Saturday, November 15, 2008
One evening in the earlyish 90s I was scrounging around in the poetry stacks at the marvelous Green Apple Books on Clement St in Baghdad by the Bay, & came upon a rather dog-eared volume titled Modern European Poetry. It’s one of those “try to pack everything into 600 pages” books: translations of major poets from French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, & Spanish. While this anthology contained several poets whose work I had in other books (Apollinaire, Rilke, Montale, Neruda, etc.) it also promised a selection of quite a few poets who weren’t known to me, & for $3.50 the book took its place on my shelf. Among the poets whose work I first encountered in this anthology was the marvelous Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.
Bachmann (1926-1973) was associated with Gruppe 47, an influential post World War II German literary circle whose members included Paul Celan, Günter Grass, & Heinrich Böll. Like these writers, Bachmann was strongly anti-fascist (she recalled seeing the Nazi troops entering Vienna as the moment that “shattered” her childhood) & concerned with how to continue literary expression in the German language following the horrors & propagandistic perversions of the Nazi period. Bachmann was a serious student of philosophy, writing a doctoral dissertation on Heideggar, & having a profound interest in the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein.
Bachmann was particularly intrigued by Wittgenstein’s concept of language being unable to articulate the “unspeakable,” a concept she grappled with throughout her writing career. She also wrote about living “on the border of speech”—existing in a place where the poet is always in a struggle with that which defies expression. Poet Charles Simic wrote, “Bachmann’s is a poetry of estrangement and nostalgia. Her poems are elegies for a loss beyond words.”
Today’s poem is “Fog Land” (“Nebelland” in German), translated by Peter Filkins. I’ve read a few translations of this poem, & Filkins strikes me as the best English language poem—unfortunately, I don’t know German & so have no other basis for a choice (tho I do think this is a legitimate basis for choosing). “Fog Land” describes a sort of nightmare fairy tale landscape of isolation & alienation from the beloved—note that at the poem’s end, the poet again is further isolated by language: “But I don’t understand this talk” (“Doch diese Sprach verstehe ich nicht”).
Hope you enjoy this haunting poem from her 1956 collection, Invocation of the Great Bear (Anrufung des Großen Bären).
In winter my lover
lives among the beasts of the forest.
The vixen knows I must return
by morning, and she laughs.
How the clouds tremble! On my
snow collar a shower
of brittle ice falls.
In winter my lover
is a tree among trees, inviting
the hapless crows to nest
in her beautiful limbs. She knows
that the wind, when dusk falls,
will lift her stiff, frost-covered
evening dress and chase me home.
In winter my lover
is a fish among fish and mute.
A slave to water that her fins
stroke from within,
I stand on the bank and watch,
till ice floes drive me away,
how she dives and turns.
And hearing the bird’s hunting call
as above me it arches
its wings, I fall
onto an open field: she plucks
the hens and tosses me a white
collar bone. I hang it around my neck
and walk off through the bitter down.
Faithless is my lover,
for I know she sometimes slips off
on high heels to town,
kissing the glasses in bars
deep in the mouth with a straw,
finding a spare word for everyone.
But I don’t understand this talk.
For it’s fog land I have seen.
Fog heart I have eaten.
Ingeborg Bachmann, 1956
translated by Peter Filkins, © 1994, Peter Filkins