Iain Galbraith’s really skillful translations of the German poet Jan Wagner have just won the Popescu European Poetry Prize. Wagner’s poems brew a formal brilliance (Karen Leeder remarks in her Introduction to Arc’s Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, that “virtuoso” is the compliment most often applied to him) with an intense concentration on really existing things. In the German tradition, of course, such a meticulous and sensual evocation of things (‘die Dinge’) harks back to Rilke’s advice in the ninth of his Duino Elegies (1922):
Perhaps we are here to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –
at most: column, tower . . .
Rilke’s cycle of poems arrives at this conclusion (“Praise this world to the angel, not some / inexpressible other”) not at all in the spirit of defeat but in a celebratory mood because it is only through honest interaction with the world that we define and refine our sense of ourselves. Equally and dialectically, through, our emotional and artistic responses to the world of things we are able to translate the inanimate and unconscious world into something more significant, lasting, spiritualized.
And these things, which live by passing away,
acknowledge your praise of them, as they vanish,
they look to us to deliver them, we, the most
fleeting of all. They long for us to change them,
utterly, in our invisible hearts – oh, endlessly,
to be within us – whoever, at last, we may be.
It is just this ebb and flow between self and other, each re-defining the other, each growing in response to the other, that Wagner seems intent on recording. But it’s not always an easy process as the poem ‘Mushrooms’ suggests. The narrator must listen for the snap of a twisted stem as if cracking a safe, “hoping for the right combination”. But when the right balance (I’m afraid it has to be this dull-seeming word) is achieved between active exploration and passive sensitivity then two worlds are miraculously joined.
But we need not get too po-faced about the process. Wagner suggests a tea-bag might help us envisage it. In two haikus, he wryly evokes both facets of such communion in a religious visionary and a rope-dangling, Indiana Jones-type adventurer:
draped only in a
sackcloth mantle. the little
hermit in his cave
a single thread leads
to the upper world. we shall
give him five minutes
Wagner reflects the often rebarbative nature of the process partly through typographical choices, abandoning capital letters throughout (a far more disturbing move in German, of course, which capitalizes all nouns, all things). It’s also reflected in the choice of fruit in ‘Quince Jelly’. Knobbly and ugly, even ripe quinces are inedible when raw, astringent and tough. Wagner acknowledges the “tough and foreign” quality of the fruit and its taste which makes “our palates baulk”. Yet the human work invested in the transformative domestic process yields great rewards:
quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on
shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for
harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they
shone, are still shining.
Such meticulous observation and sensual details held in the form of verse ensure Wagner’s things are always more than themselves and here the quince jelly is a poem, much like Wordsworth’s daffodils, an accumulation of “wealth” to flash upon “that inward eye” in days and years to come.
Wagner also chooses a ‘Chameleon’ to represent the poet. Describing the creature’s curved tail as a “pastoral staff” raises the spiritual stakes with a wonderfully light touch. The animal’s perceptive acuity is likewise explored with its tongue like a “telescope”, snapping up the “constellation” of a dragonfly. Its eye is a “fortress” yet contains a flickering pupil; an indefinable restlessness is suggested by its shed skin like “an outpost or long-discarded theory”. Most tellingly, the chameleon’s independently moving eyes enable Wagner to suggest the balance of both centrifugal and centripetal thrusts of the true perception: the animal gazes “simultaneously at the sky / and the ground, keeping his distance / from both”.
The title poem of Arc’s selection (taken from 5 collections between 2001-2014) is another portrait of the poet. ‘Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees’ has the narrator wearing an ever-accumulating beard of swarming bees. The risks and dangers are part of the point but the poem focuses on the accumulating “weight and spread”, suggesting the swarm extends and adds to the narrator in some intrinsic way. Indeed, he becomes “the stone-still centre of song”. In the next quatrain, the passive singer is converted into an “ancient knight” arming for battle, yet he does not either advance or retreat:
just stands there gleaming, with barely a hint
of wind behind the lustre, lingering breath,
and only vanishing becomes distinct.
This teasing last line (“und wirklich sichtbar erst mit dem verschwinden”) is best understood again through Rilke. Auden affectionately ribbed Rilke as a poet whom “die Dinge bless, / The Santa Claus of loneliness” but it is in the challenge to self confronted through honest encounters with the world of things that we re-make and re-define our sense of self. Here is the idea expressed in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus, 2, 13:
To the used up – to all Nature’s musty and mute,
its brimming storehouse, its inexpressible sum –
joyously add yourself and the account’s done.
Hear Galbraith read ‘December 1914’ below: