Apologies for the relative silence from my blog. I have been busy preparing and working to propel into the world two new books of poetry. The first out has been These Numbered Days, my new translations of the GDR poet, Peter Huchel, published by Shearsman Books.
The second book will be published by Hercules Editions, It’s called Cargo of Limbs – more details of it can be found here. I’ll also post the launch event details below – it’s an open and free event and I would be delighted to see you there.
These two pieces on the writing and illustrating of my new chapbook, O. at the Edge of the Gorge, first appeared on the Guillemot Press website. Thanks to the Press and Phyllida Bluemel for permission to re-post them here.
The scraps and scribbles that eventually became O. at the Edge of the Gorge are contained in a notebook dating from March 2014. The first words that made it into the finished sequence record my sighting of “6 white doves / on the boundary wall / looking away”. I’m pretty sure I spotted the birds on the drive to one of the airports north of London as, on the same page, sits a note recording a tannoy announcement calling a customer back to one of the shops in the Duty Free zone: “please return / to Glorious Britain / for a forgotten item”. These are the sorts of strange happenstances that get thrown down in a writer’s notebook; happily, it was the dove image that stayed with me.
The landscape of the poem is the destination of my flight that day, the Marche in central, eastern Italy. I was staying in a house close to the edge of a deep gorge, looking out to distant hillsides, several hilltop villages, their church spires, clumps of dark trees. The roots of the poems – any poem, of course – spread much deeper than is immediately visible. So earlier in the same notebook, I find I had noted a quotation from Schopenhauer (itself quoted by Dannie Abse in the May 2014 issue of the magazine Acumen): “Envy builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger; sympathy makes it slight and transparent – nay, sometimes it pulls down the wall altogether and then the distinction between self and not-self vanishes”.
A little earlier, there was another note. This was from a piece by Ed Hirsch in the magazine The Dark Horse. Hirsch quoted Simone Weil’s observation that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. He went on to urge our attention ought be paid to the earth, not looking for something atemporal and divine. We need to cherish the fleeting and the transient, even in its disappearance. This is the particular project of poetry, he argued, and these are recognisably Rilkean ideas that were always likely to attract my interest. I have spent many years translating Rilke’s Duino Elegiesand Sonnets to Orpheus. The Orpheus link took a while to re-surface in my mind in relation to the new poems.
One other notebook entry stands out. I seem to have been reading Bruce Bawer’s book, Prophets and Professors (Storyline Press, 1995), and in a chapter on Wallace Stevens he quotes Mallarme: “To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object”. It’s not necessary for a writer to fully grasp such scattered sources; they tend to be ripped out of context and appropriated for use. In retrospect, I seemed to be thinking, over a period of weeks, about the relation between self and other, the paying of attention to the transient world and the difficulty of maintaining such attention through the medium of language. All of this re-appears in the poems that make up O. at the Edge of the Gorge.
Also by this time – probably July 2014 – there were two strong poetic voices chanting in my head. One was from poems I was trying to translate by Peter Huchel, poems written in the highly censored context of the GDR in the mid 20th century. I find I’d scribbled down “his vision is up-rooted, deracinated in the extreme – a world where meaning has withdrawn (the jugglers have long gone) what’s left is iron, winter, suspicion – spies, the Stasi, meaninglessness – but the natural world persists”. The other voice was from the Ancient Chinese texts of the Daodejing which I had also been versioning for quite a few months previously and were eventually to be published in 2016 by Enitharmon Press.
In complete contrast to Huchel, the Daodejing’s vision is one of ultimate unity and wholeness achieved through such an intense attentiveness as to extinguish the self and all barriers. These two extremes seem to form a key part of the sequence of poems that emerged in the next few weeks, my narrative voice moving from a Huchel-like sense of division and isolation to a more Dao-like sense of potential oneness.
