As Reviewed By:
Light and Create
The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation by David R. Slavitt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
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.
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.
Keening and sighing, her people search for crusts of bread; jewels
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:
All her people groan
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:
Forgetting what happiness is, I grind my teeth on gravel and cover
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:
He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he hath covered me with ashes.
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.
Jackboots have marched in the temple where barbarous hands have
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.
Gall and wormwood are all I know, and the bitterness of a soul
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.
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:
They were dreaming, and for two millennia we have had rocks for
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:
Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by the Roman soldiers in Alexandria
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 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:
These rabbis are always looking on the bright side. That, perhaps, is
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,
Of the Shoah, what can one say? The Shoah is said to be the
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:
Our first loss was of Eden, which may be said to have figured all
In our distress, we remade our religion and ourselves, for our woe
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.