Poem as MRI Scan: Lieke Marsman’s ‘The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes’

downloadLieke Marsman’s The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019) is an unlikely little gem of a book about cancer, language, poetry, Dutch politics, philosophy, the environment, the art of translation and friendship – all bound together by a burning desire (in both original author and her translator, Sophie Collins) to advocate the virtues of empathy. The PBS have chosen it as their Summer 2019 Recommended Translation.

It’s Audre Lord who is the presiding spirit here, the woman with whom Marsman is in most frequent conversation. Lord’s The Cancer Journals (1985) recorded her response to the disease: a sharpened realisation – an underlining – of life’s transience and, consequently, a more acute sense of “act[ing] out of it”. She also refused to allow her response to the disease to “fossilise into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience”. Marsman (and her translator Sophie Collins) takes up this challenging baton to produce a busy, intelligent, funny, chatty and touching sequence of poems, an autobiographical essay and 10 concluding letters from Collins, the whole text responding to Marsman’s own diagnosis of chondrosarcoma at the age of 27.

download (1)The sort of silence Lord fears is evoked in the monitory opening poem. Its unusual, impersonal narration is acutely aware of the lure of sinking away into the “morphinesweet unreality of the everyday”, of the allure of self-imposed isolation (“unplugg[ing] your router”) in the face of the diagnosis of disease. What the voice advises is the recognition that freedom consists not in denial, in being free of pain or need, but in being able to recognise our needs and satisfy them: “to be able to get up and go outside”. It’s this continuing self-awareness and the drive to try to achieve it that Marsman hopes for and (happily) comes to embody. But it was never going to be easy and towards the end of the poem sequence, these needs are honed to the bone:

 

There is nothing I need to see

Except, again and again,

A new day with you

 

Marsman’s poems are usually very free in form, sparsely punctuated and (unlike the opening poem) give the impression of an intimate address by a sensitive, self-aware, curious and well-educated woman. This makes the moments of frank disclosure even more powerful: “I am just so scared of disappearing [. . .] I desperately need to hear / from other sufferers”. The vitality in the poems belies the exhaustion of the ill person who lacks the energy even to sort her recycling, who watches “Eurosport replays / of alpine skiing” all afternoon and for whom tying her own shoelaces becomes “the stuff of poetry!” Such rapid shifts of tone are important in conveying the resilience of the patient – more than that they suggest the true nature of the individual who is (this is Marsman’s point) more than a mere patient.

It’s this restless interest in the world that accumulates slowly to portray the individual and – against all the odds – makes this book such a pleasurable read. The poems are only partly about cancer or rather cancer is only part of what the poems are interested in. We hear fragments of conversations (‘Identity Politics Are a Fad, You Say’), then meditations on irrationality and evolution and luck. ‘Treats’ ends with thoughts about Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning language games (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) but ends with Marsman’s characteristic blend of intelligence, self-awareness, humour and pathos:

 

Whereof one cannot speak,

Thereof one forms silent gestures

Or bursts into tears.

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Lieke Marsman

Elsewhere, the individual’s interest is swept up into gender politics, multiculturalism, reality TV shows, upscale housing developments and the political hypocrisy of the Dutch state. In the autobiographical essay that follows the poems, Marsman explains: “I had to write about politics in order not to be totally subsumed by the cancer”. This also meant she was continuing to preoccupy herself with things that interested her before the diagnosis. It also had the effect of taking her out of herself (cancer, she says, “hurls you into yourself”). Such an interest in the multiplicity and variousness of the Other proves a beneficial way out of “a very lonely experience”.

This is the point about empathy made more systematically in the prose section which is pointedly titled ‘How Are You Feeling?’ In the final lines, Marsman puts it plainly: “What I do know is that the suffering of others is not something to be judged, ever, and that the right question to ask someone who is going through something difficult [. . .] is not ‘What’s in this for me?’ but ‘How are you feeling?’” This might seem to have the air of obviousness about it, but the preceding pages have documented depressing numbers of counter examples. The initial prose sections provide a pretty straight account of a young successful woman who sees the only likely danger for her as stress and “burn-out”. It makes her – and many of the medical practitioners she initially sees about a painful shoulder – fail to see there is a serious problem. On re-reading, I began to see this also as a failure of empathy, a failure to listen in to one’s own body. And there are certainly signs that Marsman (and Collins in her later letters) see the medical profession’s slow up-take as partly due to a lack of true empathy: “not only your age but your gender had an impact on the way you were perceived and treated”.

