- Fully Loaded: The Poetry of Celia Dropkin
Celia Dropkin’s poems are erotically frank and emotionally unabashed, deeply engendered, relentlessly truthful. Like songs, they are terse and musical and carefully constructed to explode with maximum impact. They reveal the relationships between women and men in a way that was unprecedented in Yiddish literature. Although they were mostly written in the 1920s and 1930s, they feel utterly contemporary, which is why we are just now catching up with her. It took us this long to follow the bright light in her poems. Now, after a decade of work by her translators, Dropkin’s poems will be published this year in a bilingual edition, The Acrobat: The Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin.
Dropkin is sometimes associated with the first full-fledged modernist Yiddish poets, a group who named themselves Di Inzikhistn, or The Introspectivists. Such figures as Jacob Glatstein, Aron Glantz-Leyeles, and N. B. Minkov turned Yiddish poetry away from its collectivist concerns into an expression of individual life. They rejected the working-class engagements and socialist ethos of the “sweatshop” or “labor” poets. Stylistically, they carried Yiddish poetry into the twentieth century. “The world exists and we are part of it,” they wrote in the Introspectivist manifesto: “But for us, the world exists only as it is mirrored in us, as it touches us. The world is a nonexistent category, a lie, if it is not related to us.”
Dropkin’s taut free-verse poems shared the Introspectivist agenda for an intimate, experiential, embodied poetry, which rejected symbolic formalisms, but they were even more radically personal, edgier and more unbridled. In 1935, she self-published In heysn vint (In the Hot Wind), the only book to appear in her lifetime, and the few who bothered to review it mostly criticized her erotic sensibility, her outpouring of feeling, the idea that “even her illusions can’t get away from her body—her body won’t let up.” Those who noticed and sometimes admired her work often missed the conscious craft in her poems, which are not diary entries but fully formed objects, well-made lyrics. Her poems are not mini-autobiographies; indeed, one gets a skewed sense of biography from her work. For example, she was by all accounts stably married for more than thirty years—she and her husband had six children together—but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from her poems. The voice in her lyrics is a construct, a representative, what Emily Dickinson calls a “supposed person.” At times she reminds me of some other ferocious female makers, such as Anna Swir or Alfonsina Storni or Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote that the reason there cannot be “too much” of the lyric is because the lyric is itself the “too much.”
It’s true that Dropkin writes out of a woman’s body. She enters poetry as a forthright lover, a subversive agent of love, not an object of desire, a passive beloved. She is voracious and suggests that all of her widowed mother’s concealed longings transferred themselves to her: “And now her holy, / latent lust, spurts frankly from me.” She is both a feverish lover and a caring mother, and the roles don’t always [End Page 106] sit comfortably together. How ruefully she acknowledges the physical consequences of pregnancy: “What reconstructed my limbs to be so ugly / and sucks my marrow and sucks my blood / and bores through my breasts?” She needs the healing powers of nature, and yet there is always a snake in her garden, something sucking her under. She writes out of her own conflicts, her insatiable desires, her visionary needs: “My baby was calling to me,” she confesses in “In Sullivan County,” “But I was welded to the mountain, / and for a long time sorrow swung around me / and for a long time the baby cried and called out / until the valley heard my steps again.”
Dropkin takes the stance of a doomed, rebellious singer—she wrote lullabies that wound—and courted extremity. She speaks as an acrobat who secretly longs to fall, a woman whose heart is eaten by worms (“and that fat worm—passion...