Saturday, December 12, 2009

“Borrowed Time”

After posting Vallejo’s “Piedra Negra Sobre Piedra Blanca” (“Black Stone Lying on a White Stone”) last Saturday, I decided the theme for December’s will be poetry in translation. Of course, this excludes my translations from the French, so you can expect 20th century poems from other languages.

Today’s poem is by German poet Ingeborg Bachmann, another true great of the last century. I posted her poem “Fog Land” here last year, & I’m happy to post another—her poem “Die gestundete Zeit,” translated by Peter Filkins (whose translation is the one I used) as “Borrowed Time” & by Michael Hamburger as “The Respite.”

Bachmann is a poet who can pare a landscape pared down to very basic elements & then embue it with meaning & emotion. Both this poem & “Fog Land” (“Nebelland” in the original German) create a sort of fairy tale/folk song landscape that is rendered harrowing & harsh.

I’d encourage readers to check out more of Bachmann’s work; she really was a masterful lyric poet
—it would be worth knowing German just to be able to translate her work. In the meantime, hope you enjoy this one.

Borrowed Time

Harder days are coming.
The loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your boots
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
For the entrails of fish
have grown cold in the wind.
Dimly burns the light of lupines.
Your gaze makes out in fog:
the loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.

There your loved one sinks in sand:
it rises up to her windblown hair,
it cuts her short,
it commands her to be silent,
it discovers she’s mortal
and willing to leave you
after every embrace.

Don’t look around.
Lace up your boots.
Chase back the hounds.
Throw the fish into the sea.
Put out the lupines!

Harder days are coming.

Ingeborg Bachmann
translation by Peter Filkins


  1. Love this! I'll have to see if I can find some of her work in translation.

  2. I love this poem. John introduced me to this poet and I think she's enchanting (in the harrowing kind of way that fairy tales can enchant)- I love to walk into her landscapes even though they can be so chilling. As with Fog Land, the landscape of this poem seems both concrete and abstract/mystical. That sense of time receding and advancing simultaneously. I love how the opening lines make the horizon some kind of ledger line in an accounting book-- and the loved one's head sinking in front of it, bodiless-- and those lupines!

  3. Hi Karen & Eberle

    Karen: I believe the Filkins book, called Songs in Flight, is still in print. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Eberle: Thanks for your lovely description of Bachmann's poetry!

  4. There's something about the German and Scandinavian sensibility that just inhabits the landscape that surrounds them. I've seen this time and again in films by Danish, Finnish and Swedish directors as well as the German.
    Straightaway, when I read that line about the fish entrails, I pictured a cold harsh hillside with salt cod hanging on a line. I love the way these poets can conjure up foreign vistas and innate cultural emotions with so few words.

  5. Hi Kat: Yes, like the salt cod in Babette's Feast!

  6. One of my absolute favourite films, John. Have I asked if you've seen, "Pelle, The Conqueror"? I think that is my definite favourite out of Scandinavia.

  7. Hi Kat: Babette's Feast is also one of my very favorites (& Eberle's, too). Haven't seen Pelle the Conqueror--maybe I should put it on our Netflix queue!


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