Besides all this, I was playing in the notebook with the idea of ‘off’’. The point was, rather than focusing where the ‘frame’ directs us, we gain more from attending to what lies beyond it; the peripheral, I suppose, in a kind of revolt. I was muttering to myself “locus not focus”. I was thinking of the lovely word ‘pleroma’, a word associated with the Gnostics and referring to the aggregation of all Divine powers – though, as with Ed Hirsch, I was not so much interested in the Divine. Pleroma is the totality of all things; something like the Daoist’s intuition of the One. I think such ideas gave rise – quite unconsciously – to the several swarms, and flocks, the “snufflings the squeals and scratchings” that recur in the poems. These represent the fecund variousness of the (natural) world to which we might be paying more attention.
The hilly landscape and the plunging gorge itself also seem to suggest (at first) a divided vision. The carpenter bees act as intermediaries – at first alien, later to be emulated. As the first rapid drafts of individual poems came, there was a plain lyric voice – an ‘I’ – in a sort of reportage, revelling in the landscape, its creatures, colours and sounds till eventually I had 12 sonnet-like pieces. One of the poems seemed already to allude to the Orpheus myth, the moment when he looks back to Eurydice and she is returned forever to the underworld. His mistake, in this version, was that he was seeking an over-determined, “comprehending grip on earth” as opposed to a more passive openness to the phenomena of the world (which Eurydice seemed now to represent).
At some stage, the narrating ‘I’ was switched to a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ began to feel more and more like a version of Orpheus himself (hence O. at the Edge of the Gorge). The change from first to third person also gave me more distance from the materials. It was on a later visit to read my own work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the Spring of the following year that I heard Angela France reading a crown of sonnets. I blogged about it at the time and coming home it struck me that my sequence ought to take the same highly interconnected form. The 10th of my sonnets – precisely that moment where the Orpheus/Eurydice separation occurred – was expanded into two poems, absorbing some details about a parked car on a hill and others, also focused on transience, from Dante’s Paradiso Book 16. The final sonnet to appear picked up on some notes I’d made long before about seeing a hunting hawk rise up from the roadside clutching a mouse or rat in its talons. By this stage, the gorge, in its representation of the Other, had also come to be associated with life’s most apparent Other, death. The whim, or wish, or risky flight of my narrator to include or encompass the gorge itself became the poems’ hoped for goal.
I have a print-out of O at the Edge of the Gorge covered in pencil scribbles and tiny indecipherable thumbnails of visual ideas. Putting images to poetry can be daunting. I find that, armed with a pencil, a close reading of the text and lots of doodling is a good place to start. I thought a lot about the point of illustrating poetry – what the images can bring. I want the illustrations to be in conversation with the poem, rather than just replicating images already present in the words. Starting with an intuitive visual response is a nice way to get the conversation started.
For me the poems read like an unforced train of thought – a notebook in the pocket of a traveller, a sun-drenched jotting of linked observations and associations and memories – the kind of meandering thoughts that are particular to a slow and hot afternoon. They are very evocative of place.
I was taken with the formal playfulness of the poems – the crown of sonnets – where emphasis repeats and changes and each poem flows effortlessly into the next. An enacting of Martyn Crucefix’s line “he snaps them sketches then revises again”. It seemed appropriate to echo that in the imagery. The folded and interrupted illustrations bind each poem to the next. I wanted to give myself some of the constraints that the poet had set himself – and nearly every image contains an element of the one before, re-appropriated and carried forward – a visual game of Chinese whispers.
The poems move from one image to the next but there are the same preoccupations – the specks and the flocks and movements alongside monuments and geology – contrasting contexts of time, and the sense (especially given the form) of something trying to be ordered or sorted out, but not quite complying – “dicing segments of counted time…” The diagrammatic, map-like – but not-quite scrutable imagery is a response to this – an attempt to make sense of forms and information, or grasp a particular memory and note it down. Not quite successfully. We are left with a string of related thoughts and a measuring or structuring impulse.
The imagery itself takes its leave from the words – an outlined lavender stem becomes a cross-section, a contoured landscape, which in turn ends up as the outline of a branch, twisting into the form of the river at the bottom of the gorge. I had a lot of fun playing with scale and the way in which lines taken from nature mimic each other. This felt right because of the shifts in perspective in the poetry – from the raptor’s eye view, to the ‘snufflings’ and ‘scratchings’ of detail. The buzzard’s diving and ‘zooming-in’ of the landscape.
