Tag Archives: Moyshe Kulbak

Moyshe Kulbak

Translator’s Note:

These are literary translations of poems 1 and 3 from Moyshe Kulbak’s sequence “Songs of a Poor Man.” The poems are rich in rhyme and the anti-hero spirit that runs through much of Kulbak’s work. Poems 2, 4, and 5 of the series are translated by Leonard Wolf in The Penguin Anthology of Yiddish Poetry. I worked with versions of the poem published in Vilna in 1929 and Buenos Aires in 1976. The spelling below reflects the 1976 version’s standardized Yiddish.


Moyshe Kubak photoMoyshe Kulbak (author) was born in 1896 in Smorgon. He moved among Minsk, Vilnius, and Berlin before settling in Minsk in 1928. He taught, translated, and composed Yiddish poetry, plays, and prose, including the long poem Vilne (1926) and the satirical Soviet novel The Zelmenyaners (vols. 1931, 1935). In 1937, he was arrested with other artists in a Stalinist purge of Jewish intellectual society. He was executed on October 29th at the age of 41.


Allison Davis (translator) is the author of the chapbook Poppy Seeds (KSU Press, 2013). These translations were possible thanks to Raya Kulbak, the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the Yiddish and English departments at Ohio State University, the Yiddish Book Center, and the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University.


from Songs of a Poor Man


At night without noise I shined
the heart to a diamond-coldness
in case a man needs to hide
in his well-known, well-worn darkness.

My bright lack will radiate
through the final, flung-open gate,
and I’ll smile with happy despair—
what I’ve had to bear and bear …


I scraped myself of selfhood
by the light of falling tears.
Oh, how good it is to have nothing
and wander here under the stars.

Who doesn’t trample his life
will never drive out strife.
I’m a bright paper here in the shade
on which God will write.

At thresholds I started digging
and struck joy in strange mud.
Oh, how good it is to have nothing
and to want none.