Eliahu Toker según Jewish Writers of Latin America. A Dictionary
Editado por Darrel B. Lockhart
Garland Publishing , Inc. New York and London, 1997

Eliahu Toker, Argentine poet, translator, and architect, has produced an astonishingly diverse body of work. In addition to penning five volumes of poetry, he has compiled and translated numerous collections of poetry from Yiddish into Spanish, written essays on everything from Jewish spiritual resistance to the poetics of petty things, edited various literary magazines, and designed and constructed several edifices in and around Buenos Aires.

Toker was born and raised in the barrio del Once, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood located a few blocks from downtown Buenos Aires. From a very early age, Toker was acutely sensitive to the differences of the Yiddish and Spanish languages. For the young Toker, Yiddish was his first language, the mother tongue, the language that surrounded and sustained him. COnversely, Spanish was the other tongue; it was public and what was spoken on the outside, in the city, in school. But as a young poet struggling to find his own voice, Toker would learn to cultivate his dual linguistic and cultural roots, nourished from Yiddish literature as well as Spanish and Latin American literature. It was his seminal cross readigns of, among others, the prophets Amos and Isaiah, and Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), and Pablo Neruda (1904-73) that would sow, as Toker calls it, a harvest of five collections of poetry: Piedra de par en par (Wide Open Stone; 1972), Lejaim (To Life; 1974), Homenaje a Abraxas (Homage to Abraxas; 1980), La caja del amor (Box of Love; 1986), and Papá, Mamá y otras ciudades (Papa, Momma and Other Cities; 1988).

In a general sense, Toker’s literary project is, to appropiate a term of his, one of transcreation. In addition to five collections of poetry, he has translated and compiled anthologies of Yiddish poetry, including El resplandor de la palabra judía: antología de la poesía ídish del siglo XX (Splendor of the Jewish Word: Anthology of 20ht Century Yiddish Poetry; 1981) and Poesía de Avrom Sútzkever (The Poetry of Avrom Sutzkever; 1983). For Toker, writing poetry and translating poetry are two paths that do not fork, but rather twin, and quite often tangle. He has described both experiences similarly as violent and affectionate struggles with the word, much like Jacob wrestling with the angel.

For Toker, a poem is the product of a somatic reaction, an urge and a surge sparked by a glimmer in the darkness and the mystery that constitute the poet. The process is akin to a wakeful dreaming, a sober drunkfest where words and images spill forth. In this stage, the pen becomes an extension of the arm, the body. And the poet, in a strange doubling, observes himself writing. But writing a poem is a dual process as well; part intuition and part craft, poetry for Toker becomes an exercise in montage, in construction. To recapture that initial coruscation, the poet tweaks and prunes, polishes and smooths out the text to the point of verbal translucence, and even of verbal transparency. For Toker, as he writes in “Entretanto” (Meanwhile [Lejaim], the ideal poem is replete with windows where the reader can peek in and where the poet’s emotions can filter out.

If for Toker to write is translight, then to translate is to transplant. To translate a poem is for the translator to take a poetic text soaking in the amniotic liquids of another culture and language, plunge his hands into the poem’s entrails, extricate them and reconfigure them in the host language. But like the act of writing poetry, to translate poetry entails a loss, in this case of the original poem’s initial ambiguities and richness. But the transmuted text is newly incorporated, submerged in linguistic and cultural liquids and thus acquiring another life in another context.

The act of translation for Toker has a vital consequence. Yiddish is a deterriotorialized language sopoken by a fractured minority. It is a language that is not dead, but dying out. Yiddish, Toker’s visceral language, the language of tradition, then, gets translated into Spanish, Toker’s creative language, the language of traduction. In effect, to translate is to share the mother tongue, in this case Yiddish, a language that has remained largely unknown and undiscovered, at least in the Spanish-speaking world. One might say, then, that for Toker, to translate is to transloot, to untrove the encrusted poetic gems of the Yiddish language, to pour what he calls the poetic treasures of Jewish culture into the Spanish language.

