Marcel Broodthaer’s Poetry in English

Marcel Broodthaers was a poet before he was an artist, and two of his early collections have now been translated:

What comes across insistently in both collections is Broodthaers’s attraction to thresholds, to points of transition that equally signify ends and beginnings. He makes reference to voyages undertaken and to midday, daybreak, and other such points of passage in our experience of time. Midnight ends not in darkness but at dawn, as its concluding poem “The Morning” closes with a gift of visionary illumination: “A light filters through to me, a / light of the crests of grasses.” One of the more moving poems in the Siglio volume is simply called “Final Poem,” coming at the end of My Ogre Book, suggesting that the book’s particular journey has reached a kind of terminus:

The streets enter from all sides. Blue flies begin to circle. They cast their eyes down to the pavement. They cry out :

That it is morning

That it is war

That life is costly

That it doesn’t fail to run too fast

That a storm has come quick

That it isn’t surprising

And that one has said it well.

Telescoped here is a sense both of distilled experience and of pride: the poet has made it through, at a cost. But on the opposing page, as a kind of envoi, we’re told that the storm has subsided and “That which had been lightning / became the zigzag of my steps”—the finality of the book’s last poem has now been transmuted into new, animated movement, leading to an unknown beyond.

There’s a restlessness on display in Broodthaers’s poetry that reveals something integral about what he achieved through his career’s varied projects. The poems seem to come from a radically different place than the later visual and conceptual work, but what unites all of it is an emphasis on renewal, reinvention, moving onward in the wake of what one has brought to completion.

Gottfried Benn in English

The New Republic has a very fine essay on Gottfried Benn by Adam Thirlwell, occasioned by Michael Hofmann's recent book of English translations of Benn's poems:

The phenomenon of writers ignored, abused, cast out, disgraced, not for the disaster of their writing but the disaster of their politics, is one contribution the twentieth century has made to the history of literature. Cioran, Kipling, Gorky, you name it: the history of literature has become natty at its particular version of kashrut. We’re therefore now accustomed to the general map of literature being marked by weird absences, small oblivions, fuzzy silences. Mostly, I guess, these oblivions are now so usual that their existence is hardly noticed. Who, for instance, is exercised by the absence in their iBooks library of the German poet Gottfried Benn? And yet Benn—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale. And the reason for this absence, as usual, is not the work but the life.

Benn, of course, chose a different trajectory in the terrible 1930s—even if, very soon, his work too, like Kokoschka’s, was condemned as 
degenerate. In the end every expressionist was to be shunned by the Nazi regime—just as Benn would then be shunned forever, for his year of Nazi temptation.

In other words, the career of Gottfried Benn is a case study in disgrace. And now the international reader, whose acquaintance with Benn might have otherwise been as fragmentary as a mention in an essay by T. S. Eliot or in a poem by Frank O’Hara, can finally examine this case study with voracious comprehensiveness, owing to this virtuosic, acidic selection of translations by the poet Michael Hofmann. Benn’s late style is one of literature’s great inventions, and the composition of this selection conditions its reader to concentrate on that phenomenon: from 1912 to 1947, a period of 35 years, Hofmann offers just twenty-four poems, while from 1949 to 1955, the last six years of Benn’s life, there are a lavish forty-eight.

Benn … speaks from inside this moral gray zone. He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was not remorse. No, its real meaning was isolation. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.

I have always admired Benn's poetry, and am glad it's finally gotten a persuasive advocate in English. As Thirlwell points out, Hofmann takes risks with his German translations, but they're smart ones. I've ordered the book, but it's still on its way. Benn, like Emil Nolde, initially favored the Nazi party, but was then sidelined by the cultural commissars owing to the 'degenerate' nature of his work.

The accompanying portrait of Benn, by Ivan Solyaev, is also magnificent:

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‘Silence’ by Gottfried Benn

Silence,
coming from within:
things past,
tender early associations
ended by death;
also days with table-decorations and fruit-bowls
placed between couples
of unwavering commitment, two flames. 

Silence,
from faraway estates,
preparations for festivities or homecomings:
beating of carpets,
on which, later,
many pairs of feet will shuffle
dotingly and in love. 

Silence,
once endured and in store for strangers,
broken today by a hoarse plea:
“stay by me,
maybe not all that much longer,
too much decay in me,
too much heaviness,
fatigue.”

Translated by Michael Hofmann (source)

A Short Review of ‘Poem’

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem — perhaps any Heine poem — superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively — the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.

Poem of the Day: ‘Caryatid’ by Gottfried Benn

Translated from the German by Michael Hofman, from Poetry magazine:

Renege on the rock! Smash
the oppressor cave! Sashay
out onto the floor! Scorn the cornices—
see, from the beard of drunk Silenus
from the unique uproar of his blood
the wine dribble into his genitals!

Spit on the obsession with pillars:
ancient rheumatic hands quake toward
gray skies. Bring down the temple
by the yearning of your knees
twitching with dance.

