You might think that when I was searching for a poem that would reflect on the rather arcane topic of submarine warfare in World War I, for a historical exhibition I was preparing locally, I would have a bit of trouble finding one.
Fortunately, however, I had just the thing in hand - a poem from 1915 by the "lost" poet Alter Brody.
As luck would have it just at that moment I was working with Austria-based editor Hubert Kuhner to track down the works of Brody, a turn of the century Russian Jewish emigree to New York, who rose to some prominence in the early part of the 20th century as a writer before disappearing from the public's eye.
As it turned out the poem - Ballad Of The Iron Cross, by name - had been written by Brody when he was yet a precocious and talented youngster living in Brooklyn...and the poem was impactful enough that readers of as prestigious a publication as the New York Times were asking after it, in letters to the editor, years after it was published.
Not only was this interest in Brody's work noticable to the Times, but to the arch-complier of contemporary American literature of the era - Louis Untermeyer - who promptly worked up a book deal for Brody, and began to include him in the "modern poets'" collections that he edited.
Soon after that, however, the rising star of Alter Brody disappeared from America's literary firmament. Despite briefly remerging after WWII with a single noted poem, Brody all but faded into obscurity - until that his, he was rediscovered in recent years by Kuhner, an energetic and dedicated translator of poetry in Vienna, Austria.
WHO WAS ALTER BRODY?
Born in Kartushkiya-Beroza, the Ukraine, Brody (1895-1981) emigrated with his family to America at a young age to escape the Russian pogroms against Jews. The precocious young man was, by the age of 16, sufficiently conversant in American culture and literature that he was advertising his services in the New York Times as an editor or journalist.
After Brody published, with Untermeyer's help, A Family Album, a book of poetry, in 1918, he began to attract the notice of other anthologists, establish a fair reputation for his poetry, and began writing and publishing plays.
But in the early twenties, a number of forces began to come into play which pulled the rug out from his rise to attention. The first was an increasing interest in activism - both in the literary world, positioning himself in the arcane position as advocate for the continuation of Yiddish language theater and literature; and politically, writing numerous pieces in support of Soviet Russia. Additionally, however, Brody suffered increasingly from physical problems which interfered with his ability to work as a writer.
In the end, Brody virtually disappeared from the record as a literary figure from the first part of the twentieth century - with the exception of a late resurgence in collection of his work, when two separate anthologies of modern Jewish poets came out in the late 1970s.
In Iron Cross he creates a ballad based on the horrifying impact of submarine warfare on shipping on the Atlantic (An iron cross with eight sharp points,/And each one with its tale -/Each of a hundred souls I sent/In agony to hell!).
In a more mature work from the same era, he spoke out against the evil of war.
fr I AM WAR
I am a pestilence
Sweeping the world -
Hate is the root of me,
Death is the fruit of me,
Swift is my stroke;
Blood is the sign of me,
Steel is the twine of me,
Thus shall ye know me:
I am the death of Life.
I am the life of Death,
I am War!
In his introduction to Family Album, Untermeyer noted that the unifying note in Brody's work "is its definitely Semitic undertone - that queer blend of love and hate, brutality and tenderness, cynicism and faith, of a great scorn and a greater suffering. It is this Hebraic Power that makes his lines seem to leap hotly from the cold black and white the printed page. Everywhere in these pages one sees the impress of an alert and original mind, of imagination fed by strengthening fact; of sight that is sharpened by insight."
Practically any example of his poems from this period reveal this startling liveliness of Brody's writing.
Here's a passage from a long poem, almost epic in scope, entitled "Kartúshkiya-Beróza"
It is twelve years since I have been there -.
I was born there,
In the little town, by the river it all comes back to me now Reading in the newspaper:
"The Germans have seized the bridge-head at Kartüshkiya-Beróza;
The Russians are retreating in good order across the marshes.
The town is in flames."
Sweet-sounding, time-scented name
Smelling of wide-extending marshes of bay;
Smelling of cornfields;
Smelling of apple-orchards;
Smelling of cherry-trees in full blossom;
Smelling of all the pleasant recollections of my childhood Smelling of Grandmother's kitchen,
Grandmother's freshly-baked dainties,
There is an engagingly tactile quality to many of Brody's works, as in the title poem, "Family Album" where he introduces a book which is "Worn and torn by many fingers it stands on the bed-room dresser/Resting back against its single cardboard buttress,/(There were two)/The gilt clasp that bound it, loose and broken,/The beautiful Madonna on its cover, faded and pencil-marked,/And the coarse wood of its back showing through its velvet lining."
At the height of their power, Brody's works transcend the colorful detail and specificity he sought to reach for more deeply held feelings and attitudes of the author.
"The early poems were written in troubled times," notes Kuhner, an American emigre in Vienna who has translated literature and is a considerable poet himself. "The destruction of the world of his early childhood in the final pogrom broke Brody’s magnanimous heart. The poems in manuscript are powerful expressions of a Jew’s inconsolable despair."
It is Kuhner who has set about the task of turning Brody's rediscovery into a reintroduction of his work to the public. "The first poem by Alter Brody that I read was The Holy Ledger, which was on a Menard Press poem card," he recalls. "I was struck by this remarkable poem and wanted to see more. At my request, Anthony Rudolf sent me his essay, Is that Alter Brody? and a selection of his poems."
In 1980, it seems, Rudolf had co-edited an anthology of twentieth-century Jewish poets containing four-hundred poets from forty countries translated from twenty-three languages, as well as English-language poets from several countries. He had read a Brody poem in a 1974 anthology edited by Daniel Walden and found the lost writer's work to be the output of a man with "an authentic visionary quality and special tenderness. My co-editor, Howard Schwartz, and I wrote biographical notes on each and every poet," noted Rudolf. "In only one instance were we unable to track down a person." That would be Alter Brody - in the volume, his note on Alter Brody ends: “…it is not known what became of Alter Brody after World War Two.”
But Kuhner was convinced that that Brody’s work had to be collected in a new book and that he could track Brody's story down. "I contacted his son Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor at UCLA, and made my wish known to him," he says. "Daniel Mitchell was kind enough to send me photocopies of his father's complete published works, as well as his unpublished manuscripts. I read the poems assiduously and Brody found a place in my heart among the very few poets that reside there."
Now Kuhner has found a number of additional poems which Mitchell had not collected, and has prepared a manuscript of Brody's work for possible publication.
"This great poet is waiting to assume the place in American and World literature reserved for him," said Kuhner. "I have a feeling that we're going to help get him there."