By Helen Vendler
Poetry Media Service
Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems, by Durs Grünbein. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.00
Although some poems by Durs Grünbein had been published in journals here and in England, it was not until the appearance of this volume, crisply and colloquially translated by Michael Hofmann, that an English-speaking reader could approach Grünbein's coruscating writing. Grünbein was born in Dresden, in East Germany, in 1962, and moved to East Berlin as a young adult. "I was happy in a sandy no-man's land," the poet wrote in 1991, evoking his student life in the East by casting himself, in his devastatingly ironic sonnet sequence "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (Not Collie)," as a patrol dog "in the suicide strip, equidistant from East and West." With the fall of the Wall in 1989, with even the "two or three names for the place of separation" vanishing into oblivion, "nothing is left to recall the trick/By which a strip of land became a hole in time."
"Being a dog," says a defining poem early in "Portrait of the Artist," "is having to when you don't want to, wanting to/When you can't, and always somebody watching." The frustration of being restricted in will and placed under surveillance emerges in the iron grip of Grünbein's epigram. The young poet left the East as soon as possible, only to discover the vices and the disappointments of the West. Although he became permanently ill at ease with respect to place, he is supremely at home in language. There is hardly a page here that does not contain a real poem, out of Grünbein by Hofmann, a poem "real" enough--in emotion, in cadence, in imagination--to make a reader's hair stand on end.
The frequent criticism, by others, of Grünbein's bleakness is embedded in his "Memorandum":
Poets, so they tell us, are awkward customersNo, poets are not very amusing. The discontented demand by some readers that poetry should be "healing" or "uplifting" or "optimistic" or "humane" (or "accessible") re-affirms the truth of Eliot's observation that "human kind cannot bear very much reality." Yet it is, in fact, an optimistic act to write any poem at all: the act implies the trust that another mind will meet the poem half way, and an even deeper trust that language can become adequate to a human predicament.
Not up to much. Even laughter has a keener, full-throated edge
When they're not around. They're not very amusing.
There are even, for Grünbein, disheartening moments "when the books close ranks and it transpires they don't speak." Here the poet, speaking in the lyric first person, is the man of letters who looks for a sustaining word in the daily paper and finds none. The muse of history, Clio, will not reveal any significance in current events:
I have breakfasted on ashes, the blackAnd yet Clio, for all her intermittent silence, is Grünbein's principal muse. He came to consciousness within the disastrous history of twentieth-century Germany and has had to re-imagine that history for himself, to meditate on the fire-bombed Dresden where he was born, and to judge the unified but invisibly divided Berlin where he now lives. It must give a shiver to citizens of Berlin to see their contemporary city-sites given sharp definition by Grünbein, with his perpetually simmering sense of an imperfectly buried past.
Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.
When a coup makes no stain, and a tornado sticks to half a page.
And it seemed to me as though the Fates licked their lips
When war broke out in the sports section, reflected in the falling Dow.
I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread.
And Clio, as ever, keeps mum.... There, just as I folded them up,
The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.
It is in the formidable 1994 eleven-poem Dresden sequence, "Europe after the Last Rains," that we see the most melancholy (and angry) Grünbein. He returns to the place of his youth, but it has disappeared. "Memory has no real estate no city / where you come home and you know where you are." Remembering the World War II firebombing of the city, Grünbein asks, "Is it the same city in the valley/as the pilot saw in its phosphorescent glory?"
Germany's earlier twentieth century, led by a Fuhrer and his followers, and populated by combatants, resisters, refugees, camp victims, children, "righteous Gentiles," and a host of subsidiary figures, has had its chronicles written and rewritten, just as the later twentieth century, with the Russian and American occupation, the Wall, the airlift, and the fall of East Germany, has had its own distinct forms of retrospection. One candid and chilling version of this history has been, and is being, told by Germany's poets. Durs Grü-nbein's account stands as an illumination and corrective to the more impersonal accounts of historians and scholars.
Helen Vendler is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article first appeared in The New Republic. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2009 by Helen Vendler. All rights reserved.