Durs Grünbein: Ashes for Breakfast
On his travels, he encountered Michael Hofmann who, though the son of a German writer, grew up in England and has gained renown both as an excellent translator from German and as a poet in his own right. Five years older than Grünbein, he shared with him both predilections (e.g. for the poetry of Joseph Brodsky) and attitudes (a critical distance to the world and to themselves). Hofmann must have been fascinated by finding a kindred spirit; otherwise he would not have taken on the intense labour this volume represents. With its almost 300 pages of originals and facing translations, it is not ‘All of Grünbein’ but a very generous selection from five volumes of poetry published between 1988 and 2002.
World traveller though he may be, in his poetry, to the extent it is localised, he has remained remarkably faithful to his origins. His nightmarish ‘Greetings from Oblivion City’ (pp. 242-53) are clearly inspired by Hollywood, but otherwise the longest sequences are reserved for Dresden (‘Europe after the last rains’, 266-87, a gripping recreation of the city’s fate during the war, yet told without any tragic pathos) and for Berlin, where he lives now (‘Berlin Rounds’, 232-41). They are not intimate cityscapes but rather bird’s eyes’ views or as seen over a long perspective of time.
Grünbein, in contrast to many other contemporary poets, is not a miniaturist but remarkable for long sustained sequences. And there are, at least in this volume, no dialogues but plenty of monologues. ‘Variations on no theme´(pp. 96-173) is a sequence of 39 formally identical 13-line poems, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog’ (pp. 64-93) equally convincing as an autobiography and as a description of a dog like those once patrolling the Iron Curtain. Animals interest him as much as people, it would seem. There are four poems on zoo animals (a chimpanzee, an okapi, a penguin, a cheetah), and, under the title ‘In the Provinces’ (pp. 182-91) a sequence of poems on animals as victims of traffic or other forms of violent death (a dog, a hare, a mole, a frog, a blackbird).
Maybe his heart is with the animals because they become part of nature again, whereas ‘civilisation’ wrecks it or fills it with refuse. Not only the zoo poems make the reader think of Rilke; indeed, a majority of his pieces could be described as Dinggedichte. But where Rilke saw the poet’s mission in praising creation, Grünbein, without ‘green’ preaching, wants us to see the world as we have made it (“a wilderness consisting entirely of artefacts”, he calls it in a prose piece), and our situation in it. The last poem of the book ‘Arcadia for All’, makes the old theme of man’s dream for an earthly paradise explicit. Modern man is more likely to be surrounded by the bustle and noise of big cities: “You can feel the buzz in your bones, your spine in the judder of the arcades” (arguably too free a rendition of “Man spürt sein Skelett, Vertebrat im Vibrato der Brückenbogen”) / “Lose your face, dazzled from the metallic upgleam of the puddles”, but he continues “But where else is home?”
As the example shows, Hofmann at times takes a fair bit of liberty with the originals, and he justifies it in his introduction: “What you translate has to come out of you; you have to be able to encompass it … You have to work on your own plausibility, your range, your idioms, your connections” (p. xi), and he goes on to explain why he has avoided the more ‘Classical’ and statuesque poems. He refuses to follow suit where Grünbein employs rhyme, which he seems to do increasingly in recent collections; the Dresden sequence, for instance, is all rhymed. It is the Poundian - rather than the Rilkean - poet Hofmann can relate to. A review does not leave room for extensive quotation, but it would be wrong not to give the reader at least one short poem in full, with the original; one of the two poems, moreover, where the title of the collection is schematised; its title is ‘On the daily newspapers’: “I have breakfasted on ashes, the black / Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns. / When a coup makes no stain and a tornado sticks to half a page. / And it seems to me as though the Fates licked their lips // When war broke out in the sports section, reflected in the falling Dow. / I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread. / And Clio, as ever, keeps mum … There, just as I folded them up / The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.” And in the original: “Ich habe Asche gegessen zum Frühstück, den schwarzen / Staub, der aus Zeitungen fällt, aus den druckfrischen Spalten, / Wo ein Putsch keine Flecken macht und der Wirbelsturm steht. / Und es schien mir, als schmatzten sie, die parlierenden Parzen, // Wenn im Sportteil der Krieg begann, dem der Aktienkurs traut. / Ich habe Asche gegessen zum Frühstück. Meine Tagesdiät. / Und von Clio, wie immer, kein Sterbenswort … Da, beim Falten / Lief das Rascheln der Seiten als Schauer mir über die Haut.” This example should show how much, inevitably, gets lost in translating poetry – in rhythm, idioms, connotations. But it also shows that a convincing English poem can come out of the process that retains the essential concept and imagery of the original. The book is solidly bound, beautifully printed, a pleasure to handle; clearly a labour of love. Highly recommended.
Grünbein, Durs: Ashes for Breakfast : Selected Poems / translated by Michael Hofmann - New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. - 298 pages.