The use of newsprint for the folded pages is as much an act of ‘illustration’ for me as the lines. Maps and diagrams and lines interrupted by folds and the edge of the pages make it feel as if they are part of something else – ephemera or a dog-eared map folded, or a napkin sketch – tucked between the pages of a notebook. I also think it’s OK to want to make a beautiful object for the sake of a beautiful object – the tactility of different paper stocks, the small and pocketable size of the book – all I hope lend themselves to a thoughtful reading of the poem.
Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books)
Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)
Many thanks to Shearsman Books for providing a copy of Richard Georges’ book for review purposes.
The seed if not the full, rich fruit of Richard Georges’ Make Us All Islands can be found in Derek Walcott’s 1979 poem ‘The Sea is History’. The mostly unwritten narrative of the Caribbean slave trade, the colonial and post-colonial experience of the transported peoples is the subject of Walcott’s poem: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / [. . .] Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is history”. Born in Trinidad and raised in the British Virgin Islands where he still lives, the sea is also the depository of the brutal struggles and stories of the Caribbean past for Richard Georges, though the ubiquity of the sea in these often painful, often very beautiful poems, means its symbolic burden deepens and broadens to something nigh-existential without losing any of its historical or political power.
To begin with, Georges makes poetry from some of the very few records that have survived. The words of one transported African – known by the name Abednego – lie at the heart of ‘Griot’. The poem title (pronounced gree-oh) is a West African word for a historian, storyteller, praise singer or poet and, placed at the opening of this book, is both a confident declaration of intent by the poet and an erasure of the Western tradition’s Homeric image of the bard. Rather than heroic military exploits or mythical wanderings, the “cross of the griot” is to “speak for the speechless, / to grip the stem of the bone and coral sceptre, / to be mounted, to sing light into the bleakness”. And the words of Abednego that come down to us turn out to be a dismally familiar, devastating precursor of the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement: “Abednego the griot, the spectre / speaks: In slav’ry days, the black man’s life count for nothing”.
Poems like ‘Offering’, ‘Birth’ and ‘In the Moment Freedom Comes’ make some of those black lives count through re-deploying details of Spanish or Portuguese slave-ships wrecked or captured in Virgin Island waters. In the latter poem, the woman Ungobo languishes in the hold of the Atrevido until it is attacked by an English ship. But her sense of a liberation into sunlight and salt air seems brief if we give due weight to the concluding image in which the English sailors pluck the slave-ship’s cargo “from the hold like fishermen / clearing their traps”. Many of the figures focused on by Georges are survivors, the kind of “folk” who built the church for the community of liberated Africans in Tortola, Kingstown. Their dramatic survival from the wrecking of the slave-ships is vividly imagined:
Dream them gripping
snarling rocks as black sea claimed the broken hulk
of their prison. Amidst angry sea-spray coral
heads rise in watery light, their minds routeless,
home as far as Babylon
Likewise, George’s post-colonial figures are survivors too, of injustice and straitened economic circumstances. In ‘The Fisherman Measures Life’, the man’s labour and his rickety boat are un-romanticised in the steady-paced, long-lined tercets. This man carries with him a sense of the island’s history, recalling the “griefs” of the slave-ship Donna Paula, but his observations of nature prove no more consoling. Recalling the hunter/hunted imagery of the mid-twentieth century German poet Peter Huchel, the Fisherman watches seabirds chasing fish:
“It is much the same on land,” the fisherman thought.
Shark suited men sweat and chase American cash
like fishhooks, mouths transpierced with incandescent lures.
And in the end, he is as much a part of this brutal economy of hunter and hunted; as he pulls up his fishing pot, “its wooden frame comes to view / the cloudy depths dissolv[ing] in slippery shadows”.
