In the Ghetto Marketplace) inside a black border. Too many rhymes are forced but the subject is heart-rending: his imaginative response to a brief report in an English magazine about a lesson in handwashing, given by a German SS man to children of the Vilna Ghetto.
Bits of bodies are mentioned in the poem. Whilst residents of the Warsaw Ghetto already knew of Ponary, the killing field of the Vilna Ghetto, I am unclear as to how much was known in Melbourne then. The title of the poem possibly makes ironic reference to Peretz’ play, Night in the Old Marketplace.
Soon after this, Yossel joins the army. His next poems appear early in 1944.
Ovnt-makhshoves, Evening Thoughts, describes a dangerous town centre, of prostitutes and sailors, where people are struck from behind. Here is a context. After Pearl Harbour, Melbourne was suddenly full of American troops, and prostitutes; Yossel’s painter friends were busy depicting the scenes described in the poem. Moreover, in May 1942 the city had been gripped by fear of the “brown-out strangler”, who murdered women on the street at night on three separate occasions. (Eddie Leonski, an American serviceman, was apprehended following the third murder, confessed to the crimes, and was hanged six months later.) Yossel’s poem conveys the sense of dread very well.
Interestingly, Yossel’s poem goes further. The suburbs are scary as well, the quiet makes him uncomfortable. The hatred is secret, hidden there now, but one fine day the stink will emerge. The poem’s refrain: “Ah, new land – new land of old hatreds.”
I want to draw attention to this deep conviction, based on Polish experiences, which is evident in a number of his poems. More often than not his poems depict Australia through this prism – darkly.
Soon after Tsvishn Zelner appears – an army camp poem not selected for the book. Written under the sign of Cain, it ends surreally. A very self-assured poem, technically accomplished, it may have been excluded from the book because of its extreme dysphoria. (It is hard to imagine such a poem appearing in English during the War.)
There are four army camp poems in the book. Inside an Army Tent (p.50) appeared first in the landmark (for Melbourne) 1944 Tsushteyer Anthology. Here Cain and Abel are a masochistic couple. The lines are less regular than is usual for Yossel, the verses almost free in places. The poem’s protagonist stays huddled in bed; “an aged Jew”, he is an observer of the strife around him. The poem ends with his question “what would my grandfather think of this?”
In the fourth, People (p.53), the poet expresses satisfaction at being treated like everyone else. We have to understand that his comparison is with the Old Country, where this could never happen – as mentioned above, he is always expecting Australians to begin behaving like gentiles back home.
Twilight (p.57) first appeared in Tsushteyer as well. It is a meditation on his heritage, reminiscent of the perspective of Inside an Army Tent – where it may well have been written..
In Plonternish (p56), the last Birstein poem in the Tsushteyer Anthology , appeared in Unter Fremde Himlen without the last verse. In it the poet had urged belief upon himself. Perhaps by the time of the book’s preparation, with the kibbutz already in his sights, Yossel’s religious faith had become less important to him.
1945 - 1948
In September 1945 the first Khurbn poems appear.
On its weary way is a sonnet. (p36) Here too, Yossel is a weary old man. The last line points out a weirdness which however, remains unclear.
Di Loytere Verter (p37)is also a sonnet. Treblinka has erased our future. The poet buries himself in holy books, forcing himself to keep going for the sake of future generations.
In December 1945 were published the first poems that would appear in the Biala series: At your fiery wedding, Your Face, Don’t Brighten Me and My Little Brother. The first two of these were originally laid out in sonnet form. (See Archive for full notes on earlier versions.)
In April 1946 Oyfgegangene (p28) was published. (Both the original and the book poem are reproduced on the site, as the changes are significant). This fine hymn may have been specially written for the ghetto commemoration edition of the newspaper. It awaits a translator equal to it.
(2008): now see Jon Levitow’s The Risen
Weary from waiting (p38) of September 1946 is a gentle poem written with great tenderness. The Baal Shem Tov will come to comfort the bereaved nation.
In September 1947 Lovely daughter of the three gifts (discussed below)was published, together with How could my verses tell of wholeness (p49):
In this moving poem Yossel joins his complaint about the murder of his family with the murder of the Yiddish language by his own generation. Is he to be its last minstrel? Here his lyrical forces join with his deeply felt and clearly expressed thoughts in one of his most successful poems.
Soon afterwards he published Under your terrible hand (p19) At the factory (p65) (discussed above) and It’s good (p46).
