Review by Annie Rutherford
A Zionist who came to fear the establishment of Israel, and a German-born Jew who watched the turbulent happenings of his native country from afar: Gershom Scholem’s life (1897-1982) was intertwined with some of the most dramatic upheavals of the twentieth century. The founder of the modern study of Kabbalah, Scholem was also very much part of the web of thinkers who so influenced philosophy in the twentieth century: a friend to Leo Strauss, a harsh critic of Hannah Arendt and treasuring a close but sometimes bitter relationship with Walter Benjamin.
I’ll be honest: if you have little knowledge of the critical thinkers loosely connected with the Frankfurt School, and no interest in either the Kabbalah, or the developments of Zionism in the twentieth century, then Greetings from Angelus (archipelago books, 2018, tr. Richard Sieburth) probably isn’t the poetry book for you. An understanding of Scholem’s context is absolutely necessary for an appreciation of this recently re-issued dual-language collection.
This stems from the fact that, while he was a prolific writer of essays and articles, Scholem never penned poetry for publication. Instead, he continued (perhaps unwillingly, given his ambivalent relationship with the country of his birth) a tradition of the German bourgeoisie: that of private verse. The bulk of the poems in the collection (selected and published posthumously) were written in dialogue with the work of Scholem’s friend, mentor and nemesis, Walter Benjamin. The remainder, often written for and gifted to friends, respond to specific encounters and occasions, sometimes political but more often personal.
Scholem’s poetry is (with rare exceptions) almost stubbornly archaic in form; the collection is peppered with sonnets, as well as with poems in common metre with (in the German) strict ABAB and ABBA rhyme forms. This insistent adherence to form isn’t to everyone’s taste, and it can occasionally be unfortunate, rather detracting, for the modern reader at least, from the solemnity of the topic of the 1967 poem ‘To Ingeborg Bachmann, after her visit to the ghetto of Rome’:
It is the oldest of those tidings
which we read in the prophets’ words.
We Jews have always remembered this news,
though the price we paid has been absurd.
Nonetheless, Scholem’s use of form offers a glimpse into the world which shaped him and which he rejected: that of the German Bildungsbürgertum. In a society in which high culture was a prized status symbol, it is hardly surprising that young men were well-schooled in the art of writing sonnets.
The strict use of rhyme and metre poses interesting challenges for the translator. The problematics of, on occasion, having to choose between content and form are secondary to the fact that the rhyme schemes and common metre Scholem frequently uses were already old-fashioned at the time of Scholem’s writing and are even more so now. As a result, their implementation, unless skilfully and sensitively executed, tends to draw attention to itself, distracting the reader from the content of the lines.
The translator Richard Sieburth navigates this danger carefully. In ‘To Me or Her?’, he abandons the original rhyme scheme almost entirely, weaving in rhymes and half-rhymes only occasionally – a slightly less than satisfactory solution: I couldn’t help wishing the translation had been brave enough to move away from rhyme entirely. Elsewhere, however, Sieburth’s solutions are enviously elegant. The collection’s title poem, for example, transposes a rigid ABAB rhyme scheme into a gentle ABCB:
In my heart stands the town
where God sent me to dwell.
The angel who bears this sign
falls not beneath its spell.
Meanwhile, in ‘Jerusalem (Summer 1948)’ Sieburth translates Scholem’s strict rhymes into slant rhymes, thus echoing the original without allowing the form to dominate the poem:
Nights, when the sandstone walls, baked
all day, now release their gathered heat
onto the city’s fitful summer sleep,
wafting up to where weapons lie in wait
After Scholem’s more mystical and personal poems, the sensory evocation in this piece is refreshing. The imagery of the poem neatly, and tragically, replicates the twin faces of the city, the way in which religious heritage is tied to the region’s bloody present, with bells ringing ‘from monastery towers, / chiming in on gunfire from the front.’ Given the continuation of the Israel/Palestine conflict sixty years on, the poem remains uncomfortably relevant.
‘Jerusalem (Summer 1948)’ presents – along with ‘Encounter with Zion and the World (The Decline)’ – one of the more fascinating elements of Scholem’s life and thought. Scholem emigrated to Palestine in 1923, where he remained an ardent but conflicted Zionist. As tensions in the region escalated, he was increasingly wary of the rise of militancy among Jews. Concerned by the role of faith in the growth of nationalism, he commented in a letter to the Austrian-born Israeli philosopher Martin Buber (quoted in the collection’s annotations):
We have to realize that our interpretation of Zionism does no good if someday (and there is no mistaking the fact that the decisive hour has come) the face of Zionism, even that which is only turned inward, should prove to be a Medusa.
Against this solemn backdrop, as well as the melancholy and ponderousness of many of Scholem’s poems, the collection’s longest piece, ‘The Official Abecedarium of The Faculty of Philosophy of The State University of Muri’, comes rather as a surprise. The ‘State University of Muri’ was an in-joke between the young Scholem and Benjamin, and the poem is dedicated to the latter, as rector of this imaginary institute. Poking fun at the heavyweights of the canon, from ‘old Aristotle’ to Zeller and Zeno, this is Scholem at his most playful. The mischievousness seems to be catching – it’s evident how much fun Sieburth had with the English. The rhythm is fast and punchy, and where a joke has to be sacrificed to the rhyme or meter, the tongue-in-cheek tone is compensated for elsewhere. I couldn’t help laughing at the incongruousness of:
Metaphysics and number theory
Made Ernst Mach extremely leery.
Despite their striking differences, ‘The Official Abecedarium of The Faculty of Philosophy of The State University of Muri’ and ‘Jerusalem (Summer 1948)’ stand out in the collection as texts which can be amply appreciated for their poetry, whether comic or tragic, rather than simply for their historical and academic interest. Given the lengthy (and unfortunately pompous) introduction, the thoughtful translator’s note and the copious annotations to the poems, the collection’s editors seem to have, rightly, recognised that Greetings from Angelus will be of most interest to readers who already have some knowledge of Gershom Scholem’s (or at least Walter Benjamin’s) scholarly work. As Steven Wasserström acknowledges in his introduction, this isn’t necessarily the work of a great poet. It does, however, offer a fascinating insight into a history more often written in prose.
Annie Rutherford is the Programme Co-ordinator of StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. She also writes, edits and translates. Her translation of Nora Gomringer’s poetry, Hydra’s Heads, is due out in August 2018.