9780141187129Marsman tells us she read Audre Lord and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor after her operation and discharge from hospital. It’s Sontag who draws attention to the role of language in the way patients themselves and other people respond to cancer. Marsman asks herself: “Am I experiencing this cancer as an Actual Hell [. . .] or because that is the common perception of cancer?” The implied failure to achieve truly empathetic perception of the role and nature of the disease is echoed horribly in the empathetic failures and hypocrisies of Dutch politicians (UK readers will find this stuff all too familiar in our own politics). Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, blithely allocates billions of euros to multinationals like Shell and Unilever (on no valid basis) while overseeing cuts in health services. Marsman reads this as a failure to empathise with the ill. Another politician, Klaas Dijkhoff, reduces benefits on the basis that people encountering “bad luck” need to get themselves back on their own two feet. Bad luck here includes illness, disability, being born into poverty or abusive families, being compelled to flee your own country. Marsman’s own encounter with such ‘bad luck’ makes her rage all the more incandescent.

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Sophie Collins

Marsman’s texts are about 35 pages long in this Pavilion Poetry edition. The remainder of the book consists of Sophie Collins’ letters. This might look like padding but the letters not only raise interesting points (particularly about the practice of translation) but are at one with Marsman’s pleas for a social fabric that enables “mutual, consensual and willing exchange[s]” between its citizens and its power structures. The epistolary form has this sort of open, empathetic exchange at its heart. In fact, the phrase I’ve just quoted is from Collins’ discussion of translation. She argues against the idea of ‘fidelity’ in translation because of the implied power relationship in such a word: “‘fidelity’; implies the presence of a primary source of power”. Traditionally, this would be located in the source text or source author; a power to which the (secondary) translator must defer. Collins wants to propose a more equal partnership, one she wants to call ‘intimacy’: “a mutual, consensual and willing exchange between two or more subjects without referencing (an) authority at all”.

Translation as an act of intimacy seems right to me, though it might appear easier to achieve this with a living source author than a dead one. But Collins really means “developing a sincere engagement with the source text, author and culture”, a ‘getting close’, so – quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – the translator actually “speak[s] from inside”. This is a timely re-statement of a view of translation that, in these days where versioning and textual appropriation is so common, can be lost sight of. Collins goes even further here than the great Michael Hamburger, who was in the habit of saying the translator puts herself at the service of the source text. Collins sees the practical reality, that any translator herself is always going to be “fixed in a particular moment [. . .] will never, ever be a neutral entity” so however much we serve our source, the translator must always be bringing something of herself too: translation is an intimate engagement, a series of negotiations, an on-going drama of the most complex empathies.

Collins points out that this view of translation is one particularly fitting for the kind of work presented in this book. Marsman’s voice has the marvellous accessibility and liveliness of a conversation: “there is a deep intimacy in the way you seek to connect with your audience [. . .] the amount of credit you give your readers”. Her writing is both “accessible and smart”, says Collins, and this is just right. I might also add ‘uplifting’ – not only because Marsman’s personal prognosis looks good but because between them these two authors have produced a remarkable hybrid sort of book, grown from the astonishingly rich soil of empathetic response to others, expressive of a range of human intimacies as well as a variety of angers at the way individuals – and society – too easily succumb to blinkered self-interest and self-immuration.

Being In and Above: on Friedrich Hölderlin’s ‘Hyperion’

This is my review of Friedrich Hölderlin’s only novel, Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece. The review first appeared in the Temenos Academy Review (No. 20, 2017).  The translation I am discussing is a very recent one by India Russell which was published by Melrose Books in 2016. 

 

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Begun in Tübingen in 1792 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and published in two volumes in 1797 and 1799, Hölderlin’s only novel is really a philosophical and spiritual biography of its eponymous hero. It does not deliver what a novel reader might expect in terms of characterisation, suspense or specificity of incident (though its retrospective narrative is cleverly designed). It is best read as a doorway to the more metaphysical thought that underpins the later poetry. But Hölderlin’s youthful passion and urgency are evident, for example, in the portrait of his native Germany. Its people and culture are subjected to a withering satirical attack, with the corrupt state of German life acting as the penultimate phase of Hyperion’s long education. He reports, ‘I can think of no people more torn than the Germans. Artisans you see, but no human beings, thinkers, but no human beings, priests, but no human beings […] – is that not like a battlefield, where hands and arms and all limbs lie dismembered amongst one another, whilst the shed life-blood runs away into the sand?’ Such vivid images of division – between warring powers, within bodies of individuals – are central to Hölderlin’s critique of what was wrong with late eighteenth-century Europe.

