Commentary Magazine


Harshber the Coal Heaver

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Moshe Leib Halperin is being celebrated this year. One of the earliest Yiddish poets in America, Halperin lived in poverty, working in the needle industry in New York City. The present poem was translated from the Yiddish by Jacob Sloan.

_____________

 

And Harshber the coal heaver spread his
two black heavy hands and to the pale young
knight who stood oposite him bowing
said
that he was tired and could on no account
come to the wedding.
But when the pale young knight repeated
again and again:
Didn’t he know what the king would say?
And didn’t he know the king would be angry?
And didn’t he know the wedding would be no wedding
without him
the most honored guest of all?
And the princess bride? Did she deserve
so cruel a blow? And she would cry, piteously cry. . . .
—It was all true all true—Harshber the coal heaver
agreed, but—(and here he spread again
his two black heavy hands)—he could not!
First he simply wasn’t in the mood.
And then the king surely knew quite well
how hard he worked and how
tired he was.

Bowing once again, the pale young knight,
seven times running in fact, and with a
wave of his hand seen only among such folk,
and a smile bright as the light of seven suns,
informed the coal heaver
Harshber that an equipage was outside
waiting for him with four pairs of horses,
the king’s own, and his very body servant.

Then Harshber the coal heaver, seeing
how closely this concerned the king,
could not shame him, and was left
standing with lowered head considering
to himself whether to go or whether
not to go.
First, when he felt his eyes sticking,
it seemed he ought not to go.
But when he remembered how the princess
bride would cry, it seemed he ought to go.
Still, when he remembered that tomorrow was
another day, when he must climb
to his feet before the cock would crow,
it seemed certain he ought not to go.
Yet when he thought about the equipage
waiting for him and with the king’s
very body servant, he perceived,
come thunder or lightning he could not
escape this wedding.

So he lifted his head, and
sighing straight into the pale young knight’s
face, with both black heavy hands
folded on the jerkin on his chest,
promised he would come—he was just
going to change.
And with heavy careful steps, as was his way
at night when Harshber the coal heaver
was tired, he dragged himself away
to the dark corner where his few rags
lay upon the ground, and even before
he had pulled the second shoe off his foot,
he was lying
with both black heavy hands underneath
his head, beard pointing up,
and sleeping
as heartily and loudly as though
he had never in his life
promised the king.

_____________

 

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