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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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Jargon Busters by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press)

Jargon Busters by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press)

In this remarkably powerful first collection of poems Clive Gresswell combines what Timothy Jarvis refers to on the back as “language experiments, raw humour, obscenity, keen-eyed observation” with a compelling lyricism. Jarvis connects this uncompromising world of language with that of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze quoting him as describing how the writer of potent literature will return “from what he has seen and heard with bloodshot eyes and pierced eardrums”. In an excellent book on Deleuze, Sensation, Contemporary Poetry and Deleuze, Continuum, (I reviewed this book in The Use of English, Vol. 62, Number 1,soon after it appeared in 2010) Jon Clay referred to Prynne’s 1994 sequence Her Weasels Wild Returning. Quoting from the opening poem, ‘The Stony Heart of Her’, Clay wrote about “a material force that can be felt in the mouth and in the body”:

“This is obscurely connected to the vitality of the poetry; so, too, is the fact that both the dynamism and the material feel of the language are intensified by the undeniable difficulty of understanding what the lines might be supposed to represent. This material and aesthetic prominence in the poetry causes it to stand forwards, to exist in the way that a table or a mountain exist, rather than signalling away from itself towards, or signifying, the existence of something else. This urgent, material existence impinges upon a reader’s experience.”

There are sixty-six poems packed into Gresswell’s explosive new production from Alec Newman’s The Knives Forks And Spoons Press and number 39 reflects the tone of authority which threads its way throughout the sequence:

“where plagued soldiers ovulate & sing-song
abashed among weeds infamy
to tell stranger stories inherited
dust books dishevelled plumage frightening
new regulars distance overhanging vowels
thumb & forefinger trace elopements
a trigger-happy resolution bursts out
ripples circumnavigate
stars squashed into night dust
hunted tinsel sounds a tiny
belonging questions
where this arrow fell
quivering into your habit
fresh on the ground
a flower-study of you grew chased away bitter dregs
a woman’s flesh betrayed”

Writing about Prynne, Jon Clay had asserted that the sense of authority in Weasels “is the result of an aesthetic force that is not so much accessible as undeniable”. This is authority which avoids “truth faithfully represented” but which asserts its importance in the world “forcefully claiming its own absolute”. In Gresswell’s poem the focus upon “trigger-happy” is presented visually with “thumb & forefinger” and the violence connecting shooting with sexual activity is merged as the world of soldiers and ovulation moves inexorably forward to an arrow’s destination which finds itself quivering in the dress of an innocent “fresh on the ground”. This “sing-song” recitation of “stranger stories” concludes with “a woman’s flesh betrayed”.
In the 2003 book What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari asserted that Art did not have opinions:

“Art undoes the triple organization of perceptions, affections, and opinions in order to substitute a monument composed of percepts, affects, and blocks of sensations that take the place of language. The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry, or even sing: this is the style, the tone, the language of sensations, or the foreign language within language that summons forth a people yet to come…The writer twists language, makes it vibrate, seizes hold of it, and rends it in order to wrest the percept from perceptions, the affect from affections, the sensation from opinion – in view, one hopes, of that still-missing people.”

Jon Clay referred to Prynne’s 1994 sequence in terms of its doing something aesthetically that was very powerful and recognised the significance of that aesthetic force. One little element of that aesthetic web in the Prynne sequence is the titles given to individual poems echoing those in the sequence by Ben Jonson, ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’. Jonson’s sequence of ten poems opened with ‘His Excuse for loving’, ‘How he saw her’ and ‘What hee suffered’. Prynne’s Weasels, a sequence in seven pieces, opens with ‘The Stony Heart of Her’, ‘What She Saw There’ and ‘Then So Much She Did’. Similarly in Clive Gresswell’s poem number 40 there is a sly echo perhaps of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Chalk Cross’ from Poems of The First Years of Exile. Gresswell’s world of violence and betrayal is anger spat from “scabbard” and “trapeze” that becomes “footprints meshed / in circular / nazi regalia”. This is a world in which “faces implode / meld into re-workings” and “tears of silent mothers / draw flesh/ flattering thorn”. It concludes with un trahison de putain:

“walk into my path
turn away
i mark your back
a huge red cross in lipstick”

In Brecht’s poem from those early years of Nazi betrayals a maidservant has an affair with a man from the SA who shows her how they go about catching grumblers:

“With a stump of chalk from his tunic pocket
He drew a small cross on the palm of his hand.
He told me, with that and in civvies
He’d go to the labour exchanges
Where the unemployed queue up and curse
And would curse with the rest and doing so
As a token of his approval and solidarity
Would pat anyone who cursed on the shoulder-blade,
Whereupon the marked man
White cross on his back, would be caught by the SA.”

Clive Gresswell’s first collection of poems concludes with a reference to “offshore companies” and “distinguished crowns”. In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower and housing shortages his is a voice not to be ignored. He may give the last line as

“a jester turns his back on the world”

but we would be short-sighted if we forgot the role of the “all-licensed fool”.

Ian Brinton, 7th August 2017

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