Celia Dropkin: A Poetic Voice from the Past

By Meredith Carroll, Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern

“I am an acrobat,
and I dance between daggers
erected in the ring
tips up.
My lithe body—​barely
touching the blades—​
eludes death-​by-​falling.”

So begins Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin’s “The Acrobat” (you can find the full text, along with other poems, here.) Written during the early twentieth century, Dropkin’s poem now lends its title to the first-ever English anthology of her work. The Acrobat: Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin results from the decade-long collaboration of translators Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon. And just a week from today (Wednesday, July 16th from 6:30-8:00 pm), Jones and Solomon will discuss their work at a book launch held right here at the Museum at Eldridge Street.

Like many of Eldridge Street’s original congregants, Dropkin began her life in Eastern Europe. She was born in 1887 in Bobruisk, in modern-day Belarus. She taught in Warsaw and studied in Kiev before she returned home, where in 1909 she married political activist Samuel Dropkin. Again like many Eldridge Street congregants, the new family was forced out by persecution at the hands of Russian authorities — in this case, due to Samuel’s political activism. They moved to New York City, where they eventually had six children and where Dropkin lived until her death in 1956.

A painting by Celia Dropkin, one of several she painted later in life. From http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/05/new-translations-of-experimental-yiddish-poet-celia-dropkin-published-at-jacket2/#.U72ouv4NhPc.link.

A painting by Celia Dropkin, one of several she painted later in life. From the Poetry Foundation.

All the while, Dropkin continued to write poetry. She began as early as age 10. Later, she found encouragement from mentor and close friend Uri Gnessin, a famous Hebrew writer she met in 1906 while studying in Kiev. Writing first in Russian and then in Yiddish, she published in numerous Yiddish journals and participated actively in New York’s Yiddish literary scene.In 1935, she published In Heysn Vint (In the hot wind): her first anthology and the only one to appear during her lifetime.

Dropkin may have written in the 1920s and ‘30s, but her poems still resonate — and even provoke — today. She wrote openly about sexuality and desire, in brazen defiance of traditional Yiddish women’s poetry. Such themes often commingled with explorations of nature and motherhood, again unsettling readers.

Above all, early twentieth-century critics hated how her poetry turned inward, how it focused on the personal and in particular on the female. Unlike earlier Yiddish poets, Dropkin and her contemporaries (known collectively as Di Inzikhistin, or the Introspectivists) eschewed explicitly political poetry in favor of individual emotion and experience. And unlike most Introspectivists, Dropkin experienced life as a woman. In an essay on Dropkin (in the anthology Writers in Yiddish), Jones and Solomon describe some of the criticism she faced. “‘Even her illusions can’t get away from her body–her body won’t let up,’” one writer inveighed. Such complaints were often leveled at female Introspectivists. “Dropkin’s critics,” Jones and Solomon observe, “attacked her for being ‘girlish,’ self-centered, and simply recording her experiences as if in a diary or on a psychiatrist’s couch.”

Of course, the very aspects of Dropkin’s work that sparked controversy and invited scorn also spoke to experiences shared by many immigrant women. For one, Dropkin helped prove that Yiddish — long regarded as provincial, folkish — could serve as a medium for serious art. So too could the also-marginalized experiences of women, especially the tension between motherhood and sexuality. As modern-day translator Yerra Sugarman notes, Dropkin’s contemporaries and predecessors tended to see Yiddish women’s poetry as second-class: “a lesser form in a lesser language.” Dropkin helped change that perception.

Writer Celia Dropkin

Celia Dropkin. From the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Above all, Celia Dropkin’s was a world of contradictions and dual identities. Like so many of Eldridge Street’s congregants, she grew up, learned, and fell in love in Eastern Europe before being forced out by persecution. Like so many women, she saw herself as both a mother and a sexual being. In both cases, Dropkin was torn between two identities. These identity crises were particular to women and to immigrants of her era. But they also humanize Dropkin and her contemporaries, speaking to the conflicts that humans everywhere face. This, perhaps, is why her poetry feels so relevant today.

To experience some of Celia Dropkin’s poetry and hear from two of her translators, please join us next Wednesday, July 16! From 6:30 – 8:00 pm here at Eldridge Street, translators Faith Jones and Samuel Solomon will talk about and read from their new English-language anthology The Acrobat: Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin. Thanks to sponsorship from YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the event will be free — please RSVP here. 

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