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Category Archives: German Poetry

These Numbered Days by Peter Huchel translation Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Books)

These Numbered Days by Peter Huchel translation Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Books)

In the Editorial to the current issue (71) of Tears in the Fence I have quoted from Michael Heller’s autobiographical account of his early years, Living Root, A Memoir (S.U.N.Y. 2000) and as I look at the elegiac exactness of Peter Huchel’s poems as translated by Martyn Crucefix I am struck again by what I had read from the American poet’s concern for the “ritual forms and objects” associated with his Jewishness:

“As a child in the early nineteen forties, six or seven years old in Miami Beach, even as I sat, sunk deep in the velvet plush seats of Temple Emmanuel on Washington Avenue, feeling the rapture of the ritual occasions, I sensed I was climbing a cliff face, the very physiognomy of otherness, the pathways of memory by which I skirted the fragile edging of the present.”

Remembering his grandfather, a rabbi and teacher, he recalled how “all ceremonies were woven into one continuous chant, a swift, impelled, if muffled, music”. Heller then went on to recall his father’s more secular concern for the seriousness of each word as though he “tried to feel its exactness, like a solid object held in his mouth”.
The reason for my recalling the focus upon that exactness of particular observation was Karen Leeder’s introduction to these fine and moving new translations of Huchel’s poetry in which she refers to the German poet as being committed to the “particularity of things”:

“…he is a poet for whom every word seems to be wrested from and threatened by silence.”

Huchel’s poetry has resonances of “voices, / sent on ahead through sun and wind” and in the title poem ‘These Numbered Days’, a title taken from the Book of Isaiah, he offers us a sense of measured loss:

“and the rattling wake of leaves,
before the river
stows fog among the reeds.”

Peter Huchel is a poet “for whom every word seems to be wrested from and threatened by silence” (Leeder) and among the numbered days of an irretrievable past we are urged to put aside the very particularity which the poet’s lyric skill can magically create:

“So forget the town,
where under hibiscus trees
the mule is saddled in the morning,
its girth tightened, saddlebags full,
women gathering round the kitchen stove,
where wells slumber still in rain.
Forget the path,
stunned by the odour of philadelphus,
the narrow doorway,
where the key lies under a mat.”

Commenting upon the poem ‘The Dipper’, that water-bird which seeks its food below the surface of the pond, Karen Leeder draws our attention to the poet’s reaching down to the roots that connect the natural world with a “darker realm, of earth, death, and memory”. She salutes the translator’s powerful ability to communicate to us the fetching back of something “that will counter the misery of the moment.”
This retrieval of particularity from beneath the surface, the seeking of what is below the water, is haunted throughout these poems by the image of drowning. It is no mere chance that a poem ‘On the Death of V.W.’ (Virginia Woolf) should appear so close to one which is titled ‘Ophelia’ and that the deeply moving elegy addressed to ‘M.V.’ (the poet’s father) should open with a vanishing beneath the waves:

“He vanished—
the room is empty,
the oven cold,
the bottles crane their necks.
He left nothing behind
as if a footprint in sand,
a spill of ice in winter.”

In the introduction we are alerted to some biographical details of Peter Huchel’s life and the way in which he fell victim to the division of Germany after 1945:

“As a consequence, his writing life was pitched against the twin threats of silence and political dogma, notably during the years he spent in the former GDR, or East Germany.”

It might also be pertinent here to recall that other great writer from East Germany, Christa Wolf, whose Model Childhood brings to the surface the alarming thought that “an unused memory gets lost, ceases to exist, dissolves into nothing”. And as if to echo these words we have what Leeder heralds as one of the significant qualities of Martyn Crucefix’s abilities as a translator:

“The exquisite sound echoes in Martyn Crucefix’s translation (dipper, flowing, pick, fish, relinquish) seem to ripple through the poem like the dipper through water. Then there is the sleek reaching down through darkness, undergrowth, roots, water, stones, to the core of things to fetch up something perfect, a word.”

Ian Brinton, 16th March 2020

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

Memorial to the Future: Volker von Törne translated by Jean Boase-Beier with Anthony Vivis (Arc)

The translator’s Preface to this new Arc edition of the poems of Volker von Törne strikes an immediate note that compels one to read on:

“What first struck me about von Törne’s poems, and made me want to translate them, was their intensity…”

This intensity comes perhaps from the “weight of guilt and anger” in the poems:

“He felt personally guilty that his father had been in the SS and that he had, as a small child in the late 1930s, repeated the phrases he heard about German Nationalism, about the need for racial purity and the desire to conquer others.”

In a 1965 essay on Bertolt Brecht, ‘Commitment’, Adorno asserted that “The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting” and he went on to suggest that Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormer, must be secularized. Adorno is often quoted as saying that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz and as if plagued by the way his work seems to have become defined by that statement the essay on Brecht opens with the clear statement:

“I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature…When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.”

What makes von Törne’s work so different from any artistic reconstruction of the Holocaust is that alongside any guilt and anger there is a strong sense of longing and nostalgia – “longing for a world in which people would be able to face the evils of the past and offer atonement, and nostalgia for a time when he did not know what he knows now, at the time of writing.”
Many of these poems deal with disappearance, an irreversible emptiness, and rather than offering a nostalgic desire for return they record vanishings: smoke or dreams melted:

“Which way have the music-makers gone
And the tinkers? On what bank
Are their horses grazing now? Beneath what moon
Their violins singing?

No-one has seen them. Without a trace
Smoke in the clouds
They have gone
Away”

In a world of political reconstruction von Törne’s voice is important as not that of hands held up in guilt and shrinking horror; it is one of awareness that there is no turning back and “Not every ending is also a beginning / Colossal bridges carry streets that lead nowhere”.
In his perceptive introduction to these remarkable poems, David Wheatley raises the figure of Samuel Beckett. In a quotation from Endgame’s “anti-reconstructive response to the war” Hamm says “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on”. As Wheatley puts it “Beckett was well versed in the opening presented by the brick wall and it was Hamm who had said, earlier in Beckett’s play, “Nature has forgotten us”. The nostalgic echoes of a gone world reverberate in this empty air and ‘Summer in the Masurian Lakes’ concludes with an image that could have come from Beckett’s Play, itself an echo of Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest, itself a distant echo of Dante’s Inferno:

“Our boat
Drifts to the bank. Stay, summer,
I shout, hand
That
Holds me.”

David Wheatley also points us towards Schubert’s hauntingly famous song cycle of journeying through the cold: “With their lowering crows and wayside farmers, von Törne’s poems pursue that Germanic variant on the via dolorosa, the Winterreise.” As readers we move forwards through landscapes that are stripped-down in the manner of the Objectivist poets, “The leaves / Flood / Over the paths” and we can wonder, in Eliot’s words, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

It is these resonances that thread their path through von Törne’s ‘Thoughts in May’ as the poet recalls drinking the milk “Denied to the starving”, wearing the clothes “Stolen from my brother” and reading the books “Justifying the theft”:

“And mine was the guilt
For the loss of every life, breathing in innocence
Under the gallows-branches
Of the sweet-smelling limes”

This book was published just over a week ago and it is something to order immediately.

Ian Brinton 24th October 2017.

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