Invisible Desire: Celia Dropkin (1888 – 1956)
Approximately five years after immigrating to the United States in 1912, Celia Dropkin, innovator of the erotic modernist love poem in Yiddish, began writing poetry in her mother tongue for the first time. She was born in 1888, in Bobruisk, White Russia, a shtetl (the Yiddish word for town) about 85 miles southeast of Minsk in what is today the independent country of Belarus. At the outbreak of World War I, over half the inhabitants of Bobruisk were Jewish, but by 1939, when World War II started, they constituted less than 30% of its population. Hitler’s army conquered the town in 1941, and shot 20,000 Jews, burying them in mass graves. Dropkin wrote verse in Russian until about 1917. Her earliest Yiddish poems were her own translations of work she had originally written in the language of her birthplace, her other mother tongue.
Masterful in its invigoration of meter and rhyme as well as in its, less often, exploration of free verse, the radically passionate and personal lyric that establishes Dropkin’s stature in Yiddish literature is groundbreaking in its candor about sex, love, death and relationships between men and women. It also addresses with freshness and immediacy other subjects: nature (often eroticized), motherhood, and childhood. One later poem, “Shvere gedanken” (“Hard Thoughts”) is a response to the Holocaust. By exposing how desire and erotic yearning are buried in a woman’s body, to recall Virginia Woolf’s demand of women writers, Dropkin now takes a place in 20th century literature. Exploring our inner conflicts and despair, Dropkin challenged her readers’ preconceptions of women’s poetry as a form of the pious and popular tkhine: a mainly woman’s individual, noncanonical, prayer. Her transgressive work, sometimes compared to Plath’s, exceeded the limits of acceptable discourse in her time, and even now challenges conventions about sex, marriage and motherhood. If Yiddish poetry for women was a form of prayer, it was not a dignified one, as it would have been in Hebrew; it was a lesser form in a lesser language. Dropkin and other unrecognized modernist women poets reshaped this domestic village patois into writing in which the female self could speak. She was no longer on her knees scrubbing floors and asking God to get pregnant. She was a woman expressing desire.
Although Dropkin’s poetry was acclaimed for its power and originality, it was likewise disparaged and overlooked by some Yiddish male critics and a number of her contemporaries who found it too openly erotic, personal, emotional, and insufficiently political for the leftist literary circles of the time or lacking in Jewish content. As Sheva Zucker points out in her essay, “The Red Flower ― Rebellion and Guilt in the Poetry of Celia Dropkin,” the leading Yiddish critic of the 1930s, Shmuel Niger, complained that the personal content of some of her work was more suited for a scrapbook than it was for poetry. Dropkin, we now acknowledge, was among the significant immigrant poets in New York, many of them women, who rediscovered and recreated Yiddish, transmuting it into a modern poetic language.
Born of exile and Diaspora, Yiddish, since about the 10th century, had been a vernacular of the people. A fusion of several languages created by Ashkenazi Jews, it was standardized only about a hundred years ago, influenced by the “classic” writers of modern Yiddish literature: Mendele, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. Dropkin and her contemporaries contributed to the swift and unprecedented burgeoning of Yiddish poetry in New York from the late nineteenth century until the beginning of World War II. A simultaneous development occurred in Europe — the richest one in Poland — with the years between the wars, especially the 20s, the high point as they were in the US. In Russia, this blossoming took place until the late 1920s.
Modernism’s impact (particularly that of its internationalism) on Yiddish literature, which in many ways paralleled trends in Europe and America, was intense by the1920s. The group with which Dropkin is sometimes associated, In Zikh (“Introspectivists” or “In the Self”), especially embraced it, espousing personal poems that conjured the harshness of Jewish experience, and used free verse and Imagism. The In Zikh poets and those in the three other major Yiddish groups in the US — the “Sweatshop” or “Proletarian” poets, Di Yunge (“The Young Ones”), the leftist poets of the 20s and 30s — created an important, new and genuinely American literary establishment, second only to the English one. Yet the Yiddish poets remained marginalized, and their work untranslated, for the most part. Still, they had an audience among the massive waves of refugees who had been fleeing persecution and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and Russia since1880.
With her husband, Shmaye, a Bundist (a General Jewish Labor Union activist), who fled tsarist police in 1910, Dropkin had six children, one of whom died. Before they were married in 1909, she had been in love with, and inspired by, the renowned Hebrew writer Uri Nisim Gnessin. In the best Russian Romantic tradition, he discouraged a romantic relationship because he had tuberculosis. Dropkin’s impossible love for him seems to have provided a powerful emotional subtext to her poems. She wrote while raising her children who contributed to her creative energy, motivating her to recall the Yiddish lullabies and rhymes of her childhood and a state of innocence to which she related. If Dvorak wove the plaintive melodies of his homeland into his modernist music, and T. S. Eliot incorporated the speech of Cockneys in experimental poems, Celia Dropkin used Yiddish lullabies and children’s rhymes to set a certain folk innocence and experience beside her modernist concerns with the experiences of a woman’s body.
