While still a girl, and living in what is now Belarus, Celia Dropkin (1887-1956) wrote poetry in Russian. Only when she came to the U.S. in 1912 did she begin composing verse in Yiddish; she went on to become one of the most important American Yiddish poets of the 20th century. Shoshana Olidort has translated two poems, from a rare edition of Dropkin’s work, that are not available in the two standard collections. Herewith, the opening lines of “The Ballad of the Old Woman with the Basket and the Passengers on a Refugee Ship”:
Woven within the grayness of the sea
Absorbed within the lullaby of the sea
Absorbed within the white foam,
the silver foam
of the clouds’ white sheep—
An old, old woman
with long-loose gray hair
rocks me, rocking with such feeling
her eyes watery, blurry,
her voice a monotonous murmur.
She rocks me in a large water-basket,
she rocks me with her old hands,
she rocks and carries me far into the undulating space.
Suddenly, she wakes me: Get up, get up!
I hear in her voice a melancholic cry,
and sirens answer, like an echo.
All at once, a ship appears
and people stand quietly at the edge of the ship
and people look silently into the depths.