from Ursula Le Guin’s 1983 commencement address at Mills College:
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
Once you have washed the dead you cannot unwash
the knowing — how scars, decades old, grow dull but don’t
grow soft how ports and catheters leak and seep how liquids clear or
cloudy or yellow may be discarded but liquids red or pink are part
of the life of the body and must be added to the bag for burial, a myth
I do not believe About the resurrection of the body shaping a ritual
I faithfully follow which is hardly a contradiction for what of death
is rational? What brain can comprehend the moment
of its own end?
In the basement of this funeral home on this table where we
operate the question of life or death has been resolved so we
who never have to hold out hope can know surgery for the trauma
to the body that it is and worry only about how to clean up in its
bloody weeping seeping stitched up wake. Which bandages do we
dare remove which tape can be untaped which stitches must we
the Washers not wash for fear of what might flow?
Yet what we do now is so barely different, in the basement
of death or death decisions. We study the body what it can take
and what it cannot. Our judgments follow preserving only the body’s
dignity, a luxury of our location in the American production line between healthy and dead. And after we wash and dry and bless
we dress the body in white linen garments, clothes
whose seams are loosely stitched for they will never have to hold
up to the stresses of serving the living, pants with leg
bottoms sewn shut, with a belt of fragile fraying cloth tied
in a knot so loose a single breath in and out would be
its undoing, a shirt so large and open so low it refuses to hide
the violent slice down the length of this chest,
still flecked with blood, too delicate to wash, the surgical threads loosely stitched for they will never have to hold up to
the stresses of serving the living, tied off in knots so loose
a single breath in and out would have been their undoing,
and finally the long kittle tunic, mercifully shut
so I no longer have to see the slice, the seams, the broken heart behind the fragility of the knots,
and the closing of the covering of the linen sheet, the final
bandaging of the soul, the mark of the end of our procedure.
Tahorah hi / she is pure
Tahor hu / he is pure
Tahorim / we are pure
At 12 years old it took 12 days to find
her body in the dumpster. 12 times
she’d texted him; he said he’d sell her, cheap,
new gears for her BMX bike. The details of what he did
are none of your business. Death is more than the pornography of the coroner’s
after the first commercial break of every CSI episode. What I care about is
that bike, that girl on that bike, that girl who loved
the speed and the dust and who couldn’t conceive that a boy offering parts
didn’t care about the bike, not even enough
to hide it well. She loved that bike. Is it possible she knows
he didn’t break
that her father cleaned it carefully and hung it on the pegs in her room, adorned
with her gloves and knee pads? No helmet hanging there yet;
the electric blue one she always wore on her head,
which they keep trying to force me to
What I care about is not her death,
but his. It haunts me, how he died. How her bike, tossed into
a woodchipper, became a half million splinters of steel, how I bought
a bamboo tube just long enough at the garden store, how I texted him the
a blow job—Ha!—and then gave him one, tying his wrists, ripping down his
those splinters hard into his penis, his balls and how when
the blood flowed
it occurred to me that her blood might have been also once there so how I
cut it off, how I hooked the tube to an air compressor and how the steel
so easily into his belly, his chest, his neck, his face. How I considered,
before he died,
shoving his own porcupine of a penis into his own ass, but didn’t because
I couldn’t figure out the logistics of its limpness.
What I care about is how this doesn’t bring her back and how now her bike
is gone, too. She loved that bike. In those long 12 days I painted this picture of
to show the cops, to show the media, to drag her safely back home to me
each brush stroke. I painted this picture, and I shoved it in his face and I let his
rush down onto it and I saw what I had made and I pronounced it good, on the
and the morning
of the 13th day.
New Year Resolve
The time has come
To stop allowing the clutter
To clutter my mind
Like dirty snow,
Shove it off and find
Clear time, clear water.
Time for a change,
Let silence in like a cat
Who has sat at my door
Neither wild nor strange
Hoping for food from my store
And shivering on the mat.
Let silence in.
She will rarely speak or mew,
She will sleep on my bed
And all I have ever been
Either false or true
Will live again in my head.
For it is now or not
As old age silts the stream,
To shove away the clutter,
To untie every knot,
To take the time to dream,
To come back to still water.
“New Year Resolve” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton & Co., 1993.
As I’ve been doing final (for now) edits on my translations of Shez’s poems, I keep feeling a kind of haunting—some of her words could be my own; I could definitely interweave the translations and my poems into a single, unified text. Sometimes I even dream about having my work translated into Hebrew and then doing a combined work in both languages, of letting our voices flow together like that.
