What follows is a review – originally published by Poetry London earlier last year – of Rose Auslander’s poetry. As I say below, her work has been surprisingly little noticed in the UK literary world. The situation is rather different in her own culture where she is well-known and much admired as this entry on the germanlit.org website makes clear. She is an unusual and original poet well worth seeking out and you can find this book on the Arc website.
While I Am Drawing Breath is a revised version of Mother Tongue, Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier’s 1995 volume of Rose Auslander’s poems. That book strode across an effectively empty stage and the same is surprisingly true of this new version: there are really no rival translations into English currently available (she’s not even included in Michael Hoffman’s Twentieth-Century German Poems (Faber, 2005)). This sadly reflects Auslander’s reception through the first half of last century. Only at the age of 64 did her work begin to be noticed, though until her death, 23 years later, she received prizes and accolades, mostly in Germany. Her relative neglect is surprising given her extraordinary personal story, surviving the worst horrors of the twentieth century, and the vivid, gem-like minimalism of her work.
The life is important. Rose Scherzer was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in 1901, growing up in Czernowitz (then part of Austria-Hungary). The First World War forced the family to Vienna, then Budapest, but later Auslander returned to study at Czernowitz University. She made the acquaintance of philosopher, Constantin Brunner, but in 1921 emigrated to America with Ignaz Auslander (to whom she was briefly married). She returned to Czernowitz only to find it occupied by the Nazi’s in 1941. She lived in the Jewish ghetto, surviving against the odds, writing poetry and meeting Paul Antschel (later Paul Celan). The town was liberated by the Russians but while Auslander tried to arrange for the family to emigrate to America, her mother died, precipitating her daughter’s breakdown. She did not write in her native tongue again for another 10 years.
While I Am Drawing Breath contains work written in these later years (it’s a shame the arrangement of this book gives no sense of chronological development). By then the friendship with Celan had been revived and Auslander abandoned the rhyme schemes and metrical patterning of earlier work for a more free, highly compressed, yet colloquial style, rejecting all punctuation. It is this style that German readers recognise as her distinctive achievement and is the culmination of the tragic restlessness of her life as well as her fascination with language. It was hard to speak of what she had witnessed:
From the eyes
of sated man-eaters
and my words
Eloquence, volubility, the pleasures of the text risked disrespect for the victims of war. Auslander’s words are never far from mourning:
I call out
to the sunken souls
the squall has
to the pebbles
Yet she seldom speaks directly of pogroms and persecution. ‘And Shut Out Their Love’ does record the advent of “guns and jagged banners”, but Auslander’s imagery is more mythic, more folk tale: hunger, blood, fire, snow, ashes, smoke. Faced with the “unbearable reality” of the Czernowitz ghetto, the options were to despair or dwell in “dreamwords” and there are strong escapist longings as in ‘In Those Years’ with its snow-bound world into which come seductive rumours of a “country / where the lemons flower” (an allusion to Goethe’s 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’). ‘Immer Atlantis’ (translated here as ‘Atlantis Always Glittering’) re-creates that mythic city:
there are always celebrations in swaying gardens
always holy and delicate
But her friendship with Brunner suggests Auslander was pursuing something more complex than the sort of consolatory fantasy this suggests. He warned against the dangers of superstition, or pseudo-contemplation: unfounded beliefs creating a distortion of true insight. Auslander regards language itself as a ‘third way’, a melding of self and world, without the risks of denying reality. In ‘Mother Tongue’, movement along the “word path” leads to transformation “from myself into myself / from moment to moment”. In ‘Words’, language is neither slave to reality nor liberated self-expression, but “my source”. In ‘The Net’ the goal is “one word / which says it all” as Brunner suggested, an ascent to a plane of spiritual (geistig) contemplation encompassing love, art, and philosophy.
That Auslander’s work pursues such goals without tumbling into arid abstraction and commentary is one of the pleasures of these tough, unselfpitying poems. She is open to “dull brown” as well as “radiant blue” (‘As If’) and her obsession “for binding words” is an attempt “to reach even further / into this known / unknowable / world” (‘Sentences’). What she hears through the cuckoo, rainbow, snow, camomile, mills, carnivals, islands and trees is a spiritual realm, given validity not by any organised religion but by the suffering she has endured:
I hear the unheard heart
in my breathing
like a clock made of air
then the melody of the music-box
is alive in my temples
its tones muted like the moving spheres
(‘The Unheard Heart’)