This review of Durs Grünbein’s stunning long poem, Porcelain, tr. Karen Leeder (Seagull Books, 2020) first appeared in a recent issue of Agenda. Leeder’s clever, formal, utterly sympathetic translation has since rightly been awarded the 2021 Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize by the Society of Authors.
For a writer who has published over 30 books of poetry and prose in his native Germany, we have had too little of Durs Grünbein in English. Michael Hofmann‘s Ashes for Breakfast (Faber, 2005) introduced some of the earlier work and described Grünbein as possessed of melancholia, amplitude, a love of Brodsky, a love of the Classics, plus wide-ranging interests in medicine, neuroscience, contemporary art and metaphysics. John Ashbery praised Grünbein, identifying his subject as “this life, so useless, so rich” and the challenge to any translator is precisely this breadth and ambition. Happily, Karen Leeder is proving to be a really fine conduit for Grünbein’s work and here she triumphantly tackles his 2005 sequence of poems about the firebombing of his hometown, Dresden, by American and British planes in February 1945.
Porcelain is a sequence of 49 poems, 10 lines each, rhymed and grounded in Classical metre and given an air of Classical elegy by its subtitle, ‘Poem on the Downfall of My City’ (‘Poem vom Untergang meiner Stadt’). But if resolution, consolation or summing-up might be expected, this is, definitively, not what we get. The title, of course, refers to the Meissen pottery which, from the eighteenth century on, brought Dresden its great wealth and fame. But it is also a pun on the poet to whom the sequence is dedicated: Paul Celan. In Celan’s poem ‘Your eyes embraced’ there is an effort to swallow the ashes of genocide but they return to the throat as ‘Ash- / hiccups’, an image repeated in Grünbein’s opening poem: “It comes back like hiccups: elegy”. The sequence does indeed hiccup in the sense of its jerky shifts of tone, its multi-faceted images of Grunbein himself and in its close to choking articulation of the horrors of the Dresden bombing.
A self-conscious awkwardness or self-questioning is clear from the start: “Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone / when your little light first appeared”. Grünbein was born seventeen years after the bombing and accepts he cannot ‘witness’ the event in any simple way. But personal details do surface in the sequence such as in poem 8 where the young boy grows familiar with the still evident urban destruction: “proud and mute . . . the ravaged city”. He senses something of “that glory passed away” but can hardly know “the things [his] mother saw, / scarcely five years old” (poem 10). Later poems remember moments when his mother’s doll was in danger of the flames (“Flames as high as houses sucked the air along the streets”), but was rescued, unscathed, “or that is what they say” (poems 40/41). Leeder explains in her Introduction that Grünbein has been criticised in part for a sentimentality and this is perhaps such a moment. But the indication that this is reportage (family reportage at that) gives permission for sentiment and Grünbein is fully conscious of (and in control of) the massive swings in tone through the whole sequence. Poem 48 is one that might also lay itself open to charges of sentiment, focussing on a pair of lovers (Martha and Heinrich) seemingly caught up in the devastation: “Kids, the pair of you, first kisses in the thick of war, / until you met that night you’d grown up in uniform”. But Grünbein works repeatedly through allusiveness and intertextuality, so this Romeo and Juliet trope is hardened and complicated when we hear that, not only was the German air defence’s grid reference for Dresden code-named ‘Martha-Heinrich 8’, but also that both names recall characters in Goethe’s Faust.
In poem 38, Grünbein seems equally aware that some of his images of Dresden after the bombing might be open to the same criticism of a hyper-emotional tone. “Five long weeks upon the Altmarkt square, the horses / scratched the straw and watched the griddled corpses / burn. Mawkish? Ach, give over, late-born soul”. As this example shows, the sequence does confront the horrors unleashed on the city as in poem 22: “Are those people popping like chestnuts between / the gutted trams?” But looked at more carefully, even this grisly observation is nominally from the perspective of a stone angel on the cathedral roof. It is this continual innovation and manipulation of perspective that is important to the poems’ purpose and how we should read them. One important perspective Grünbein explores is the victim-narrative that predominated in thinking about the event in post-war East Germany and more recently. One aspect of this is the placing of the Dresden bombing in the historical context of German bombing of Warsaw in 1944 and the German’s systematic persecution of the Jews. Dresden’s fate did not rise ex nihilo. This latter myth, Grünbein embodies in the eroticisation of the bombing – the city as defenceless virgin – as in poem 45’s image of the city and the Elbe: “River like a sash of silver draped round her hips / enticing in the moonlight”.
From such examples, it’s easy to see why Grünbein’s own position on the bombing has been vociferously discussed and questioned. But he warns against using the destruction of the city as any kind of exemplum: “Let Dresden be. You won’t find what you are looking for” (poem 6). The reader understands he is also advising himself here, while, at the same time, acknowledging the human drive to interpret, to search for meaning, even in the most appalling events. The sequence’s treatment of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the RAF Commander-in-Chief during the bombing of Dresden, is interestingly equivocal. Poem 4 alludes almost invisibly to Harris’ comment on the Dresden bombing, when he suggested that objections to it were based on a sentimental image of the city as full of “German bands and Dresden shepherdesses” when, in reality, it was a Nazi munitions and transportation centre. In fact, Harris was carrying out orders from Winston Churchill: “No sweat, Arthur, you only did what you had to do” (poem 13). And in poem 23, Grünbein also notes that some more recent left-wingers in Germany have chanted ‘Thank you, Harris!’ in their efforts to question and counter more simplistic, victim-narrative commemorations of the event.
In such ways, Porcelain revels in its own pluralities while acknowledging and itself attempting to make some sense of an epitome of senseless destruction. The final line of the book plainly states the human need to avoid finality, the fall into fixity, yet accepts the compulsion to explain, to create meaning: “Changing places, times, dimensions as he goes—goes on—creating”. And behind all this stand those exquisite china objects, the ‘white gold’ that made the city rich and famous:
Falconers are there, vintners, nymphs with conch-shell horns,
frog-faced putti, figures riding seahorses and swans.
Groups of shepherdesses, lovely gardeners, beasts of lore . . .
Porcelain—most fragile thing”
The collision of Allied bombs and Dresden’s fragile porcelain lies at the heart of Grünbein’s poems. There was no contest, of course, though some pieces and many fragments remained and were perhaps repaired. Grünbein’s poems enact this process, collecting perspectives, often incongruous, even contradictory, but bringing them into relation with each other, not to make any definitive statement, but to hold up a mirror to us, to the recurrent tension between our need to create and our drive to destroy.