Jan Wagner: the Poet as Tea-Bag and as Chameleon

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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.

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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:

 

1

draped only in a

sackcloth mantle. the little

hermit in his cave

 

2

a single thread leads

to the upper world. we shall

give him five minutes

Jan Wagner
Jan Wagner

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.

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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”.

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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.

 (All translations from Rilke here taken from my translations of  ‘Duino Elegies’ and ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’)

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Hear Galbraith read ‘December 1914’ below:

 

 

 

War on the Poor God Bless the Palaces: Volker Braun’s ‘Rubble Flora’ reviewed

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Volker Braun’s Rubble Flora (tr. David Constantine and Karen Leeder (Seagull Books, 2014)) was one of the commended texts in this year’s Popescu Translation Prize. I was surprised it did not make it to the final shortlist. His passionate and abrasive voice (in these excellent translations) is certainly worth sampling as a model for poetry engaging with political change. Here he is writing from the GDR after the Berlin Wall has come down.

Property

That’s me still here. My country’s going West.

WAR ON THE POOR GOD BLESS THE PALACES.

I helped it out the door with all the rest.

What paltry charms it has it gives away.

After winter comes the summer of excess.

And I can go to hell is what they say.

I don’t know the meaning of my text.

What I never owned, they’ve taken even this.

What I never lived, I know I’ll always miss.

It was hope that came before this fall.

My property, you flog from stall to stall.

When will I say mine again and mean of all.

(tr. Karen Leeder)

Braun was born in Dresden in 1939. His childhood was spent in the post-war ruins of that city which he describes as a locus of re-birth as much as devastation: “Fiery lupins and / Widows in the ruins set up house and home” (‘Rubble Flora’). His early work reflects the pioneering spirit of the foundation of the GDR, though a poem like ‘Demand’, with its vigour and idealism expressed through bold exclamatory phrases, already runs counter to the growing repressiveness of the state. Braun consistently relishes the provisional:

Don’t come to us with it all sewn up. We need work in progress.

Out with the venison roast – in with the knife and the forest.

Here experiment is king, not fixed routine.

His urge to move forward becomes an unhealed wound. ‘At Dawn’, in its entirety reads: “Every step I’ve still to take / tears me apart”.

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There is also a strong streak of sensuality throughout Braun’s work and eros is celebrated in contrast to what ‘Afternoon’ terms “the pre-printed schedules / And fully synchronised reports” that constituted ‘really existing socialism’. Karen Leeder’s Introduction discusses Braun’s ability to “manoeuver within the [Communist} system” and, feeling the pressures of history unfolding, ‘Fief’ expresses something of a stoical attitude: “I’ll hold out here, find succour in the East”. By the 1980s, Braun’s hopes for a fitting fief were also taking the form of Rimbaudian flights of fancy as here in the landscape of ‘Innermost Africa’:

Under the soft tamarisks

Into the tropical rains that wash

The slogans off, the dry memoranda

Also around this time, Braun alludes to Goethe’s idyllic images of lemon trees in bloom from his 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’. Here they flash past in a fragmentary manner, alongside other literary references, prose passages, graffiti-like capitalised phrases and seeming non-sequiturs. Both Leeder and Constantine deal brilliantly with the challenge such a style presents to its translators. In this way, Braun’s work betrays the pressures of speaking in a repressive regime and so it is interesting that the more lucid lyrics of The Zig-Zag Bridge (1988) pre-empt the fall of the Berlin Wall and the possibility of speaking out.

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But Braun’s visions of the fulfilled life were hardly advanced with the advent of capitalism. The changes of 1989 are repeatedly portrayed as a false dawn. The magnificent sequence, ‘West Shore’, roars with hopes and disappointments in the embrace of the new ideology:

the abrupt come-down

Of the roped-together

From the north face of the Eager

Into nothing—

As above, ‘Property’ sees the old GDR “going West” yet the poet is bewildered even by his own “text” as everything gets “flog[ged] from stall to stall”. Braun pursues intertextual effects with Eliot-like allusions as in ‘O Chicago! O Contradiction’ where he draws on Brecht’s 1927 poem ‘Vom armen B.B.’ (see my earlier blog and translation of this poem) and Hamlet to evoke “the chilly byways / Of market economics”. But after 1989, such allusions are more frequently to brand names and consumer goods as here in the mock-jaunty optimism of “Socialism’s out the door, but here comes Johnnie Walker”.

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Neither communism nor capitalism nurtures the life Braun seeks and he turns his vitriol on the new world where “King Customer” rules (‘Common Ownership’), where the “supercontinent [. . . ] COCA COLA” rises from the ocean (‘West Shore’) and fashion shows in ‘Lagerfeld’ show capitalism making people “more beautiful but not better”. It’s Helena Christensen who stalks the catwalks of this poem only to arrive at:

the throwaway society

The arena full of the last screams Ideas

Rome’s last era, unseriousness

Now watch the finale ME OR ME

Greetings, barbarians.