Hyperion is an epistolary novel, the narrator writing from his native Greece to a friend, Bellarmin, who lives in Germany. Hölderlin’s prose is heightened and mellifluous, dramatically ebbing and flowing; and India Russell’s translation catches this far better than Willard Trask’s 1965 version or David Schwartz’s from 1990. The writing is breathless and aspiring; it is Shelley’s prose not Keats’s. The novel’s picaresque narrative records Hyperion’s travels after his birth on the Greek island of Tenos, where he spends his childhood and school years. He moves to Smyrna, returns home, then travels again to Calaurea, an island close to the eastern coast of the Peloponnese. It is here he meets and falls in love with the young woman, Diotima. Called back to action in the world, he fights the Turkish forces occupying Greece and later fights alongside Russian troops. He is defeated and wounded, then travels to Sicily, thence to Germany, befriending Bellarmin. Only on his return to Tenos does the novel’s account of his life open. So the narrative trajectory means that Hyperion reflects on his own life’s journey in the letters. Importantly, though no significant external events intervene, we perceive a difference between the Hyperion of letter one and the man writing the final words of the novel.

 

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Holderlin

The retrospective nature of the narrative only partly accounts for what Hölderlin calls in the Preface Hyperion’s ‘elegiac character’. In his opening letters, the protagonist regards reflection/judgement (‘Urteil’) as a curse, cutting him off from an unthinking sense of oneness with the world. As the novel opens, it is especially in relation to the natural world that Hyperion feels this alienation, though the limits of his current understanding are revealed: ‘I know not what happens to me when I lift my eyes before your beauty […] My whole being becomes quiet and harkens’. He later exclaims, ‘To be one with all, that is the life of the Divine, that is the heaven of man’ and yet ‘a moment’s reflection casts me down […] Nature closes her arms and I stand like a stranger before her’. He identifies his schooling as having made the first break between the sense of oneness experienced by a child and this later sense of estrangement. The loss is blamed on ‘Knowledge’ which inculcates the desire to be ‘absolutely reasonable, [to] have thoroughly learnt to distinguish myself from that which surrounds me’; and in such a state of nurtured division he suffers solitude and rejection from the world about him.

 

Hölderlin’s preface to the Thalia fragment of Hyperion (published by Schiller in 1794) lays these issues out more philosophically. ‘Man would like to be in everything and above everything’ he argues, quoting Loyola: ‘Not to be confined by the largest, but to be contained in the smallest, is divinity’. He observes how this pronouncement ‘designates the all-desiring, all-subjugating dangerous side of man as well as the […] most beautiful condition he can achieve’. On one side, we desire the freedom to be above our lives, to shape them, yet on the other we long to feel at home in our world, to be in it at the cost of our liberty. With one eye on the Revolution in France, it seems to Hölderlin that pursuit of freedom at the expense of a sense of unity with the world leads to a deracinated fanaticism that harms both ourselves and the world. But on the other hand, to experience existence without liberty and self-determination is to be sunk deeply in a form of passivity verging on idiocy. Hölderlin’s originality lies in his view of human life as being endlessly dynamic, the two impulses – to be both in and above our own lives – are to be held in tension, the self drawn in contrary directions with no anticipation of a resolution.

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In the novel, Hyperion’s early and brief encounters with Adamas on Tenos present one possible easement of his sense of alienation. Excited by the older man’s devotion to the past, he reads the Classics and visits Mount Athos, Olympia, Mount Cynthus and the grave of Homer. Hölderlin’s earlier poems frequently echo just this nostalgic impulse in his idealisation of the Classical past. David Constantine points out that for Hölderlin, ‘the civilisation of Periclean Athens seemed to him the best the human race had ever achieved and he wanted an equivalent of it for his own day and age and even believed the French Revolution might bring it about’. So this is not, for Hölderlin, any simple nostalgia but rather a call to spiritual and philosophical revolution. A poem like ‘The Archipelago’ portrays the devastation of eighteenth-century Greece (under the rule of the ‘Persian’) but also anticipates its renovation:

 

Lovingly back to the waiting abandoned river

Come the people of Athens and down from the homeland’s mountains

The shining crowds, meeting like waters, replenish

The emptied plain with joy.

