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“I Form the Light and Create Darkness”

The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation by David R. Slavitt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau

As a child in a Protestant church, I was required by my elders to commit passages of the Bible to memory, and so it is in many Protestant churches that children become acquainted with transliterated Hebrew prosody before they know what prosody, as such, is (assuming they ever learn). Along with Mother Goose, for a child growing up in such a place and at such a time, the King James Bible was the great storehouse of the English language, the origins of the idiosyncratic way each person begins to articulate one’s sense of self and, indeed, the world. From nursery rhymes we learn association, and by extension, lyricism; from the Bible, we learn order, not just cosmological order, but the possibilities of rendering that order in language. Granted, some expressions of Hebrew prosody are lost in translation, but much of it survives, particularly those elements that manipulate grammar and syntax as opposed to the mere sounds of words. But each element, once apprehended, provides a meaningful template for the reader, whether the reader has a religious investment in the text or not.[private]

And so it is not lightly that David R. Slavitt decided to try his hand at the acrostics of the ancient Hebrew in his new translation of Lamentations, or as he asserts in the ‘Note on the Translation':

Any version in English that fails, then, to reproduce this curious trope [acrostics] has missed what I take to be an essential aspect of the text, for what we have here is not merely embellishment but a serious assertion that the language itself is speaking, that the speech is inspired, and that there is, beyond all the disaster and pain the book recounts, an intricacy and an orderly coherence the poetry affirms in a gesture that is encouraging and marvelous.

Translators of Lamentations have struggled with the acrostics issue for some time. St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate at the end of the fourth century, thought enough of the text’s acrostics to retain the initial Hebrew letter of each verse in order to convey the logic and order of the text. Jerome’s compromise became the standard for most English translations by Catholics, such as the Douai-Rheimes (completed in 1609) and the Jerusalem Bible (1966). English translations by Protestants, including the King James, have customarily omitted any reference to the acrostics within the text.

It is a daunting task, to say the least, and it leads Slavitt to make some curious choices throughout the text. At worst, working in acrostics leads a poet to pad lines by adding conspicuous, superfluous words and phrases in order to fulfill the form. Slavitt often (too often, perhaps) uses participial verb forms to start verses, some of which are rather stilted, such as the 11th verse of the first Lamentation:

Keening and sighing, her people search for crusts of bread; jewels
they trade for meat in their frailty and famine. “See, O Lord,
how far I am fallen, to what I’m reduced.”

Although they did not labor under Slavitt’s formal constraints, the translators of the Revised Standard Version rendered the same in a much more powerful, concise, and direct manner:

From the beginning of the verse that the poet forces on himself to the end, there is a general slackness in the language that detracts from the work. “Despised” (or “vile,” as the King James translators had it) is far more effective than the locution used by Slavitt. And, of course, beginning too many verses with an abundance of participles and gerunds not only withholds the main action (thus diluting the language), but also subordinates action that otherwise deserves equal attention. For example, in the third Lamentation, Slavitt translates:

The flat, declarative mode of the King James provides a glimpse of how this verse functions when its various elements are given greater grammatical order and balance:

The third Lamentation is made all the more difficult for translators seeking to retain the acrostics because it is a triple acrostic, and Slavitt gives it a go, but the language is variously slack and stilted.

Of course, some letters of the English alphabet lend themselves to Slavitt’s formal exercise better than others. Minding ones p’s and q’s when composing acrostics is difficult enough, not to mention g’s, f’s, and j’s. Slavitt’s diction in these cases is well done for the most part, although there are some choices that are far too conspicuous. For example, in the first Lamentation, he writes:

The initial word here has a neon glow about it, not just because it is first, but also because it takes part in a different world from the diction of the poem. The word appeared in English at some point in the 19th century to denote a style of boot worn by soldiers that comes above the knee. By the time the 20th century arrived, the jackboot was already an anachronism, but that didn’t stop the Nazis from gearing the Wehrmacht in the ridiculously affected footwear, and because of this association, the word is used today to evoke the spirit of fascistic, militaristic regimes. It is a clever association for Slavitt to make, linking the Babylonians to the Shoah, but the word is perhaps too jarring and incongruous given the context.

There are many instances, the foregoing examples being fairly representative, when Slavitt gets boxed in by his task, but at other times, he is able to come up with beautiful turns of phrase. For example, in the third Lamentation, Slavitt pens a finely wrought verse that is every bit as direct and powerful as the older standard translations:

There are, on balance, not enough verses in the style and manner of the one quoted above to carry poem when the language veers off into less elegant locutions. We can admire the ambition of the task at hand, yet the poem suffers greatly from its defects.

It is interesting to note that the fifth and final Lamentation is not an acrostic, and Slavitt, when freed of the burdensome task of using acrostics in his translation, chooses the more declarative mode that should have been the norm throughout the poem. Although the effectiveness of the acrostics in English is uneven from section to section, it is an interesting device when viewed together with the mournful story of the verse. To articulate and understand disaster with the orderly precision of formal devices is an affirmation for the theist and the atheist alike, a statement of God’s sovereignty as well as of man’s fortitude. Slavitt’s translation adds to the literature by its serious application of the translator’s formal concerns, but perhaps the book’s most interesting work is found in his introductory meditation to the translation.

The “intricacy and…orderly coherence” of Lamentations gives way in Slavitt’s meditation to something darker and less reliable, as issues of faith and reason are painstakingly explored and are made all the more poignant due to their placement beside the translation itself. The introductory meditation (a long poem in 21 parts) views the whole of Jewish history–from its pre-Exilic roots to the Shoah–through the lens of Tish’a b’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, the day to which many disasters in Jewish history are ascribed. The long chain of connected and semi-connected disasters, beginning with the destruction of Solomon’s temple and exile, sketch out the history of a people who have experienced “the terrible truths of God’s rough embrace.”

