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from the December 2017 issue

The Torn Gaze: Elke Erb’s Poems Take a Close Look at Different Ways of Seeing

Reviewed by Andrew Shields

Elke Erb is a poet of observation, and her observations often lead quickly and vividly to problems of the act of observing:

A Rhyme on Ever

The bushes, the bushes, the brambles,
the clumps of wild roses and round sloes
have torn our gaze forever
into bushes, brambles, roses and sloes.

The gaze on nature does not perceive nature whole; it is always "torn" by the perception of its individual parts. That tearing is not immediately a matter of language, as the plants are distinct from each other before they are named. But naming them as "bushes, brambles, roses and sloes" has the same effect as the gaze: it "tears" what could have been a whole into "clumps" that can be distinguished from each other both visually and verbally. So Erb's poetics of observation both produces poems and explores the fragmenting effect of the act of observation itself.

The linguistic problems Erb repeatedly addresses in her work are summed up in the opening lines of "The Smile Pitiful":

how recast in words what upsets us
bird nailed to a black post

how escape words that don't protect
from all that bares its teeth behind our back

Here, words offer a way to take "what upsets us", such as violence done to a bird, and "recast" it in lines that give upsetting images a new shape that can contain and communicate the emotions triggered by what the poet sees. At the same time, though, words cannot always provide such containment, and as they cannot "protect" us from such violence, they are also something to "escape". In "A Rhyme for Ever", the composite effect of the "gaze" and of words is a "tearing" of the world into parts; here, in "The Smile Pitiful", words may give form to emotion caused by already "torn" images, but even when they do so, the desire to "escape" from words and their failures remains.

Both the formulations in the latter poem present the issue as a problem of "how" to do it. The implicit question is explicit in the brief "Getting Wind of a Plan":

How can anyone be rain and wind,
that is falling and blowing, and a path on a rock ridge
and rose hip and iron maw
and wings in clear air
and choking on it all at the same time?
            for Friederike Mayröcker

The dedication at the end implies an answer to this rhetorical question: if anyone can be so expansive and all-inclusive, it is Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who is fourteen years Erb's senior. While one might have to know Mayröcker's work to see how it's really done, the question here does act out an answer: the poem that captures so many distinct images with different valences can reach for wholeness in a question that brings contradictory elements together. All the parts may "tear our gaze forever", but the question becomes a suture for that tear that admits distinctions while also bridging them "at the same time."

Like Mayröcker, Erb writes in German; thanks to Rosmarie Waldrop's translations, both of them are available in English in the Burning Deck Press Dichten= series, along with many other German-language poets. Erb was born in 1938 and has published twenty-five volumes of poetry in the past forty years; the selections in The Up and Down of Feet are taken from six volumes published between 1994 and 2010. She has also worked most of her life as a translator, mostly from Russian into German but also from other languages, including Italian and English. In fact, she has also translated Rosmarie Waldrop into German, and Waldrop's translations make clear that the two poets have a great affinity with each other as they carry their poems across the distance from one language to another. That distance appears in The Up and Down of Feet at the beginning of Erb's prose poem "From Holland to Spain" as a distance between countries that can be bridged by reading:

You see yourself from a great distance when you read about Holland. You could be anybody. Whoever reads about Holland is there in spirit. Holland's eminence pushes it into the far distance. Its eminence is composite, one thing connected to another.

Reading about another country, like reading translated poems by a poet from another country, establishes a double distance: from oneself as one identifies with that other; from the other country and language as one remains in one's own geography. Yet from these distances, the other country becomes a composite whole, its parts not "torn from" but "connected to" each other: "Naval power, commercial power, sheep breeding, lens grinding." The observational perspective may "tear" up the wholeness of nature and, even here, set the self at a distance to the self, but the distance of the other country or language becomes a way of seeing things as connected rather than as separated by the act of seeing itself.

The implicit and explicit threats to the self that run through Erb's work in this volume are occasionally revealed to have a historical and political edge, as in the beginning of the prose poem "Russia As It Moved On": "How in Russia, you, I would have been . . . eliminated. No matter under which regime [. . .]." The poet as critic of the desire for wholeness and unity is a danger to both Russia's Soviet incarnation and its contemporary authoritarianism. An aesthetics of wholeness and its troubles will always undermine a politics of wholeness that does not recognize that any member of the nation might want to "escape" it, whether by crossing a border or by reading and writing of elsewheres that are outside the political community. When you want to be "there in spirit," rather than wholly here where others see you as belonging, "the regime" will ultimately see you and your difference as something to be ". . . eliminated."

All in all, Erb's poetry thrives on shifting observational perspectives as it reaches for a natural wholeness prior to observation and challenges artificial wholeness created by acts of violence on small and large scales. If observation is Erb's ever-present problem, it is also the source of her great productivity as a poet. The poems often register moments of everyday life in its beauty and melancholy, as in this moment of observation from a "Train Window":

In the sun in the front of his house
between mountain face and railroad

an apple tree
he trims, on a ladder.

Must have heard the bells toll that
we don't live forever.

Indeed we don't, but this moment of observation lays claim to the immortality poems have always aimed for: how observed moments live beyond themselves in the words in which they are "recast."


Read more: Rosmarie Waldrop speaks to Words Without Borders about Burning Deck, the experimental poetry press she founded with Keith Waldrop, which is closing after 56 years

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