Literature professor collaborates with students and artist on poetry project

Amir Eshel teaches that art is a way to react to life’s most challenging circumstances.

When poet and Stanford Professor Amir Eshel saw a series of drawings in the studio of German artist Gerhard Richter, he had an experience many would describe as spiritual.

Graduate student Michal Leibowitz with Professor Amir Eshel

Student Michal Leibowitz, left, assisted the translation to English of Professor Amir Eshel’s new book of poetry, which he wrote in Hebrew and German. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Eshel was in Cologne, Germany to interview Richter for his forthcoming book Poetic Thinking Today (Stanford University Press, 2019). He wanted to learn more about the artist’s four-part painting series Birkenau, which commemorates the Holocaust. But their interview morphed into a deeply personal conversation when Eshel saw a set of abstract graphite images drawn by the artist. The images look almost ghostlike, with smudges of gray graphite overlaid with a wandering light and dark lines casting shadows.

For Eshel, the drawings conjured emotions of his own past and his family’s difficult experience in Europe during the Holocaust.

“Richter is almost my father’s age,” Eshel said. “While he survived the bombing of Dresden outside the city, my father was in hiding to escape the fate of so many other Jews. My grandfather was in a Nazi forced labor camp. When Richter and I talked in Cologne, I felt as if others were with us in the studio: my grandfather, my father and many others whose lives were shattered by the madness and evil that swept the world in the 1930s and 1940s. In a way, everything I do at Stanford touches on this.”

The result of this experience is Zeichnungen/רישומים (Drawings), a book that pairs Eshel’s bilingual German and Hebrew poetry with Richter’s graphite-on-paper drawings. It is Eshel’s first book of poetry and Richter’s first collaboration with a poet. Two Stanford students, Michal Leibowitz and Shoshana Olidort, assisted with the translation to English.

When Eshel first visited the internationally recognized artist in 2016, he had already written some of the poems that would appear in Zeichnungen/רישומים. He had not even considered the possibility of a collaboration. However, after seeing the 40 Tage (“40 Days”) drawings in Richter’s studio, Eshel was transfixed.

“The drawings served for me a way to freeze time, to halt what’s fleeting, to absorb the experience, and to address my anxiety that I would forget,” said Eshel, who wrote more poems after meeting Richter.

After their interview, Eshel sent his poems to Richter as a thank you, and Richter was so moved by them, and the connection that Eshel made to his 40 Tage drawings, that Richter suggested bringing the works into a conversation with one another, which eventually became their collaboration, Zeichnungen/רישומים.

Now, 25 of the 40 Tage drawings are featured in Zeichnungen/רישומים.

The art of translation

While the book was being prepared for publication in Hebrew with his own German translations, Eshel enlisted the help of two of his students to translate his poems into English. He opted not to do his own translation into English because, he said, he feels more at home in his native Hebrew and German. Michal Leibowitz, a senior pursuing a joint major in philosophy and religious studies, and Shoshana Olidort, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, translated each poem separately and Eshel merged the two versions into one.

“I believe every act of poetic translation is a creative project, but I found this especially true of translating Zeichnungen/רישומים,” said Leibowitz, who was introduced to poetic translation in Eshel’s Contemporary Hebrew and English Poetry in Translation course last spring. “Professor Eshel urged me to keep my translations loose, holding tighter to the spirit of the poems than their letter. It was both thrilling and humbling to translate with this kind of freedom – thrilling because I was able to insert something of myself into the poems, and humbling because I struggled to find English words to capture Professor Eshel’s artistry and wordplay. The project made me hyperconscious of the fact that every translation is a negotiation between the original and the new, the author’s intent and the translator’s understanding.”

Olidort, who has previously translated Yiddish and Hebrew into English, said of the experience of working on Eshel’s poems, “In a sense, I was translating a work that had already undergone multiple translations, between the German and Hebrew, and also between the visual and textual, between Richter’s drawings and Eshel’s poems. Like any translator, I had to negotiate between fidelity and freedom, between staying true to the ‘original’ and offering a rendition that could stand on its own.”

Art as a way to react to the world

Eshel, the Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies and professor of German studies and of comparative literature in the School of Humanities and Sciences, will use the book in its original languages and English translation in the winter course World War Two: Place, Loss, History that he is co-teaching with Alexander Nemerov, professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The course combines the study of literature and art to consider how World War II is remembered today through art and in other media.

Eshel sees Richter’s art in general and works such as Birkenau and 40 Tage in particular as reflecting art’s capacity to allow one to react to the world – whether it is war, political upheaval, natural disaster or climate change, he said.

“Engaging in an artistic creation of various sorts, it is as if we are saying by doing, making, creating: ‘I no longer stare at what comes at me; I can actually do something.’ Granted, this kind of doing or making is more than often not much more than experiencing a momentary relief from the shock and pain that comes with difficult challenges.”

In his role as an educator, Eshel impresses upon his students the idea that they are endowed with the ability to do, to act, to react and to make, and therefore are co-creators of the world.

Abstraktes Bild

Er hat keine Sprache
in der er
den Vogel
der jetzt
am frühen Abend
über dem Fluss schwebt
benennen kann

Er zeichnet
eine Linie
zwischen den Ufern
über dem

Dresden, den 24. September 2015

תְּמוּנָה מֻפְשֶׁטֶת

אֵין לוֹ שָׂפָה
יוּכַל לִקְרֹא
שֶׁחַגָּהּ עַתָּה
בִּשְׁעַת עֶרֶב
מֵעַל הַנָּהָר

הוּא רֹשֶׁם
בֵּין הַגָּדוֹת
בְּגוֹן סָגֹלאָפֹר

דרזדן, 24 בספטמבר 2015

Abstract Picture

He has no language
in which
he can name
the bird now hovering
in the evening
over the river

He draws
a line
between the banks
to cloudy violet

Dresden, September 24, 2015

The poem “Abstraktes Bild/תְּמוּנָה מֻפְשֶׁטֶת” by Amir Eshel was originally published in Zeichnungen/רישומים and is used with permission granted by the author and Uzi Agassi, head of Evan Hoshen Private Press. The English translation by Michal Leibowitz and Shoshana Olidort is used with their permission.