 

(tr. Constantine)

 

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But in the novel, Adamas’ overly literal idealisation of the past is quickly dismissed by Hyperion. Alone, Adamas travels on into Asia in search of peoples of ‘rare excellence’ who, he hopes, are still living out such ancient virtues. Left dissatisfied, Hyperion is bored and restless on Tenos. He leaves for Smyrna and encounters a very different solution to his problems in the form of Alabanda, a man devoted not to the worship of a past age but to the struggle for social change. For a period Alabanda and Hyperion live ‘like two streams which roll down from the mountains and cast off the burden of earth and stone and rotten wood and the whole inert chaos that had impeded them, to forge the way to one another and break through until where, seizing and seized with equal strength, united in one majestic River, they then begin the journey in to the wide Sea’. Such a sentence is a good illustration of Russell’s skill in this translation – the results are flowing, energetic, with just the right degree of distancing from conventional language usage. For the two men, the present state of society is like a ‘barren, rotten tree’, needing to be felled so that a ‘new world’ can grow in its place. But Alabanda is too much a man of action, a fighter, consumed with the wish to exercise freedom to effect social change and (as the simile above suggests) liable to destructive violence and a moral fanaticism. His mode of operation is to ‘burn the weeds […] blast the dull clods from the Earth!’. He himself admits to being ‘rough and offensive and unsociable’. Hyperion finds he cannot commit himself to this course either and we become conscious of his tendency to vacillate between (again) being within and without, between commitment and alienation and aware too of the fact he perceives this as is a problem needing to be resolved.

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It is on the visit to Calaurea that Hyperion meets Diotima, a young woman who is unreflectively at home in the natural world. This character was introduced into later drafts of the novel and is a portrait of Susette Gontard, the married woman whose children Hölderlin was appointed to tutor in 1795, the woman he loved. Though Susette seems to have reciprocated Hölderlin’s affections, the relationship was doomed. He dedicated the second volume of Hyperion to her. The name Diotima appears frequently in Hölderlin’s later poetry and is the name of the seer or priestess who first taught Socrates to regard love as the means of ascent to a contemplation of the Divine. In Hyperion she lives contentedly in the world as opposed to Alabanda’s position above the world, and his wish to change it. Her heart is most at home among flowers, ‘as though it were one of them’, and Hyperion enviously observes her unreflective unity with the natural world: ‘Diotima’s eyes opened wide and quietly, as a bud opens, her dear little face opened before the airs of Heaven, became pure speech and soul and, as though she began a flight into the clouds, her whole form stood stretched gently upwards in easy majesty, her feet hardly touching the Earth’.

Diotima is initially unconscious of the beauty Hyperion sees in her but she becomes more self-aware in the letters documenting their relationship. She also comes to understand the real nature of Hyperion himself, recognising that (as Hölderlin’s philosophical thinking suggests) he cannot remain content with what she has to offer. Though Hyperion may indeed wish for such oblivious contentment, it is ironically Diotima who suggests he must do otherwise: ‘Will you lock yourself in the heaven of your love, and leave the world that needs you? […] You must, like the ray of light, descend like the all-refreshing rain, you must go down into the land of the mortals, you must enlighten like Apollo’. Light, healing and poetry are, of course, among Apollo’s many attributes and it will be as an artist that Hyperion must give (as Diotima puts it) ‘what you have within you’. In ‘As on a holiday…’, one of his later hymns, Hölderlin advises his fellow poets:

 

us it behoves to stand

Bareheaded beneath God’s thunder-storms,

To grasp the Father’s ray, no less, with our two hands

And, wrapping in song the heavenly gift,

To offer it to the people.

 

(tr. Hamburger)

 

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Michael Hamburger

It takes a long time for Hyperion to accept Diotima’s proposal that his true role must be that of an artist. Only after the process of recording his life for Bellarmin does Hyperion achieve what Hölderlin’s Preface refers to as the ‘resolution of dissonances’ in his character. At one point he notes, ‘I am an artist, but I am not skilled’. He returns to Alabanda for a period, fighting and being wounded in a war with the ‘Persians’, then suffers the loss of Diotima. Her last words to him suggest that he has been ‘put to the test and it is bound to become clear who you are’. Hyperion’s test will include the writing of his self-examining epistles. In effect, Hyperion ends by pursuing an art, like Hölderlin’s mature poetry, that essays some interim representations of the Heraclitean ‘One differentiated in itself’. Russell’s essay, accompanying her translation, interprets this as the lightning strike of a ‘Divine force’, an insight that (loosely) links Hölderlin, Shelley and Empedocles. She tends to replace philosophical incisiveness with a blustering, autobiographical style, but what her exposition lacks in rigour it makes up for in enthusiasm.

