Drunk from the Bitter Truth: The Poems of Anna Margolin
translated by Shirley Kumove
State University of New York Press, $30
Drunk from the Bitter Truth is the first English translation of the Yiddish poet Anna Margolin’s single volume, Lider (Poems), published in 1929. Margolin was mysterious in her own time: early on, many in the literary intelligentsia thought a man was hiding behind her name. Although she lived and worked in New York in the midst of a Yiddish cultural explosion—by 1915, there were five Yiddish daily newspapers, with a combined circulation of half a million—she chose to remain an outsider. Most Yiddish-language poets were then writing in traditional forms, but Margolin declared that she was “insulted by the mechanical precision of the conventional rhyme.” Thus her poems are sensual, jarring, plainspoken, and hard, the record of a soul in direct contact with the streets of 1920s New York, where days are “holy and yellowed, / like the verses in an old prayer book,” and the sun “spreads on high / bridges of roses, bridges of smoke.” But while the poet is immersed in the material world, she longs for something beyond it, telling us, “My days take root in stones. . . . But the blueness above them / is altogether more ethereal, purer.” Indeed, the gulf that separates the material world from a spirit, or transcendent, level dominates many of these poems, as we see in “Discontented”: “Swung back and forth today on the El strap / to the rhythm of worn-out Jews. . . . Perhaps I would not be so disheartened / if I didn’t dream of poems.” And in the haunting “Years,” Margolin describes a reckoning between daily life and ultimate mystery: “Like women well loved yet still not sated, / going through life with laughter and rage . . . that’s how the years were. . . . See how submissive they are now, my God, / struck dumb as a shattered piano, / taking each blow and taunt like a caress, / seeking You, yet not believing in You.” It is the reader’s good fortune that Margolin didn’t merely dream of poems. In this powerful collection, we are afforded a glimpse into a recklessly original mind, knee-deep in muck but scouting for divinity.