By now Yossel is putting poems in the drawer for his forthcoming book, we imagine, for little more appears in the press.
In October 1948 was published No more to do with the roar (p66). Had survivor guilt been described yet, when this was written? Here Yossel describes it very clearly in himself.
In February 1949 was published the meditation My grandfather was shamed by the clamorous world. (p.68) Yossel mulls over how he has aged, and become like his grandfather, with the destruction of his people.
3. Notes on the poems of “Under Alien Skies”.
Following the Dedication to his slaughtered family comes the Biala Series, poems for Yossel’s family and town. All pre-War poems and army poems come after, and not in any order that can be fathomed. Remarks about selected poems follow.
a) The Biala Series
This caption refers to the first 15 poems (of which the first 11 were translated by Beni Gothajner).
My Father’s Sweat
This poem may well have been written to head the Biala series. In it Yossel describes his own state of being in the wake of the news of the fartilikung of his family. His language is fresh and natural. He is “a sheep”, yet ready to devote himself to his people. This was actually descriptive of his work as Kadimah Secretary at the time; while expressing, at a deeper level, his constant striving for a way of being Jewish, that is at one time loyal to tradition and planted in the modern world.
In the poem See Yossel considers communal mourning, and notes how the Khurbn has changed it altogether. Now death will “cling to each piece of bread”.
In contrast to Yossel’s earlier work, a number of the poems are confrontingly direct and clear. “The Plea” is a heartrending cry of his own pure anguish. “A letter in my hand” tells a simple poignant story.
On the other hand, “Don’t Brighten Me” uses Chagallesque imagery to extend the scope of the Biala series back by a generation. And “Lovely daughter of the three gifts” makes use of the founding secular Jewish prototype of martyrdom, I.L.Peretz’ story “The Three Gifts” (see footnote to poem).
How poignant is At Your Fiery Wedding! What remarkable self-control on the critic Rapoport’s part, (see below) to confine his discussion to the semantics of one word in it, kale-moyd!
Is The blessing for my toil (the fifteenth poem) still part of the initial series? In musical terms, it provides a major key resolution to the preceding agonies. Perhaps it was part of Yossel’s pre-War soul searching; if so, he has positioned it well in the collection.
b) Poems In Memory of Pinkhas Goldhar
These two fine occasional poems are at p.58 (on his death) and p.60 (for his Yortsayt) . – see accompanying article Yossel Birstein’s Melbourne Years.
c) Yossel’s Australia: Under Alien Skies.
The first poem in the book about Australia is An ordinary street (p.32).
A strangeness flows from neighbour’s homes (p.35) is a moving poem, in which Yossel binds together the alienation he feels from Australian neighbours with his grandfather’s loneliness – which he anticipates inheriting..
But still I haven’t wearied (p.44): here too Yossel writes of donning his grandfather’s role. The poem’s refrain “the sun over my neighbour’s roof shines in another language” once again underlines his alienation. He finds solace in prayer and in the Psalms.
Through the window pane (p.47) has alienation as its theme. From the outset, the poem gives the feeling of expectations brought from the Old Country.At my door (p.48). Here his loneliness as a newcomer is more clearly expressed, and less contaminated by his dread from the Old Country.
d) Army Camp poems – see (1944) above.
A visitor on my doorstep (p.54)
Oysyes (p.64). This “concrete poem”, a virtuoso piece of its kind and a translator’s challenge, has now (2008) been turned into Signs by Jon Levitow.And my mother is close by (p.73). His poetry writing is for his mother, who loved to sing.
3. Two last poems ( in “Other Poems”) Mayn Zeydn’s Shtekn (My grandfather’s walkingstick) (1949)
Yossel farewells Australia, where his efforts have been in vain. His newborn child is mentioned. He leaves a wanderer, like his grandfather before him.
Now he can afford to be generous, and for the first time he praises the country’s beauty.
Vi der vayngortn iz zikher in zayn vayn (As the Vineyard is sure of its wine) (1950)
Written in Kibbutz Gvat soon after arrival in Israel, so far as we know this is the one poem Yossel wrote after coming to Israel. It abounds in joy and confidence as it celebrates homecoming. In fact, after all the previous poems, it reads like a miraculous solution to the soul-searching before.
All angst and urgency have vanished. A relaxed tone, an easy pace, the lines are open, as if to the sky and the fields: “I drink and drink – can I continue to drink like this, without measure? Is there no one behind me to ask ‘why?’ The answer comes from the encompassing silence. The world is wonderful, humans more so.”