Interestingly, in his recall of the wreck of the Donna Paula, the fisherman sees both “black and white hands” trying to survive. This is more than just a fleeting image in this book. Elsewhere, George carefully considers both “mariner and cargo”(‘The Heavy Anchor’) and this, alongside his concerns for survivors as much as fatalities, begins to transmute the rolling, destructive, slavering image of the sea in poem after poem into an elemental force (while still representative of historical/political forces), becoming one of the conditions of human life more generally. The opening section from ‘Proverb’ puts this succinctly: “God / fashion man / from mud / and put him / right back / when he / done.” This is a sentiment to make even Beckett’s pessimistic view – that we are born astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more – look sanguine. So the body of rooster lies rotting on a river bank; a stone lies in the water.
The stone smoothed by flood or famine if asked
could tell of slave and tsunami, or of when it was
a rough rock perched on the hillside
and a radiant rooster crowed
In the vivid and fertile Caribbean landscape, time passes and erodes; death dominates. Here are the key words from the tiny lyric ‘Light Sound Land’: deafening, spat, lose, scatter, bending, splinter, lose, bowing, shrinking, din. The sea is usually the agent of these grim conditions and the book’s title – make us all islands – emerges not as a plea, imperative or warning but as a resigned statement of fact, the consequence of the conditions in which we live.
The title phrase appears in ‘At the Waterside’, a brilliant, sustained, survivor’s meditation in 5 parts, drawing together many of the themes in the collection. The sequence has an unusually clear and stable lyric ‘I’, a man who sits watching ferries arrive on the Virgin Islands. Unlike the “white-capped tourists” (but like the Fisherman), the narrator sees the present day through the lens of history or, to be more precise, the general neglect of the island’s history. The authorities prefer to construct “concrete totems where [the island’s] cedars groan”. But for the narrator:
It is here where the Empire unravels, crumbling
in Ozymandian ruin – preserving only
an ancient anger held by hands burnt black in sun.
Perhaps it’s the same fisherman here who sails perilously out to Buck Island, to where “sparkling blues betray the reef’s lying rocks”. The narrator twice cryptically insists that “something greater” covers the fisherman. It is partly history (the clouds hang like “ghosts of slaves”) but also (and in a poetic defiance of gravitational logic) it is the ocean itself, the “whipping waters”, an omnipresence in these poems, suggesting that, whether mariner or cargo, all individuals are both authored and erased by the sea.
When you buy this book, I suggest you begin by reading the final poem, ‘Oceans’. Here too the sea is “effervescent” with history – “the bones // of slaves, of sailors” – but it also represents a more existential “abyss consuming even light in its depth”. Here is Richard Georges reading from this poem. The narrator demands to know what language might express it, how it may be securely held. The ocean also lies in the lover’s body: “And so we all remain. Divided. / Like the shores of islands”. To counter-balance such division and alienation, the little poem ‘Draining’ suggests one of humanity’s constituent drives is “a life / desperate to drink / the air outside of / us”. The metaphor is quickly switched; what runs through us is a river intent on returning to the sea. In ‘Mural’, a second ‘griot’ figure in a bar directs the poet to watch a turtle rolling and turning in the ocean. The man in the bar is a seer. Like the Fisherman and like the narrator of ‘At the Waterside’ too, what he sees is the “writhing mural / of hope and history / always carrying on”.
The stoic instinct to hope emerges in these poems as powerfully as the poet’s instinct to speak. Perhaps surprisingly, what remains with me after reading Make Us All Islands is the great beauty of Richard Georges’ language and verse. Battered by the power of his literal and symbolic ocean he humbly suggests the difficulties of articulation, imagining only a “broken book of poems”. But time and time again, he successfully evokes the light and dark of past and present and he takes on the “cross of the griot”. The rightness of each word and line-break in the poem ‘A Place in the Earth’ is a case in point:
Googling the term ‘inner émigré’ I come up mostly with links to Seamus Heaney’s use of it in the poem ‘Exposure’, the poem with which he ended North (1975):
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful . . .
In a 1998 interview, Heaney discussed his use of the term: As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon— if you’ll permit me such a grand term . . . And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space . . .Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an innerémigré. Since 1988 . . . I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere.
Heaney’s explanation of the term here is almost wholly personal and uncontroversial. Most of us would agree that we need to slip the moorings of our more socially tied selves in order to find the place of poetry. This is in part simply the required liberation from the way we use language to operate in (utilitarian) society though it’s also a shaking loose from the (again utilitarian) intentions and feelings of the quotidian. Having said that, Heaney does not mean a retreat into some up-dated Celtic Twilight world, soft-focused and fey, an abandonment of MacNeice’s requirement that modern poets are readers of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.
