Yosl Greenspan: Grand Central Station by Night (from Yiddish)

Yosl Greenspan, born in Kletsk in the Russian empire in 1902, fled his hometown for Canada during the Polish occupation, and thence to the US in 1917. He was for a time a member of the Canadian and American Communist parties, though he seems to have been distrusted almost as much by his fellow leftist writers as by those on the right (for daring to disagree and voice "bourgeois" opinions from time to time.) He starved to death in New York during the Great Depression. 

Like an unbelievably huge number of similar "un-American" or "communist" poets of Yiddish New York, Greenspan has largely been omitted from the Yiddish literary canon, and goes unjustly untranslated. This American Yiddish literary "canon" as it exists today (especially in translation and in American Yiddish-specialist academia) seems to me to be largely a product of the political culture of the 1950s, with McCarthyist paranoia on the one hand, and, on the other, a desire on the part of Yiddish anthologists not to appear "disloyal" by including poets and authors whose pinkness might be seen by as shading into outright red. Anyone who e.g. took too long to get disillusioned with the Soviet project, was untouchable to translators who didn't want to rock the witchhunting boat, and to academic Yiddishists who had every reason to try and avoid seeming "subversive" in comparison with their colleagues.  

In the poem under consideration here, a seemingly-paradoxical fusion of Judaic lore and secularist socialism, Greenspan looks upon the the suffering of Black Americans with recognition on the one hand, and, on the other, with a strong tone of what many radicals have called "revolutionary love" (and which I prefer to call, rather more sedately, "Marxist sympathy.")

Indeed, poetry depicting the black plight is one of the many un-sung (or rarely-sung, anyway) distinctions of Yiddish literature in America. Precious few White Christian Anglophone American poets in the '20s and '30s had the testicular fortitude to write, as many of their progressive Yiddish contemporaries could and did, of their שוואַרצע ברידער shvartse brider "black brothers." 

Grand Central Station By Night
By Yosl Greenspan
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Out- in the silences of night
In the calm of the cut marble-
A black labor dance.

My black brothers,
Just as once
They couldn't even own themselves,
Under the flames of an estranging sun
In the Southern cotton fields,
Now they wander an exodic field 
That sparkles with White hardness.

My black brothers
In a cage where white columnar giants
Hold high the master's graven white image in silence,
Now they crawl around
And spread bronzed arms,
Grudgingly kneeling unto the marble,
Humming to the night
Chanting a black labor song.

My black brothers
With buckets and towels,
With brushes and brooms
Play into the night
A march to the morrow's red dawn.

The Original:

בײַ נאַכט אין גרענד סענטראַל סטעשן
יוסל גרינשפאַן

שוואַרצע ברידער מײַנע
טאַנצן אויס אין דער שטילקײַט פֿון דער נאַכט,
אין דער רוינקײַט פֿונ מירמעלשטיין.
אַ טאַנץ פֿון שוואַרצער אַרבעט.

שוואַרצע ברידער מײַנע–
ווי אַמאָל,
ווען זיי האָבן ניט צו זיך געהערט,
אונטער פֿלאַמען פֿון אַן אָפּפֿרעמדענדיקער זון
אויף  דרוםדיקע באַוולפֿעלדער–
וואָגלען איצט יציאהדיק אַרום
איבער אַ פעלד, וואָס גלאַנצט מיט ווײַסער האַרטקייט.

שוואַרצע ברידער מײַנע–
אין אַ שטײַג, וווּ ווײַסע קאָלאָנען–רוזן
שווײַגן אויס אַ שטאָלץ צום קאַלטן אליל מסכה פון ווייסע האַרן
קריכן זיי איצט אום;
און שפּרייטן הענט באַקופּערטע;
און קניען ומגערן דאָ צום מירמלשטיין;
און פּרעפּלען אויס אין נאַכט אַרײַן
אַ ליד פֿון שוואַרצער אַרבעט.

שוואַרצע ברידער מײַנע–
מיט עמער און מיט האַנטיכער, 
מיט באַרשטן און מיט בעזימער– 
שפּילן אויס אין נאַכט אַרײַן
אַ מאַרש צום רויטן מאָרגן.

1 comment:

  1. " an exodic field "

    That truly was the time of the great migration. Methinks many a soul would appreciate your work.


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