The project, after all, is definitely the same—to replace the silence of the terrified girl with words that are strong, forceful, even violent enough to break the choke hold that sexual terrorism imposed on her. Which is why, even as I struggle with most of the subtleties of her Hebrew, I understand the poems, feel them deeply inside of myself, and know how to give them new voice in English.
With this always in my thoughts these days, I started reading Edith Grossman’s why translation matters, and came upon this quotation from a letter William Carlos Williams wrote to Nicolas Calas:
If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?
There is a silence that must be ended. At the end of my long sequence of poems called “Wanting a Gun” I declare: “I am writing, writing, writing.” In a poem addressed to her father, Shez declares, “You will not erase me off the page.”
The difference that is made is that now I know Shez. And soon all of you can know her, too. And hey, my hard work has made that difference. Rare enough that I let myself celebrate my own work, but today, after a couple of weeks of being trapped in some dank and musty emotional cave, I’m feeling celebratory.
more translating work. There’s an earlier version of this, from when I started in May. I’ve learned a lot in the last few months, and know I have still have so much more to learn. So “Yeah!” for step 2, knowing there’ll be plenty more steps to celebrate along the way…
כְּשֶׁיַּגִּיּעַ יוֹם הַדִּין לָאָבוֹת הָאוֹנְסִים
לֹא תַּגִּידוּ אַף מִלָּה
סוֹפְסוֹף תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּשֶׁקֶט
וְתִתְּנוּ מָקוֹם לְזַוְעוֹת בְּכְיָהּ שֶׁל הַיַּלְדָּה
אֲבָל עַד שֶׁיַּגִּיעַ יוֹם הַדִּין תַּמְשִׁיכוּ לִסְתֹּם לי אֶת הַפֶּה
וּלְחַיֵּךְ אֵלַי בְּנִימוּס
לֹא תַּדְפִּיסוּ אֶת הַשִׁירים שֶׁלִּי בִּמְקוֹמוֹתֵיכֶם
וְתַמְשִׁיכוּ עִם תֵּרוּצֵי סִפְרוּת.
Shez Dance of the Lunatic page 86
translated by Elliott batTzedek
July 8 2011
When the day of judgment arrives, none of you—you fathers who rape—
will say even one word
finally you will sit, your silence
making at last the place where the terrorized girl can weep
but until that day of judgment, you’ll continue gagging me,
you’ll go on smiling graciously,
you’ll refuse to allow my words to be printed
anywhere you are
you’ll go on with the alibi of literary value
I’m working on an MFA in poetry in translation. My translation project is a book of poems by an Israeli Jewish lesbian who writes as Shez. She says of her own work that she writes about being an incest survivor, and wow, does she. Since this has been an important theme in my own work, I have some layer of callous built up such that I can focus on the language and art and not just be overwhelmed by the content, but sometimes, sometimes, what she’s written is so accurate and powerful and heartbreaking that even I stumble, have to step back and breathe.
This is one of those poems, in my most recent translation draft. I’m new at translating, and am still working on the best way to re-present the last line in English, but I think I’ve found the heart of the poem and now just have to fine tune it.
הִיטְלֶר מַשְׁחִיל פְּנִינָה רִאשׁוֹנָה מֵהַשַׁרְשֶׁרֶת
אֶל תּוֹךְ גְּרוֹנִי – אַחַר כָּךְ בָּאָה
פְּנִינָה נוֹסֶפֶת, וְעוֹד אַחַת, נָחָשׁ
לָבָן מְאֹרָךְ מִשְׁתַּחֵל פְּנִימָה.
In his love for me
Shez, translated by Elliott batTzedek
July 7 2011
In his love for me
Hitler threads the first pearl of the necklace
down my throat – the second pearl follows
then another and always another, white snake
lengthening, squeezing in
If you sit in the woods
If you sit in the woods long enough
just the earth’s breath climbing and descending
the tree trunks copper-green in morning light
just your own body warming this spot of earth
your own heart beating
And you begin, like all creatures,
to repeat yourself—
the same ragged thoughts rasping
over and over,
the same yearnings rising like the tails
of startled squirrels
None of us deserved this
None of us deserved this, but still
we’d been tried, judged, pronounced guilty.
We’d believed that sexy was a path
to power, that all those slasher movie bloodbaths
meant nothing. We’d believed that our lives
could be more than what it had taken to survive
to now, to posting an ad for sexual services
for sale on Craig’s List. Undeserved,
how our lives were as invisible as our corpses
left to rot in brush. They have her torso
but my left arm and don’t know it yet.
My skull, current-carried, now rests
between Natalee’s legs and Laci’s head
in the great barrier reef of the disposable dead.