This is more clear when Heaney acknowledges the term ‘inner émigré’ once had a specific meaning in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone “who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.”
Heaney goes on to talk of finding in George Seferis’ work a connected idea, developed in TheRedress of Poetry (1995): Seferis is reading Greek poetry during the war in the nineteen forties and he’s trying to write an article. There is distress, uncertainty, destruction all round him, with civil war looming. And he’s reading poetry and he’s really testing it. Does this thing have any value? And at one point he says: “Reading X this morning, I found that poetry is a help.” I think that what he means is that poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster . . . Poetry’s value is established and promulgated by people who have known that feeling or something like it.
The term ‘inner émigré’ is also often used to describe Peter Huchel’s work though he was in the unusual situation of having to develop the strategy twice over. His very early poems were linked to the sort of art fostered around 1920 by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. There’s no doubt he was on the side of the proletariat, the servants and exploited farmhands. He once said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”. Even at this early stage his work did not include any proposals for a political solution and his concerns over social deprivation (witnessed from childhood days in the Brandenberg countryside) led him not to public proclamation but more inward to articulate a vision of a more fundamental relationship between productive human activity and the natural environment. It’s no surprise that Huchel felt close ties to the work of Robert Frost, though Huchel’s early verse (more than the American poet) is concerned with a representation of harmony and continuity, more fulfilment than frustration of fulfilment.
But with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, Huchel began to develop the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’, publishing very little, even deciding to withhold an entire collection of poems, fearing it might be associated with the kind of blood-and-soil nature verse approved by National Socialism. His response to political changes was silence and non-cooperation.
It’s best to understand Huchel’s short-lived flash of faith in East German land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years in terms of his earlier social concerns. As John Flores argues, Huchel’s praise of the “law” of land reform is “not to be viewed as a sudden sacrifice in answer to official decrees, an unwilling turn to a theme totally incongruous with all his earlier poetic concerns, but as a logical continuation, in a way the culmination of his sympathy for the unprivileged classes inhabiting the countryside of his origins.” Within a few years, as the poet grew increasingly discouraged by developments in DDR society, his emphasis shifts from the praise of productive human activity in nature and the social order, to a concern for the enduring misery of men, regardless of the structure of society.
Huchel again had to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’ being now at odds with East German politics yet still writing (and editing Sinn und Forme). His work becomes characterised “less by sympathy with those denied the privileges and rights due to them, more by meditations on the pain and uncertainty which permeates all human existence” (Flores again). Huchel’s tone becomes sombre and melancholy, poetic diction cryptic, his palette narrows, full of recurrent symbols. Poems from the 1950s are implicit statements of his ‘counterposition’ to the ‘construction of socialism’. Franz Schonauer suggests Huchel’s poems are not the expression of a direct opposition or political protest and express a loss of confidence. These poems are winter psalms. What is at stake is the human intellect and its power of resistance when reason and culture seem brutally damaged, in a frozen motionless state. This is from ‘Exile’, published in 1972:
With evening, friends close in,
the shadows of hills.
Slowly they press across the threshold,
darkening the salt,
darkening the bread
and strike up conversation with my silence.
Outside in the maple
the wind stirs:
my sister, the rainwater
in the chalky trough,
gazes up at the clouds.
Huchel could still write: “The creative, even eruptive, element in lyric poetry only rarely exists without rules; it needs a container, a form, so as not to disperse. Spring water spilled on the floor has only a dim glow – but when poured into a glass it is full of light”. This is the same little redoubt that Seamus Heaney found in Seferis; each hard-won poem as a receptacle of something that will not be taken over by history or the world or by disaster.
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:
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.
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
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”.
of withered leaves
glint on the wall.
The flight of cranes,
arrowheads of autumn,
In bright boughs
the hour’s pulse subsides.
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:
dust across the ground,
the heirs dead.
And grim skies,
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.
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.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.