Bialik: On Going Back (From Hebrew)

On Coming Back
Haim Nachman Bialik
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Again I see: a wizened man,
His shriveled features cramped with stricture,
A shadow of dry straw, a leaf
Drifting, sifting over scripture.

Again I see: a wizened woman
Yarning, darning up a stocking
Mouth still full of oaths and curses,
Lips ever moving, semi-talking.

As ever there in his old spot
By the stove still sleeps our cat
Dreaming up a visionary
Treaty with the mouse and rat.

As ever there in darkness spreads
The webbing of the spinning spider
Full of turgid fly cadavers,
In that corner, ever wider.

You've not changed from olden ways
And days. No news here. Nothing novel.
Let me join you, brothers. Let us
Rot till we stink up this hovel.

Audio of me reciting this poem in Hebrew

In the audio recording, I've used an approximation of northeastern Ashkenazic pronunciation in reading the Hebrew, complete with some features that were later stigmatized and didn't make it into "Standard Ashkenazic." To wit, the merger of שׁ with ת/שׂ/ס as /s/ (reflective of the sabosdiker losn of coterritorial Yiddish) and the merger of ḥolem with ṣere as /eɪ/. Bialik's rhymes (which, it must be remembered, were not always meant to be exact) do sometimes reflect Litvish Ashkenazic. He himself occasionally rhymes ḥolem with ṣere (for example אֵבוֹשָׁה/אֲבַקֵּשָׁה ,סַלּוֹתִי/מִלֵּאתִי, זֹרֵעַ/הַגָבֹהַּ) though rarely enough to give the impression that he tried to avoid doing so if possible. He also uses puns that imply that such a pronunciation was what he heard in his head.
In this poem, there is furthermore a case of שׁ interrhymed with general Ashkenazic /s/. It may simply be that עַכָּבִישׁ was difficult to find a suitable exact rhyme for, and so he used an approximate one, and didn't intend this to be reflective of the speech of the poem's speaker. But a "deep" Litvish pronunciation seemed to me to be well-suited to this particular poem's theme and mood of being stuck in a decaying past.

Notes on the Hebrew

Title. The noun tšúvo means not only "return, recursion" but also "repentance."

S1. The poet is back once again. Confronting the past which he can neither escape nor truly inhabit. He is "face to face" with it. The words "before me" are literally "to my face" in Hebrew. The old graybeard is like a twitching leaf, he is nod vono "moving and shifting" a reversal of the phrase no vo-nod from Samuel. Moving al gábey sfórim literally "on the backs of books" in this context calls to mind one who is wandering "on the back of the earth." For example, the supplication of Yehuda Halevi recited in the Sephardic liturgy the morning of Yom Kippur: כְּגֵר תּוֹשָׁב אֲנִי עַל גַּב אֲדָמָה וְאוּלָם כִּי בְּבִטְנָהּ נַחֲלָתִי "I am as a traveling foreigner over the back of the earth, but in her belly is my estate."

S3. The word חֹזֶה xoyze normally means "seer, prophet" in Biblical Hebrew. The passage where it means "treaty, pact" is Isaiah 28:15, reporting the the words of the scoffers who think that they will be spared when the scourge comes. It makes Bialik's line sound particularly pointed and ironic:
כָּרַתְנוּ בְרִית אֶת-מָוֶת, וְעִם-שְׁאוֹל, עָשִׂינוּ חֹזֶה;.... כִּי שַׂמְנוּ כָזָב מַחְסֵנוּ וּבַשֶּׁקֶר נִסְתָּרְנוּ
We have made a covenant with death, struck a pact with the netherworld....for we have made lies our refuge, hidden ourselves in deception.

S5. Note the rootplay in אבֹא, אַחַי óvoy áxay "I will come, my brothers" where the consonants of אבא suggest fathers as well.

The Original:


שׁוּב לְפָנַי: זָקֵן בָּלֶה,
פָּנִים צֹמְקִים וּמְצֹרָרִים,
צֵל קַשׁ יָבֵשׁ, נָד כְּעָלֶה,
נָד וָנָע עַל-גַּבֵּי סְפָרִים.

שׁוּב לְפָנַי: זְקֵנָה בָלָה,
אֹרְגָה, סֹרְגָה פֻזְמְקָאוֹת,
פִּיהָ מָלֵא אָלָה, קְלָלָה,
וּשְׂפָתֶיהָ תָּמִיד נָעוֹת.

וּכְמֵאָז לֹא מָשׁ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ
חֲתוּל בֵּיתֵנוּ – עוֹדוֹ הֹזֶה
בֵּין כִּירַיִם, וּבַחֲלוֹמוֹ
עִם-עַכְבָּרִים יַעַשׂ חֹזֶה.

וּכְמֵאָז בָּאֹפֶל מְתוּחִים
קוּרֵי אֶרֶג הָעַכָּבִישׁ
מְלֵאֵי פִּגְרֵי זְבוּבִים נְפוּחִים
שָׁם בַּזָּוִית הַמַּעֲרָבִית...

לֹא שֻׁנֵּיתֶם מִקַּדְמַתְכֶם,
יָשָׁן נוֹשָׁן, אֵין חֲדָשָׁה; –
אבֹא, אַחַי, בְּחֶבְרַתְכֶם!
יַחְדָּו נִרְקַב עַד-נִבְאָשָׁה!

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