Spill, spread, unpetal, bleed
your soft flowers through great wounds.
Dove-hauled Venus girds her loins
with roses—
see the summer’s last puff of blue
drift on seas of asters to distant
pine-brown coasts; see
this final hour of our mendacious
southern happiness  
held aloft.

Hofmann's translator's notes are also worth a read.

Poem of the Day: ‘Consciousness’ by Attila Jozsef

Consciousness

1

The dawn dissevers earth and skies
and at its pure and lovely bidding
the children and the dragonflies
twirl out into the sunworld's budding;
no vapour dims the air's receding,
a twinkling lightness buoys the eyes!
Last night into their trees were gliding
the leaves, like tiny butterflies.

2

Blue, yellow, red, they flocked my dream,
smudged images the mind had taken,
I felt the cosmic order gleam –
and not a speck of dust was shaken.
My dream's a floating shade; I waken;
order is but an iron regime.
By day, the moon's my body's beacon,
by night, an inner sun will burn.

3

I'm gaunt, sometimes bread's all I touch,
I seek amid this trivial chatter
unrecompensed, and yearn to clutch,
what has more truth than dice, more matter.
No roast rib warms my mouth and platter,
no child my heart, foregoing such –
the cat can't both, how deft a ratter,
inside and outside make her catch.

4

Just like split firewood stacked together,
the universe embraces all,
so that each object holds the other
confined by pressures mutual,
all things ordained, reciprocal.
Only unbeing can branch and feather,
only becoming blooms at all;
what is must break, or fade, or wither.

5

Down by the branched marshalling-yard
I lurked behind a root, fear-stricken,
of silence was the living shard,
I tasted grey and weird-sweet lichen.
I saw a shadow leap and thicken:
it was the shadow of the guard –
did he suspect? – watched his shade quicken
upon the heaped coal dew-bestarred.

6

Inside there is a world of pain,
outside is only explanation.
the world's your scab, the outer stain,
your soul's the fever-inflammation.
Jailed by your heart's own insurrection,
you're only free when you refrain,
nor build so fine a habitation,
the landlord takes it back again.

7

I stared from underneath the evening
into the cogwheel of the sky –
the loom of all the past was weaving
law from those glimmery threads, and I
looked up again into the sky
from underneath the steams of dreaming
and saw that always, by and by,
the weft of law is torn, unseaming.

8

Silence gave ear: the clock struck one.
Maybe you could go back to boydom;
walled in with concrete dank and wan,
maybe imagine hints of freedom.
And now I stand, and through the sky-dome
the stars, the Dippers, shine and burn
like bars, the sign of jail and thraldom,
above a silent cell of stone.

9

I've heard the crying of the steel,
I've heard the laugh of rain, its pattern;
I've seen the past burst through its seal:
only illusions are forgotten,
for naught but love was I begotten,
bent, though, beneath my burdens' wheel –
why must we forge such weapons, flatten
the gold awareness of the real?

10

He only is a man, who knows
there is no mother and no father,
that death is only what he owes
and life's a bonus altogether,
returns his find to its bequeather,
holding it only till he goes;
nor to himself, nor to another,
takes on a god's or pastor's pose.

11

I've seen what they call happiness:
soft, blonde, it weighed two hundred kilos;
it waddled smiling on the grass,
its tail a curl between two pillows.
Its lukewarm puddle glowed with yellows,
it blinked and grunted at me :- yes,
I still remember where it wallows,
touched by the dawns of blissfulness.

12

I live beside the tracks, where I
can see the trains pass through the station.
I see the brilliant windows fly
in floating dark and dim privation.
Through the eternal night's negation
just so the lit-up days rush by;
in all the cars' illumination,
silent, resting my elbow, I.

[From The Iron-Blue Vault, translated by Zsuszanna Ozsvath & Frederick Turner]

Poem of the Day: ‘Endless Silence’ by Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca

Endless Silence

 

I am like a brother to you well yes you can tell me

How you got married

How you stopped loving one night

All right you can tell me

 

And then in the days of that old photograph

Your Mother had not gone mad yet

Your hair was golden as it caressed your white shoulders

All right you can tell me

 

You used to laugh a lot

At trees

You were a sylph the forest kept you awake when it sprouted

All right you can tell me

 

Then you ran away from home

To thoughts solitude sleep death

Starknaked among the ruins of a fire

All right you can tell me

 

A girl a boy a stone shadows on the walls a girl a boy

Three hundred youths you had slept in a mountain shelter

Outside the snow was cold as wolves in your heart you froze like the stone age

All right you can tell me

 

Look tomorrow I am leaving for another darkness

Like cemeteries I am silent mournful deaf

Yes you no longer have faith in love   yes you will love no one ever again

All right you can tell me

 

— Translated by Talat S. Halman. From Living Poets of Turkey, Dost Publications, 1989, p. 26

Poem of the Day: ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am

and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

via