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
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:
Drifts to the bank. Stay, summer,
I shout, hand
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.