Willis Barnstone writes his own story in more than one place. But then he has lived in many places, always as a Jew, maybe an archaic one. And his life itself has had the awkwardness of an orphan, he notes in We Jews and Blacks; his father ("who never tried to pass [racially]") committed suicide and left the boy with "Marti," his Mexican stepmother, and "with her mother Rebeca, a Sephardi from Constantinople, who normally called [him] mancebico, young man (in Medieval Spanish)." He goes on:
The one school I applied to was Yale, and they turned me down. For the religious blank, I wrote "Quaker" [a lie.] I didn't have my brother and mother prodding me. I did it on my own. I think they turned me down because my application, the smudgy work of a fifteen-year-old, wasn't very good, not because they suspected that Barnstone [another lie] was Bernstein (meaning "amber" in German or literally "burning stone"). When I say Barnstone, and my pals in the know often kid me for having a phony name. I love the name Barnstone, as I do Willis (one lacking will). A "barn stone" is a thing in nature. And I've lived most of my adult life in a rebuilt barn, which my brother designed.
Since my father was a jeweler, importing Swiss watches, he imported, at my sister's suggestion, a watch with our own mark on it: Pierre Grange (meaning Stone Barn). They were beautiful watches that he designed, with Corbusier-like shapes, and in the last years I always quote Pierre Grange in scholarly and creative books. He's very kind to me and lets me say what I would not feel as comfortable saying myself. He also has a mind of his own and gets inspired to say aphoristic words and quotable parabraphs I'd never come upon or dream up. For my book The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory & Practice (Yale, 1995), he was unduly generous. I cited him epigraphically and in many tight spots. Conforming with proper acknowledgments, in the bibliography I had his diverse books and essays all translated from the French by a Pole living in France, Velvel Bornstein. If my grandparents had stayed on in eastern Poland until the village of Haradok was bulldozed by the Nazis and the people taken away or if I had ventured to live with my parents in Warsaw itself, I would have carried the good name of Velvel Bornstein. Soon after the war I wen to Warsaw and was taken to the ghetto by a friend, Bronislaw Zielinski. He had been in the Polish resistance, was captured by the Germans and tortured by them; later he was tortured by the postwar government as a Catholic opponent.
[here Willis Barnstone includes his dark, awkward poem: "Vevel Bornstein in the Warsaw Ghetto." The last two lines go like this. . . .]
My witness. That Jew and visitor
Is writing this. He could be me.
There were surely many joyous and fated Velvel Bornsteinns in the prewar Pale, perhaps in my own unknown and disappeared family in the village of Harodok. But was there a real Pierre Grange? "Grange" is rare in France; "La Grange" plentiful, like "Miller." My dear friend Professor Pierre Citron recently wrote, informing me that he had found just two authors in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris with the names Pierre Grange. . . . One day in those early postwar years, as we were walking through the ghetto--already elegantly rebuilt and no longer a site for Jews--Bron [i.e., Bronislaw Zielinski] told me he had experienced and seen too much raw cruelty: "I am a ruined species. The option of forgiving or forgetting is not an option. We cannot forget. My generation must die."