If Braun still finds pleasure in the world it is despite political change not because of it. ‘Art’ asks torturedly, rhetorically, “How / Is it possible that things the way they are / Are dancing?” Rubble Flora concludes with work since 2005 and there is more Rilkean “praise [of] the world as it appears” (‘When He Could See Again’) and this affords some relief from the “stifling  / Of [the] ability to be human” (‘Conversation About the Trees in Gezi Park’). One of the “things” still dancing for Braun is the erotic. The loss of desire is the sole subject of ‘My Fear’ and the hope that “some gentle breast might fasten for a while / And quicken my blood” (‘Findings’) offers some counterbalance to the almost deafening, continuing “twitter-storm” (‘Wilderness’) of injustice, greed, poverty and violence in the world generally, more specifically in his own “re-disunited Germany” (‘De Vita Beata’).

This review originally published in Poetry London (March 2015)

The Launch of ‘Magma’ 60 at LRB bookshop

Last Friday night I read briefly (partly from my Worple Press book: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/a-hatfield-mass/) at the LRB bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL (in fact just doors along from Enitharmon Press’ new offices). It was the launch of Magma magazine’s new issue (http://magmapoetry.com/). Magma really has become one of the must-read magazines in UK poetry and the event was one of two national launches (the other is on Thursday 11 December at 7pm at the Lit & Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE, with guest reader Sean O’Brien). The LRB is a spectacularly good bookshop but you feel acutely the vanishing of bookshops elsewhere – to be surrounded by shelves of ‘proper’ books is a real pleasure, distressingly beginning to take on the quality of a sepia-tinted memory. Yet, as one of the readers commented, this is a dangerous place to visit if you’re not prepared to part with hard cash: so many temptations. It’s also a good place for a reading: chairs from front to back on the ground floor, seating well over 50, and on Friday it was packed.

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Magma 60 is edited by Rob A. Mackenzie and Tony Williams (one of the good and distinctive things about the magazine is its rolling editorship) and 19 poets were asked to read a couple of poems each, with Kei Miller putting in a longer shift at the end as guest poet. Among others, Peter Daniels’ poems evoked a quiet, desperate sense of things not holding, of wider societal failing (‘you might discover you’re painting the house / while the other side’s on fire’). Jacqueline Saphra remembered being seventeen and then dealing with her own seventeen-year olds, boys and girls, the latter crying from their rooms, ‘Come in, I won’t let you in, Come in’. Michael Henry recalled Finals exams and wanting to write about Brecht, which he does in his poem ‘Agent provocateur’: ‘The Brechtian grape is a dry white grape / and it tastes like the white corpuscles in blood’. Martha Sprackland and Jasmine Simms found common ground and a source of poetry in drifting off in science classes at school (I remember it well).

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John Greening read about visiting the archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo and an intriguing poem about ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which knowingly fails to offer ‘an explanation // of what happens in the end [. . .] about how     whatever it is     was broken’. DA Prince also evoked an earlier age with ‘The bell-makers’ reminding me of sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966): ‘the brilliant blistering light, / that cataract of blazing air, the stream / of liquid pain’. Karen Leeder presented new translations of German poet, Volker Braun. Braun was writing in part through the upheavals of 1989, exploring the triumph of capitalism: ‘EVERYTHING AND NOTHING / Was it ever really yours? Fuck you, fantasist. / The encore: all that you could never need!’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rubble-Flora-Selected-Seagull-German/dp/0857422189/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417365225&sr=1-1&keywords=volker+braun).

At the end of the first half, Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works in secure hospitals, talked about her work and love of Philip Larkin’s poetry and read ‘Talking in Bed’ (one of my own Larkin favourites; see below). Kei Miller’s live delivery illuminates and energises his own words on the page. I’ve written more about his prize-winning The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet) on this blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/10/22/kei-millers-cartographer-and-friels-translations/). He read several of the Place Name pieces, the poem where the Cartographer asks for directions and gets indirections instead (‘all true’ Kei said), the ‘Hymn to the Birds’ and the 28,000 rubber ducks poem which moves (almost imperceptibly) from children’s bath toys to captives lost overboard on trans-Atlantic passages years ago. Miller finished with his short poem ‘Distance’ which seemed to be something of an answer to Larkin’s poem chosen by Gwen Adshead; here are the two of them. . .

Talking in bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

Distance

Distance is always reduced at night

The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far

Nor the distance between ourselves and the stars

And at night there is almost nothing between

The things we say, and the things we mean.