poems by yankev glatshteyn
translated from the yiddish by barbara harshav and benjamin harshav
adapted by jason francisco


millions of dead hands reach out to me:
you’ll be for us a living monument
to ill luck.
we who weren’t buried—
will be buried in you.
your heart will become our mass grave
and your eyes will reflect our devastation.
someone will seal the bond with our death.
someone will release the cry from every tortured limb.
someone will release our dreams
and make nightmares to wake you,
and you will cry our death into your living days.
you will live our death—and raise it above all joys.
whole generations of jews may yet forget us—forbid it!—
but you will be the bridge between living grandchild
and cremated grandfather.

strangers’ eyes don’t see
how i open a door in my small room
and begin my nightly wandering among the graves.
(how much earth—if you can call it earth—
does it take to bury smoke?)
there are valleys and hills there
and twisted paths that emerge abruptly,
enough for a whole night’s journey.
in the dark i see epitaphs pointing directions,
wailing, keening.
graves of the entire decimated world
blossom in the confines of my house.

and i pray:
you are a father to me?  a mother?
a sister?  a brother?  you are my own children?
so be my own children, be my blood,
real as pain.
be my own dead:
i do not grasp the destruction of millions.

at dawn i shut the door to the graveyard.
i sit at the table and doze off,
humming a tune.
the enemy had no claim over them.
fathers, mothers, children in their cradles—
they all surrounded death, and overcame him.
all the children, in wonder and astonishment,
ran to meet the fear of death
without tears, as in jewish bedtime stories.
and soon they flickered into flames
like little gods.

who else, like me, has his own
nighttime garden of loss?
who else is destined for that?
who else has this much burial ground waiting for him?
and when i die,
who will inherit my own little graveyard
and that shining gift of an eternally burning candle
flickering forever?

what are we now,
a people, a race, a religion?
in case someone should ask you:
who are those people confronting the world,
carrying mute urns on night rounds—
what is the meaning of their embarrassed, blank faces?
tell him:
we are a sect,
a sect of mourners.

mourners, a corps of sufferers,
we trudge along,
maccabees of sorrow.
we walk the world openly,
leading our vast funereal procession.
and they come, row upon row,
funeral number one, funeral number two, funeral number three.

machine guns have spoken.
lime-ovens have flashed,
and they’ve plowed the ashes into the fields quickly.
but funeral processions drag along slowly.
we are the walkers:
we walk slowly and wander through streets.
we are the rememberers—
we come to remind you
that we carry, we carry,
we carry millions.
it’s a long way still to the last funeral,
such a long way.
we have time.
we have time.

we have no secret ritual;
all of our secrets are revealed horrors.
if someone asks,
tell him, say to him:
we are a sect,
a sect of mourners.
we must honor all of death
until only life remains.
we believe
that the last wail
must be wailed,
and only then will night come,
and day will come—
the first day.


my brother refugee

it’s only love in me for my sad god,
my brother-refugee.
it’s only love i feel sitting with him on a stone,
redeeming all my words with nothing—
because when we sit this way, together without words,
our thoughts flow together
in silence.
a star lights up, a fiery letter.
its body yearns for sleep.
night lies at our feet like a lamb.

my poor god,
how many prayers have i ruined?
how many nights have i desecrated him,
and warmed my frightened bones at the fires of thinking-through?
and here he sits, my friend, with his arm around me,
and i’m giving him my last crumb.

the god of my unbelief is magnificent—
the feeble god of truth is only to love,
now that he’s unjust, and human.
the fallen one is only to be exalted
now that the least child rebels
against his word.

these are the thoughts about myself
that i put to a drifting god:
it’s a wild strangeness that intrudes into all warmth,
and even before we grasp the secret of it,
we feel our own unneededness blossom
like moss on a gravestone.

is this the city i built?
is this the street that i trusted
with every night of my memory?
how many summers did we come here to dream?
wasn’t this the place that i came to plant my roots?
wasn’t this the place that i came to look for silence
in the cemetery of the living?
hadn’t i had enough death back there—
i’ve come here now, an inheritor of death,
a refugee.

you’re speaking of yourself,
brother refugee, but i’m thinking about all of us,
and i’ll say it this way:
how much destruction can a people bear
and still believe in rebuilding?

now that they wallow in dust,
my people are godlier than i am.
other peoples will now bow down
to their anguish.

but god, my brother,
why have you exalted my people this way,
and made constellations of their misfortune
across the skies?

pain, blood, pierced hands,
the mercy of bloodless viens—
a childish fable with foolish words.
i’ve multiplied all that by six million,
i’ve given that fable a moral.
my people, my son—
my dream will bloom forever,
crucified on a shining tree.

my god sleeps while i keep watch.
my tired brother dreams the dream of my people.
he’s as small as a child,
and i rock him into the dream.
sleep, my god, my brother refugee,
sleep and vanish into our dream.


on my two hundredth birthday

time is moving slowly for me.
like flies, people are living and dying.
with trembling hands i’ve been writing yellowing memoirs
for who knows how long.
listen, my silent friends:  my life is lonesome without you.
my dead friends:  you are living within me.

the noon is red.  the walls are calm.
the stillness in the house is embracing the stillness outdoors.
i am sitting and thinking.
my precious wife has left on a carriage.
the two doves, my son and daughter—they also went.
i am all by myself.  their tame love is hovering in my room.
my friends are arriving.  we are sitting together in the garden
and talking about the mysteries of words,
and talking about god, without fear.
the younger ones are talking about death.
we are sitting on soft cushions and talking
about eternity, and death, and grammar.

the maid is serving us glasses of wine.
my friends are leaving.  it is now dusk.
the garden is filling with friendliness and wise, measured words.
dampness is chasing me indoors.
in the upper rooms, my maid is treading
with bare feet on my warm thoughts.
i am going upstairs.  my maid is soft with bashfulness.
through the window the smell of silence is coming from the yard.

my footsteps are lonely, greeting dawn in the garden.
my thoughts are with my precious wife and my quiet doves.
my maid is singing somewhere in the garden.
the silk of my robe is stroking my calmed limbs.
two people from the city are knocking, asking for alms.
i am giving them a piece of gold.

my friends are coming again with their wise talk.
with afternoon-purity in their clothes they are coming
and telling stories of countries and books
and we are speaking again of god and the mysteries of eternity.

the night is now quiet.
the maid is washing her body with fragrant oil.
with a lantern in my hand, i am giving her light and making long shadows on the walls.
it is warm to be two in loneliness.
in the morning my precious wife and my quiet doves return.
the corners are filling again with the songs of my love.

i say these words together:  my precious wife, my children, my bashful maid.
my friends are in cemeteries,
and the scent of grass is clinging to intimate graves.
there is afternoon talk about divinity, and the hidden mystery of the word.
a lonely old age—that’s my lot.
all the old people are younger than i am,
and laughing at my dusty words
and at my wise words.
i am picking a wreath of children, and telling them beautiful stories.
their fathers are paying me pity-money
to keep my old bones from falling apart.
the ceiling is weighing on my head in my lonely alcove.
i am thinking of god, with no fear.