A litany in two-part discord

1. Jean Simmons. I was madly in love with Jean Simmons for years. The look on her face when she stared up at Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, dying in slow agony on the cross, holding up their newborn child and begging “Die! Please die!” Jean Simmons as Estella in Great Expectations. Jean Simmons in any damn thing. Oh God, be gentle with her.

2. Abraham Sutzkever. I didn’t know he’d been alive this long. He was 97. He lived through the Vilna ghetto, he fought as a partisan, he was one of the greatest of Yiddish-language poets. I grieve him now.

I wrote about him 10 years ago. I read into him. A poor memorial, but the best I can manage. Forgive my inarticulacy.

after Abraham Sutzkever, “The Lead Plates at the Rom Press”)
(for Miklos Radnoti, 1910-1944)

Without bread there is no Torah.
–Wisdom of the Fathers

When someone comes to kill you, kill him first.
–The Talmud


I, Abraham Sutzkever, poet of the lost city of Vilna,
unacknowledged legislator to the dead,
amateur magician and factotum of the resurrection,
turned my pen back into a sword: abandoned then
the music of the line, the heartbeat of the metre,
for the heartbreak of the Grand Guignol God’s
broken promise and the broken lock: went by night
into the workshops of the Rom Press,
God’s abandoned printing-house of Vilna,
to seize the lead plates used to print the Talmud
and melt them down for bullets.
A Shin, first letter of one of God’s names,
would make a slug to kill a German.
One letter less, one fewer Nazi: in the end
they would be gone and the world
would be without words for this Creator.


Jews, it is said, answer questions with questions,
live by the paradox that expands like the universe
to a place only dreamed of: where the holy and profane
conjoin to form the Question that,
like a monstrous Sabbath carp, devours
the stinking fish of smaller questions
left to rot in the marketplace of ideas:
sucks them into the black maw that holds the unanswerable Whys
of this yeshivabucher God who answers devotion with
a city of starving human xylophones who play no music.

So we would knead this lead,
transform it to a cruel bread that could not nourish
that we could not eat but that might nourish us;
we would invoke the alchemy
that takes the poet, lover, holy madman,
puts into their hands the gun and torch
as Moses our teacher traded his staff
for the serpent and the sword,
(perhaps) hear the commandment
gasped by an overburdened Angel of Death
to the man turned ritual slaughterer
in the abattoir God makes of History and of Love:
“Remember Amalek and what he did to you!”–
truly use the letters of the Law,
melt them to save our lives
so we could flout them later:
bake white bread for Passover,
to stay alive for one day,
one night more.


In Moscow not a year later, Stalin himself
turned me from Poet into Hero
with a medal on my chest:
whispered “Zhid” at me through
his vodka-drooling mouth: and smiled
from the black hole that swallows questions.

I have outlived them all.  At my death,
no one will be left to chant psalms
in the Vilna Great Synagogue.
There is no Great Synagogue
and only a Vilnius, a world transformed,
a world lost.
If my words outlive me, perhaps
they will obliterate the killer
with songs and lamentations left behind:
my final act of magic.




Abraham Sutzkever (b. 1913-2010) was one of the leading Vilna-based Yiddish
poets of pre-World War II Poland and Lithuania.  During the siege and
destruction of the Vilna ghetto by the Nazis he fought with the
partisans.  He was rescued from the final liquidation of the ghetto by
the Russians and indeed received a medal from Stalin.  He lived the rest of his life in

Miklos Radnoti (1909-1944) is now recognized as one of Hungary’s
greatest modern poets and translators.  While a member of a slave labor
detail, he was murdered during a forced march through Yugoslavia in
October 1944.  His last poems were found in a small notebook in his
coat when his body was exhumed in 1946.

Yeshivabucher: literally “yeshiva booker,” a Talmudic scholar in
training, hence a receiver and purveyor of received ideas.

Amalek: leader of a tribe that attacked the rear of the column of
Hebrews fleeing Egypt, slaughtering the very young, old, and infirm.


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