Dropkin was also an accomplished painter during her last years and a short story writer, but had only one volume of poems published in her lifetime, In heysn vint (In the Hot Wind) in 1935. After her death in New York in 1956, her children oversaw the publication of a more comprehensive collection of her poetry in 1959, by the same title, which included later and previously unpublished poems, her short stories and reproductions of her paintings. In 1994, with the guidance of her granddaughter, Frances Dropkin, a French translation of selected poems, Dans le vent chaud, was published.
Dropkin’s most important work was done in the 20s and 30s. Her productivity, her family suggests, was possibly devastated by the effect that the Holocaust had on her. The tragic fate of European Jewry, and the end of Yiddish itself as the everyday language of 11,000,000 Jews, approximately 6,000,000 of whom had been exterminated, meant the demise of Europe’s Yiddish culture, including poetry — most of its Jewish poets victims of Hitler as well as Stalin. What has remained of Yiddish literature in the wake of the Shoah has largely been written by survivors and an aging generation of Jewish American writers in the US, where secular Yiddish speakers gradually succumbed to the pressures of assimilation. Some post-Holocaust Yiddish poetry has also been written in Israel, despite the essential aversion there toward this mother tongue, once considered a threat to the establishment of Hebrew as the daily national language.
Celia Dropkin’s moving poems that redefine the boundaries of a woman’s passions are a testament to Jewish women’s transformation of their homely folk tongue of humble hearts into a proud lyrical language.
—Yerra Sugarman (Published by the Center for the Art of Translation, August, 2009)
Two small pieces of my body
I’m not ashamed of showing,
With fingers like branches
From a coralberry bush.
With fingers like two nests,
Or … like thoughts
Of a nymphomaniac.
(Published in Prairie Schooner, Spring 2007)
My lovely Lucifer,
Your cold-gray stare
Looks at me unmoved,
And contorted as an ape,
I’m on my knees
And lick your skinny feet.
My back bends
Like a question mark.
Only it doesn’t matter.
As long as you keep looking,
My lovely Lucifer,
Unmoved, at me,
I will crouch
At your feet
Like a gargoyle
On Notre Dame.
(Published in Prairie Schooner, Spring 2007)
A widow left with two small children,
Humbly decided never to be anyone’s wife again.
Her days and years spread out, muted,
As if lit by a guttering candle.
My mother never did become anyone’s wife,
But every day,
Every year, every night sighs
From her young and passionate spirit,
Her yearning blood,
Occupied my childish heart,
Emptying deep inside me.
And my mother’s scalding invisible desire
Rushed like an underground spring,
Flowing in me freely.
Now, openly, out of me, spurts
My mother’s boiling hot, holy,
Deeply hidden hunger.
In the Morning
The hot wind rocks
The fresh, fresh leaves,
Like a young mother rocking
The hot wind whooshes
In the fresh, fresh leaves,
Like a young mother singing:
Hush, little baby, hush.
In the Daytime
Rocking in a hot dance,
In the arms of that hot wind,
With green fans, the branches
Reel in a round of sin,
Entwined with the hot wind,
Adorned in sunlight.
One minute they’re apart,
The next they’re entwined again with the wind.
Like hot blood in the veins of the branches,
Each leaf dances in the round of sin.
Not one wants to rest, or be silent
And dances and sings a song of sin.
Ended is the dance of sin,
Asleep now is the hot wind,
The trees weary, languishing,
Stretch and stretch pondering
Purest heaven up above
Like thin, green smoke.
(Published in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, edited by Margaret Jull Costa and Marilyn Hacker)
Celia Dropkin was born in 1888 in Bobruisk, White Russia, and died in New York in 1956. She wrote verse in Russian until about 1917. Approximately five years after immigrating to the United States in 1912, Dropkin, innovator of the erotic modernist love poem in Yiddish, began writing poetry in her mother tongue for the first time. Masterful in its invigoration of meter and rhyme as well as in its, less often, exploration of free verse, the radically passionate and personal lyric that establishes Dropkin’s stature in Yiddish literature is groundbreaking in its candor about sex, love, death and relationships between men and women. Dropkin was also an accomplished painter during her last years and a short story writer, but had only one volume of poems published in her lifetime, In heysn vint (In the Hot Wind) in 1935. After her death, her children oversaw the publication of a more comprehensive collection of her poetry in 1959, by the same title, which included later and previously unpublished poems, her short stories and reproductions of her paintings. In 1994, with the guidance of her granddaughter, Frances Dropkin, a French translation of selected poems, Dans le vent chaud, was published.
Yerra Sugarman is the author of three volumes of poetry: Aunt Bird (Four Way Books, 2022), which won the American Book Fest’s 2022 Best Book Award for General Poetry, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, as well for the New England Poetry Club’s Motton Book Prize; The Bag of Broken Glass (Sheep Meadow Press, 2008), poems from which received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; and Forms of Gone (Sheep Meadow Press, 2002), winner of PEN American Center’s Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The Nation, New England Review and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University, and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. She is an American poet, essayist, and teacher, living in New York City. The daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, she grew up in a community of survivors in Toronto, Canada. She serves as a board member for Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry.
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