Norbert Hirschhorn, To Sing Away the Darkest Days

Norbert Hirschhorn, To Sing Away the Darkest Days Poems re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs, (Holland Park Press, 2013), 124pp, £8.99. ISBN 9781907320354.

Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon [Originally published in LP1, August 2014]

Folk songs tend to address the quotidian. Daily life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, on the Russian Pale, was hard, and folksongs were a means both of expressing this hardship and of coping with it, of calling the monster by a name, to sing away the darkest days.

                                            Sha,
still, the Rebbe’s about to sing. When
he chants the holy songs, our whole

earth rings and the Devil will die.

 [‘When Our Rebbe’, p.47]

Hirschhorn is well qualified to write about suffering, and the suffering of large numbers of people, for he is an epidemiologist by profession, now retired. He also has several books of poetry to his name.

The thirty-odd poems of the present volume are based on Yiddish folk songs, hundreds of which Hirschhorn studied in rediscovering his own cultural Jewishness.  The chosen songs are given in transliteration and literal translation in the second half of the book.  I’m not sure that was entirely necessary.  Is the autobiographical act not confused by the scholarly?  I have chosen to read the poems as Hirschhorn’s own.

They reveal a civilized, liberal sensibility, concerned with inequality, but amused too by the quirks of human kind.  Underlying all however is the great existential melancholy that the Jews know better than anyone. A greater Jewish poet, Joseph Brodsky, once wrote that “the reason why a good poet speaks of his own grief with restraint is that, as regards grief, he is a Wandering Jew”*. Folk songs are not known for their restraint, but Hirschhorn’s complaints are never raucous, and they are not for his own plight, but for the pains of others.  The voices of these others he inhabits with enviable ease, employing an eclectic prosody.  There are prose poems and poems in free verse, poems that rhyme, and metrical poems that don’t rhyme. There is the song-like use of repetition and nonsense (oy-doy-do-diri-diri-tam).  The voices are those of both men and women, young and old, their terms sometimes formal, sometimes demotic.

Hey pussy cat, why such a pout?
You just checked up your pedigree?
So, what did you find out? Your daddy
greases palms at City Hall.  Your momma’s
a shoplifter.  Little brother fixes ball games,
and sister’s run off with a grafter.
­ ­ ­ ­ ­Uh huh.

[‘A Punter’s Lament’, p. 31]

 There are poems with two voices, asked and asker:

…who will save you
when our foes hear your singing?
­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­­When inquisitors come to seize me
­ ­ ­­I will drown them in my song.

[‘Cave Song’, p. 17]

Hirschhorn, writing in English, is as happy to place his characters in Leicester Square as in Union Square.  These occasional references pull the English-language reader back into the ambit of the poems as a whole: we are not allowed to lose ourselves in eastern Europe or Czarist Russia. The gentile reader recognizes universal themes: the pains and joys of motherhood, life-changing decisions, oppression, sisterhood, teaching, working, aspiration, wealth and poverty, exile, and the imperishable ability to keep dreaming of a better life.

just a wee nip to keep that
­ ­ ­fragrance, l’khayim, on your lips; one
­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­last nip, l’khayim, for what
­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­we always dream of.

 [‘To Life!’ p. 49]

 Norbert Hirschhorn has pulled off a kind of transformative magic in this collection.  The lyrics of songs, of prayer, learned in childhood, are more often remembered as sounds than as words.  The reason lies partly in the communality of the act of singing or chanting.  One is driven along by a collective noise.  It is one of singing’s pleasures.  What reader has not grown up unsure as to the correct words of, say, Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’, while knowing with utter confidence the correct sounds?

In these “re-imaginings” Hirschhorn has turned songs to poems without sacrificing their communal power, and has found a way of relating common experience without slipping into cliché, and has furthermore reminded us that art is almost as vital to humanity as a woollen coat in winter.

Now nothing’s of use to me, except this little song.

 [‘A Tailor’s Song’, p. 55]

* Joseph Brodsky,‘The Keening Muse’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, (Viking, 1986), p. 38.

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