 

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In a letter of 1801, Hölderlin declares there ‘is only one quarrel in the world: which is more important, the whole or the individual part’. Hyperion finally accepts that the irresolvable tension, the pulse or heartbeat vital to the fully-lived human life is that between unity and freedom, Being and reflection, living in life and above it. With new-found optimism, he compares these ‘dissonances of the world’ to lovers’ quarrels, where ‘Reconciliation is in the midst of strife and all that is parted finds itself again’. He offers a further encouraging metaphor: ‘The arteries divide and return to the heart and one, eternal glowing life is All’. What remains to us is an unending quest or process not liable to completion or final stasis. The impossibility of completion is famously expressed in the novel’s final, almost throw-away phrase (‘Nächstens mehr’). In Russell’s fine translation this is rendered as ‘More shortly’ and the ‘more’ that followed was, of course, the poetry for which Hölderlin is now most famous.

 

The Poetry of Peter Huchel #2

This is the second blog posting arising from my work over the last year or so on translating the third collection by the German poet, Peter Huchel. I hope to complete this for publication in the next few months and here (and in my previous blog) I have been gathering information about his life and times. In a working life that saw him through some of the most traumatic events of European history, Huchel published only 4 collections of poetry in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1979. Throughout his career the substance of much of his work is his vivid observation of the natural world, moving gradually towards a usually brief, free verse form, a withdrawal from the personal and a steadily darkening vision which comes to be dominated by elegy and lament. Quotations from the poems in this blog are from my own translations.

Huchel divorced in 1946 and married Monica Rosental in 1953. In his work at the journal Sind und Form he was always determined to maintain editorial freedom and the publication had an international outlook with contributions from Aragon, Bloch, Brecht (two special issues), Camus, Eluard, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Marcuse, Neruda, Russell, Sartre, Yevtuchenko and Zweig. Inevitably he came into conflict with the authorities and came under immense pressure to conform. He resisted them for 13 years – in part because of the determined support of Brecht. Brecht’s death in 1956 left Huchel more exposed. He was asked to resign his editorship, refused and so compelled the East German government publicly to force his resignation. A year after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel was banished at the age of 59 to effective house arrest in Wilhelmshorst. The poem ‘Hubertsweg’ vividly portrays this period of his life, from 1962 to 1971, living in isolation and under Stasi surveillance:

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And at night

the roaring at the keyholes.

The fury of stems

splitting the earth.

And come morning

light roots out the dark.

Pine trees rake the mist from windowpanes.

 

He stands down there,

wretched as stale tobacco smoke,

my neighbour, my shadow

right on my heels as I leave the house.

Yawning sullenly

in flurries of rain from the bare trees,

he tinkers today with the rusty chicken wire.

What’s in it for him, scribing investigations

in his blue octavo book, my friends’ car numbers,

keeping watch on this hardly vulnerable street

for contraband,

forbidden books,

scraps for the belly,

stached in a coat lining.

A single twig to stoke the feeble fire.

 

Only his second collection of poems, Chausseen, Chausseen (‘Roads, Roads’) appeared in 1962. In defiance of the GDR authorities, he published it in the West. It was much praised – in the author’s absence. Henry Beissel has described the leanness and density of these new free verse poems: “images are more insistent on turning concreteness into code; sadness emanates from a sense of the inevitability of loss and from a world bent on self-destruction”.

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Fuse-wires

of withered leaves

glint on the wall.

Salt-white air.

The flight of cranes,

arrowheads of autumn,

 

In bright boughs

the hour’s pulse subsides.

Spiders deploy

their rims and spokes,

veils of dead brides.

 

Huchel’s images from nature are left to speak for themselves; his is often an impersonal, Symbolist poetry of a haunted and pessimistic kind. There is stoic survival and brutishness reflected in the curbed, elliptical, briefly allusive verse. Yet the poems remain marvellous acts of observation; the weather seems forever cold, wintry, foggy:

 

Estates,

disordered,

dust across the ground,

the heirs dead.

And grim skies,

grey cellars

of fogbanks.

The cold breathes

in echoing colonnades.