But where the persona of the ancient poem can confidently assert that “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases” (RSV), Slavitt’s meditation is less confident (even in his translation, the foregoing declaration was rendered by Slavitt as a question, “How can the steadfast love of the Lord come to an end?”). Clearly, given the hindsight of two millennia of Jewish history, Slavitt could not muster the confidence of the ancient prophet, let alone the theology; therefore, his decision to “match the cadences and diction of Lamentations” does seem bizarre, as he states in his preface:

I had what seemed at first the presumptuous idea of trying to match the cadences and diction of Lamentations, but in time that notion seemed less bizarre and inevitable…Having learned that voice as I translated the five chapters of the Eichah, how could I not use it to supply the historical background and offer some of my thoughts about the destruction of the Temple and the sufferings of the Exile?

It seems a stretch, when considering the meditation, to suggest that this strategy was adhered to in any thoroughgoing manner. A good deal of the text is composed of excerpts from diaries, sermons, and ancient texts, including the Jewish historian Josephus, the Pentateuch, and other Biblical books. Too often the poem’s persona sounds as if he has placed himself behind a lectern. Although there are some fine verses sprinkled throughout the poem, the sheer volume of less interesting work stifles their effect. In writing of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, Slavitt concludes Section 10:

This is a lovely passage, but takes too long in coming, as the reader must first sift through numerous verses whose main goal is to upload information, like the third verse of the same section:

We generally demand more from a line of poetry than mere information, and too often, Slavitt’s meditation offers little else. Strictly speaking, the line quoted above does maintain the flat, declarative sentences of Lamentations, but obviously, the power of the ancient text is a product of numerous effects, the structure of the lines being just one part. The pace and rhythms of Lamentations work in concert with the structure to produce a compact wallop; Slavitt’s meditation doesn’t replicate this effect, and therefore lacks the immediacy of Jeremiah. In Slavitt’s defense, his aims and conclusions in the poem are not those of the ancient prophet; what is offered is part chronicle, part meditation, but the poem still lacks inventiveness and can become dulling until it gets away from history and begins to offer material better suited to Slavitt’s poetic imagination.

The book’s best passages come when Slavitt ponders the present and his own struggles with faith and God. One can see in the composition of the meditation two very different sensibilities pulling in opposite directions, and this tug-of-war is most plain in the poem’s concluding sections. The desire to participate in the tradition of mourning is complicated by the opposite pull of the secular society of contemporary America, or as Slavitt writes at the outset of the poem:

…The destruction of the Temple? That was a very long time ago and in another country. We were Americans, upbeat, happy people, looking always on the bright side.

It is this friction between ancient and contemporary, faith and reason, that is interesting to consider. The poet attempts to harmonize the voices of the Old World and New World, but the resulting song, when compared to Lamentations, is less confident in its message. The central question that underscores this conflict, and indeed the whole poem, is posed by Slavitt in Section 13:

Just as Jeremiah’s Lamentations end with an expression of hope and a plea for mercy, Slavitt attempts to conclude his meditation with his own broken-hearted plea, but rather than contrition, there is instead a kind of forbearance, a voice hardened by the realities of Jewish history, “yearning for relief but no longer expecting it.” Slavitt begins the penultimate section of his meditation by asking,

Slavitt then quotes at length from the diary of Abraham Lewin, a Jewish resident of Warsaw during the German blitz, then the largest concentration of Jews in Europe (to comprehend the totality of the German blitz in Poland, today there are 8,000 Jews in a country of 39 million; there were 3.3 million on the eve of World War II). The diary excerpts are then followed by a brief quotation from a sermon by Warsaw resident, and contemporary of Lewin, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, stating:

…”God is not punishing the Jews in this attack, but rather, he is, himself, the object of the attack. Jewish suffering , no matter how great, is less than his. It comes not through Israel’s fault but Israel’s virtue and close ties with the almighty.”

As the excerpts from Abraham Lewin’s diary suggest, and the Rabbi’s quotation confirms, Slavitt is invoking the concept of a righteous Israel victimized by the Shoah–a people undergoing a Jobean misfortune–rather than the wayward pre-Exilic Jewish state destroyed by the Babylonians. There are, of course, whole university departments given over to studying Jewish discourse and theology growing out of the Holocaust, and Slavitt is less than definitive on the issue, responding to the Rabbi’s sermon by stating that “This is perhaps comforting, but not enough.” The structure of the poem would have us see each event in the light of the others, an unbroken chain of misfortune and persecution that was initially a divine punishment. But the God, and the relationship between Israel and God, changes during the course of the poem, as Slavitt concludes his meditation by asserting:

Less orderly, less coherent than Jeremiah, Slavitt struggles to arrive at a kind of conclusion, even if only to say We Suffer. For those who would want or expect a Jeremiah-like statement of faith, Slavitt seems to stop short on that count. There is no psalm, no contrition, and no petition to God for restoration, merely the consolation of a belief that God, too, suffers with the people of Israel.

Curiously absent from Slavitt’s chronicle and his subsequent musings is the creation of the state of Israel following World War II and how that fits into the paradigm he constructs. It would have been a challenge and an opportunity for exploration to delve into such matters, but to be fair, the poem is already too long.

David Slavitt’s translation and meditation come together to form an uncommon poetic enterprise, despite its flaws. Aside from exploring the contradictions of Jewish-American identity, David Slavitt’s introductory long poem challenges the reader to recover the less secular vestiges of covenant theology, whether Jewish or American, if only to examine the abstract Gods to whom we submit. In this context, Slavitt’s book, as books will, takes on a life of its own.[/private]

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- who has written 12 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

J. S. Renau has published poems in the Paris Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, and The Formalist. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, he currently resides in New York City.

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