While Toker’s poetry shades from the quotidian (“Las manos de mi padre”; [My Father’s Hands [Papá, Mamá y otras ciudades]), to the reflexive (“Poemas de borrador” [Poems in the Rough [Papá, Mamá]), to the erotic (La caja del amor), to the historically concrete (“25 de mayo de 1973” [25 of May, 1973 [Lejaim]), his poetry is generally one of introspection and retrospection. In effect, one of the antimonies that his poetry cultivates is the contradiction of what it means for him to be “born abroad” in Israel and to live “exiled among friends” in his native Buenos Aires. But in Toker’s case the line of exile is not altogether clear: Toker was born in Argentina and never left Argentina. His uprooting, then, is not necessarily a topographical one, but an existencial one. As one critic has put it, Toker’s existential state is not exile, but dual exile: exiled from a familial past he never really knew and an inner exile in his native Buenos Aires, where he happens to feel like a stranger (cf. Goldberg, “The Complex Roses”).

Consequently, many of Toker’s poems are spatially all over the map, so to speak. The are, in effect, atopias that shift between an allá (Israel) and an acá (Buenos Aires). Structurally, Toker’s poems seek to pour foundations, to lay down and cultivate his Jewish roots, however ramified they may be. His poems are essentially houses of words that might resemble that imaginary house in Piedra de par en par, one which he should like to erect in another continent as an ideal solution to erase the line of exile. Indeed, reading Toker’s poems one finds that his architecture privileges intimate spaces: patios, bedrooms, doors, porches, portals and windows open both ways; walls and dusty books and old photo albums limn thresholds to a past, one which has been burnished in history, obscured in forgetfulness amd om tje swales of memory.

But it is these intimate and insular spaces that serve as bulwarks against the brutal exterior, usually represented in the form of the city. Unlike the warm confines of his family’s house, or the immutable walls that bounded his childhood, the city immures him in chaos, tragedy and isolation. In “Buenos Aires” (Papá, Mamá), for example, the poet knows a lot about the city; he walks the streets, but nevertheless he feels foreign (ajeno). The speaker is, to use Toker’s own neologism, an espectagonista (part spectator, part protagonist). To live in Buenos Aires, he writes, must be something different than what he is doing. In “Agosto de 1972” (August 1972 [Lejaim]), Buenos Aires is agitated, peopled with evaporating hands, fleeting faces, and pummeled bodies beind dragged down the streets. It is the city where the poet’s dreams and nightmares take place, where familiar street corners of his childhood have receded into photo albums, where the city is either a crumbling palimpsest of memories devoured by modernity or a very real concentration camp run by the brutal military dictatorship.

But Toker’s relationship with the city, whether it be his native Buenos Aires, or the Warsaw of his mother, or the Ratne of his father is ambivalent. In the case of his parents’ cities, the past is almost mythical, unknown to the poet although he attempts to fill in the gaps, at least topographically, by naming the streets as he talks of the need to wander down those streets of that old Jewish barrio, to pass by the house of his grandfather, or to pay a visit to Tlomatzke 13, home of the Society of Jewish Writers in Warsaw. But warm, nostalgic images melt into images of resistance and destruction. The city’s ruins throb, its buildings burn, and its steaming pavement has been trowled with screams that the new Warsaw conceals. And as in many of Toker’s poems, photographs and desiccated pages from books are the only access to this past and while they do preserve it, they also distort it, their borders effectively keeping the poet from gaining access to their patios.

In “Kadish” (Lejaim) Toker writes that everything can be explained except his existence, but nothing is explained without his existence. This existential chiasmas could very well describe Toker’s own relationship with Israel and Argentina. If one critic calls Toker’s situation an open-ended existential problem (cf. Goldberg, “The Complex Roses”), then Toker’s open-ended solution to his displacement is not a geographical one, but a graphic one. Toker’s broad writerly itinerancy seeks out points of conjuntion and disjunction between Jewish, Argentine, and Latin-American culture as manifested in ther respective literatures as well as the Yiddish and Spanish languages. In effect, text and translation bridge distance. For Toker, writing and translation, indeed the act of transcreation forms a discursive crossroads from where he can, in fact, purvey his dual roots.