 

Huchel applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife and son on numerous occasions. He was supported by an internationally orchestrated campaign and eventually in 1971 the Ulbricht government granted his release. He lived first in Rome, then in a borrowed house near Freiburg in West Germany. Gezählte Tage (‘Numbered Days’)  appeared in 1972, the title suggesting the counted days of Huchel’s years under house arrest, his poems recording them, marking them, but also a residual sense of them actually counting towards something, his legacy as a poet, his final release. But like many GDR artists who moved to the West, Huchel was equivocal about what he found there. Because the GDR had failed to bring about a truly democratic and socialist society did not mean that Huchel had given up his ideals and the West’s materialism, egotism and faithless profiteering were repellent to him.

 

Beside the whitewashed wall

a monk clambers up steps,

sweat trickling from his brows.

 

Everything fades in light and heat,

the rough ochre of walls,

the fragile, scant moss on stones,

the spare green by the river.

The bellringer walks in ripped canvas shoes,

soon midday will sound.

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The medieval bridge at Subiaco, Italy

Huchel’s religious beliefs are difficult to pin down but certainly the poems of Gezählte Tage show a modern wasteland not confined to the East, a spiritual emptiness where, as in ‘Subiaco’, set in Italy, Pilate’s bowl stands emptied of water so the accumulation of guilt cannot be washed away. Nature still provides some recourse but not much of one. Huchel’s gloom is partly determined by his own nature, partly his background, political persecution, his divorce from his Brandenburg homeland. He often uses deliberate anachronism to make a point as well as Shakespearean and fairy tale motifs to evoke a lost time, a lost race, a golden age gone – with which he bears witness to his time. ‘Middleham Castle’ – where Richard III spent some of his youth – is a major poem in which Shakspeare’s tyrant lives on through the centuries as an image of oppressive power:

 

His foot is worm-eaten.

Gloucester walks to the stables,

the flagstones groaning.

The mastiffs lower their heads

anticipating the whip.

 

We are his servants,

we go in fear of his blade,

though his skull,

picked clean by so many winters,

lies deep in the ground.

 

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Ian McKellen as Richard III

In Huchel’s brief years in the West he was lauded and awarded literary prizes but this was just another form of exile. His final book Die Neunte Stunde (‘The Ninth Hour’) appeared in 1979. It is a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament; the ninth hour is the hour of despair, the hour in which Christ is said to have died on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Huchel himself died in 1981, aged 78. I think I hear something of his more personal voice, attuned to the natural world but gifted only a tragic place in history, compelled to labour against the odds, in the unnamed peasant who Huchel has narrate ‘Middleham Castle’:

 

Familiar with the ways of great forests –

the year streaked with the jays’ colours,

painful brightness of frosted boughs,

the winter hair of deer stuck to bark,

fawns huddled together at evening,

warming themselves in the cloud of their breathing –

up the gorse-clad hill with rope and horses

I haul tree trunks to Middleham Castle.

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The Poetry of Peter Huchel #1

I have been working off and on over the last year on translating the third collection by the German poet, Peter Huchel. I hope to complete this for publication in the next few months and here (over this and my next blog post) I have been gathering information about his life and times. I’ve found people know of his work but not in much detail. In a working life that saw him through some of the most traumatic events of European history, Huchel published only 4 collections of poetry in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1979. Throughout his career the substance of much of his work is his vivid observation of the natural world, moving gradually towards a usually brief, free verse form, a withdrawal from the personal and a steadily darkening vision which comes to be dominated by elegy and lament.

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Peter Huchel was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Lichterfelde (now part of Berlin). As a result of his mother’s ill health he was taken from the city to grow up on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. Huchel himself later argued “it is precisely the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years” (acceptance speech for the 1974 Literature Prize of the Free Masons). If this period was something of an idyll then it was shattered dramatically and forever by the death of the eleven year old boy’s grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe.

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After defeat and his country’s humiliation at Versailles, Huchel, now 17 years old, took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment against the German government for signing up to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. In the fighting associated with the failed coup, Huchel was wounded and it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed.

From 1923 to 1926, Huchel studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiberg and Vienna. Though always temperamentally an outsider, these were years of political, economic and artistic ferment (though ultimately something Huchel would react against) and in the final years of the 1920s he travelled to France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Turkey. In 1930, he changed his first name to Peter. His early poems were being written and published from 1924 onwards and were already strongly marked by the atmosphere and landscape of Brandenburg. He appeared out of step with the times, writing nature lyrics, using conventional metre and rhyme, though the natural landscapes he portrayed were far from pastoral. The rural world he grew up in was providing ways of articulating concerns about the shortcomings of the world about him: his close observations of Nature showed her as a harsh mistress and the poverty and suffering of Huchel’s Brandenburg peasants were both very real and politically charged.

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Working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt by 1932, Huchel’s poems won a prize and his first manuscript was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). In 1934, Huchel married Dora Lassel but with the rise of Hitler in 1933, Die Literarische Welt ceased publication and Huchel withdrew his book partly for political reasons. He fled to Romania for a while and was deeply troubled that the Nazi’s liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. A few of his poems were published but by 1936 he was refusing permission and he did not publish a new poem during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Instead, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside but was eventually drafted in 1941, ending the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.

With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots about the reconstruction of Eastern Germany offering a vision of freedom and equality to all. He began working for East German radio, published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’), in 1948 and in 1949 became editor of the influential poetry magazine Sind und Form (Sense and Form’). Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and evident socialist undercurrents though he did not satisfy some who demanded much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered at best equivocal support for the socialist regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than the modern revolutionary transformations of human society) were rightly seen by many as falling far short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.

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Here’s Huchel’s ‘The Polish Reaper’ – from this period – as translated by Michael Hamburger. Compared to Huchel’s later work, there is an exclamatory and ‘poetic’ quality to many of these lines (despite being nominally spoken by a migrant worker in Germany). Also the political content is more explicit in the fields mowed but not owned, the poor conditions of the workers and the rather hefty symbolism of the returning eastwards to a red dawn!

 

Do not cry, golden-eyed frog,

in the pond’s weedy water.

Like a great conch

the night sky roars.

Its roaring calls me home.

 

My scythe shouldered

I walk down the bright main road,

Dogs howling round me,

past the smithy’s grime

where darkly the anvil sleeps.

 

Down by the outwork

poplars are drifting

in the moon’s milky light.

Still the meadows exhale heat

in the crickets’ screeching.

 

O fire of the earth,

my heart holds a different glow.

Field after field I mowed,

not one blade was my own.

 

Blow, autumn gales!

On the bare boards of lofts

hungry sleepers awaken.

Not alone I walk

down the bright main road.

 

At the rim of night

the stars glitter

like grain on the threshing-floor,

where I go home to the eastern country,

into morning’s red light.

 

I’ll continue Peter Huchel’s life story in my next post.

A new translation of Brecht’s ‘Of poor B.B.’

Having posted last week about Brecht’s poem ‘Of poor B.B.’ it felt pretty inevitable that I should have a go at translating it myself. Though it can’t always be the case, most translations are like this – undertaken as a tribute to the original poet and poem, a public declaration that this fascinated me, an attempt to really work out how the text functions and achieves its ends. Disseminating the text to the target language’s reading public is also an aspect of this tribute paid.

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David Constantine, writing in Modern Poetry in Translation (No. 2 2015) about Derek Mahon’s recently published translations (Echo’s Grove (Gallery Press, 2013)) considers the “liberties” Mahon tends to take with such work to produce “almost” original poems in English while allowing their sources to remain audible. Mahon does this by working from “cribs of one kind or another” and Constantine suggests that this has become a very common practice. Indeed, “Mahon practices the belief that you don’t actually need to know well or even at all the languages you translate out of; even – a possible sub-text – that knowing them might be a disadvantage” (MPT, No. pp.111-113). As someone who was remarkably poor at languages at school, this is something I have found myself saying in recent years since going public with a few translations (for example, see post on translating Rilke). I like to think of the source poem as a series of gestures – like a dance performed by the original author – so the translator must try to achieve similar effects but with his/her own body (of language). A crib will guide me to the main movements, even to much of the details, but tone, emotional colour, shades of irony are harder to trans-late and cannot merely be copied. This gesture made by this body, if repeated precisely by my body, will more likely look awkward, or meaningless, or comic when it was intended as serious. I have to achieve the end (as far as I see it and understand its intended impact – you have to rely on the translator for that certainly) by using the resources at my disposal, my physique, my body of language.

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In practice, what this means is that once the basic outline and incontrovertible details are in place in a translation, I have to close the source book and try to pump some life into the target text. Ted Hughes imagined a poem without true life in it as limping (Poetry in the Making, p.15); a translation without true life in it is only going to be a halting performance you’d rather not witness, worrying about whether such a gesture was intended or not, ironic or not, you fear the whole is not coherent, a mere series of movements, not a dance at all. I’ve always liked Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the translation task: in introducing his now 50-year-old translations of Fyodor Tyutchev, he claimed ‘The aim of these translations has been to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind’ (Versions from Fyodor Tyutchev 1803-1873 (Oxford: OUP, 1960)).

Happily, ‘Of poor B.B.’ is not a text of great complexity. Brecht is usually concerned to communicate clearly and he says in ‘On Rhymeless Verse with Irregular Rhythms’ (Poems 1913-1956, pp. 463-471)) “what was needed was the tone of direct and spontaneous speech”. He mostly wanted to use “everyday speech” and “sobriety of expression” which he felt was “by no means irreconcilable with poetry”. So Brecht is not exactly Rilke or Mallarme for the translator. Looking at Hofmann and Hamburger’s translations (as referred to in last week’s post), most of Brecht’s dance is clearly conveyed with little variation between the two versions. Though Brecht’s lines are pretty irregular he does keep a ballad-like rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of each quatrain and I miss this in Hofmann’s version. Hoffman also (to my mind) overelaborates in a few of his English choices. “Sterbsakrament” (Hamburger has “last sacrament”) becomes “every sacramental perquisite”. Hofmann’s narrator looks at the two women in quatrain 4 “insouciantly” and his pine trees “micturate” (when the point of the contrast with the city asks for something more downright like Hamburger’s “piss”). I don’t think lexical adventures here are quite right for this poem. Also in quatrain 7, Hofmann’s antennae “underwire” the Atlantic. Brecht is referring to transatlantic cables but the allusion to supportive bras seems distracting and gives mankind’s efforts too much power. I read the point as suggesting our technology is dwarfed by the ocean in the remarkable image that our best advances merely entertain (“unterhalten”) or “amuse” (Hamburger) the Atlantic.

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Regarding the hat donned by the narrator to fit in with city folk, Hofmann’s “top hat” seems a little too up-market, while Hamburger’s “hard hat” conjures up a building site. I have gone for “bowler hat” of a clerk or business man. The sound of the birds in quatrain 6 is important. Hofmann’s “bawl” catches the anti-pastoral tone of the poem but Hamburger is forced by the needs of form to go for “twitter and cheep” (to rhyme with “sleep”). There is also some ambiguity in the final stanza where the narrator hopes to keep his “Virginia” alight in the coming earthquakes of social disruption. The German suggests the cigar will hopefully not go out (“nicht ausgeher”) and the cause: “lassen durch Bitterkeit”. Hofmann renders this as hoping the cigar will not “go bitter on me” whereas Hamburger (again in part for the sake of form) hopes to keep the cigar alight “embittered or no”. Hofmann’s phrase feels too narrowly concerned with the smoking experience but Hamburger’s rather awkward phrase does successfully suggest what I see in the final lines – the narrator’s hope (if not altogether sincerely) that he himself may avoid becoming bitter. My solution tries to hold both literal and transferred metaphorical senses of the bitter cigar equally within the line. I’ve come to think of this as important to the poem as the narrator is blessed with a degree of self awareness as much as he is cursed with a cynical, dismissive hedonism.

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Of poor B.B.

I, Bertolt Brecht, came from the black forests.
My mother bore me into the city
while I was in her womb. And till my dying day
the chill of the woods will lie there inside me.

In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the beginning
supplied with every last sacrament:
with newspapers – and tobacco – and with brandy.
To the end, suspicious, lazy, content.

I’m amicable with the people I meet. I don
a bowler hat in just the way they do.
I say: they’re animals with a quite peculiar smell.
And I say: so what – I am too.

In the morning, in my vacant rocking chairs,
I sometimes set for myself a couple of women
and carelessly gaze at them and converse with them:
in me you have one here you can’t rely on.

When night falls, I gather men around me;
we address each other as ‘gentlemen’.
They swing their feet onto my table tops.
They say: things will improve for us. I don’t ask when.

Come morning, in dawn’s grey light, pine trees piss
and their vermin, the birds, start to shriek.
At that hour, in the city, I drain a glass and fling
my cigar butt away and, troubled, fall asleep.

We have settled, a superficial crew,
in houses that to our minds will never fall derelict
(we’ve built tower blocks over Manhattan Island
and spindly antennae that tickle the Atlantic).

What will last of cities is what blows through them: wind!
Houses make happy eaters: wolfed in a moment.
We know it – we are temporary
and after us comes nothing really worthy of comment.

In the earthquakes that are to come, I hope I’ll keep
my Virginia lit, not doused, grown bitter.
I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities
long ago from the black forests inside my mother.

tr. Martyn Crucefix

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Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’

I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.

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Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and  the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.

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In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.

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From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.

The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.

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Michael Hofmann

Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.

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Michael Hamburger

So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

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Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.

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