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A Confucian Celerity: On “Angina Day: Selected Poems” by Günter Eich

Throughout his years of exile, Bertolt Brecht carried little with him: his manuscripts, his smoker's paraphernalia, and a black scroll containing a painting of Confucius, which he would hang somewhere near his desk by the window. East Asian themes had always fascinated Brecht. In 1950, he published his Chinesische Gedichte (Chinese Poems), seven of which were based on translations by Arthur Waley, and one on an original by Kuan Chao. A late Brecht poem shows all the vestiges of his interest in the Chinese style; the poems’ epigrammatic qualities represent almost a total rejection of his earlier, more exuberant epic poetry: they are pithy, urbane and quietly elegant. Among the more famous are “The Solution” and “Changing The Wheel”—the latter which is here quoted in full:

I sit by the roadside
The driver changes the wheel.
I do not like the place I have come from.
I do not like the place I am going to.
Why with impatience do I
Watch him changing the wheel?

This poem's remarkable tautness and discipline encases the nervous impatience of Germany's traumatic post-war years—years when both halves of that nation were being swept along by opposing historical tides. After Brecht's death in 1953, it would be thirteen years before another poem of that calibre appeared. Its author was Günter Eich—whose “Delayed” from his Anlässe und Steingärten (1966), picks up where Brecht left off:

I have been here
and here,
I could have
gone there too,
or stayed at home.
You can understand the world
without leaving home.
I encountered Lao Tse
before I met Marx.
But one
social hieroglyph
caught me at the left moment,
the right having already gone.

Sadly, Eich's name is hardly known. Published by one of Germany's finest publishers—Suhrkamp Verlag, home also to Brecht—Eich, like many other European giants, is a virtual non-entity in both Britain and the United States. Of Paul Celan, his better known contemporary, most readers will at least recall the manner in which he died—by drowning himself in the Seine. Of the equally influential Eich, however, not even that is known.  Though admittedly, Eich's death was a rather more sedate affair: he came to a sudden if peaceful end in Salzburg, a couple of years after Celan in 1972. Yet the two had much in common. Both began their careers in 1948: Celan with Der Sand aus den Urnen, Eich with Abglegene Gehöfte; “Todesfuge” (Celan) and “Inventur” (Eich), written around the same time, could even be read as companion pieces. Arguably, they stood at the centre of their century—and language—in the same sort of way as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, their transatlantic counterparts.

Born in 1907, in Lebus, a provincial town in Brandenburg, now on the border with Poland, Eich studied jurisprudence and, on the side, Oriental Languages (this included a year of Sinology at the Sorbonne in 1929). Leaving his degrees unfinished, he published his first book of poems, Gedichte, in 1930. As Michael Hofmann puts it in his invaluable introduction to this new Selected, they were “sentimental, derivative, and conventionally lyrical.” Around the same time, he married his first wife, who died shortly after the war. Grisly though it was, his “six-week training course” in the Wehrmacht—which began in 1939 and in the end lasted a full five years—luckily meant that he was absent from his flat in Berlin when it was bombed, destroying all of his papers. By the time his work re-emerged on the literary scene, he was “unrecognizable.” Much of this must be down to the year he spent in a U.S. Internment camp toward the end of the war. Like Pound, who wrote much of The Pisan Cantos while in a similar situation, Eich read, reflected, and endowed his new poems with the philological precision and quiet flow of the East Asian lyrics he had studied in his earlier years. One can only imagine the difficult balance he must have sought to strike between the terrible disorder around him and the “clean” discipline of his words. “Camp 16,” one of the standouts from Abglegene Gehöfte is a case in point. “I look through the barbed wire/directly at the flowing Rhine./I dig myself a hole in the ground,/I have no tent.”

I can only describe these images as having a sort of “Confucian celerity”: swift but considered, pessimistic about his solitude—perhaps even resigned; and yet, one also detects a decidedly rebellious undertone: that determination to bear witness, to forge a sense of pathos with the reader by stating that there was to be no refuge from that history (the missing tent). There was much to say in the aftermath of the Second World War, after all, but the means of doing so were uncertain: the baroque bag of tricks which previous writers had used was now out of bounds; they were too subjective—and the national psyche too frail and disinterested. No one wanted the stately idealism of Goethe or Schiller, the lofty heights of Rilke and George. Both Germanies were competing to represent the “true spirit” of the nation in order to win over masses still largely conditioned by National Socialism. As far as the average citizen was concerned, any kind of “-ism” was suspicious. To succeed despite these limitations was Eich's great achievement. In “Camp 16,” Eich looks directly at the flowing Rhine, that Romantic symbol of Germany—and trenches himself in. Why? Out of shame? Guilt, or the processing of guilt is a recurring theme in his work, but its uniqueness lies in using that guilt to more positive ends, as an engine for reflection. Eich's is a particular kind of Deutsche Misere, one which arises from what Hofmann calls “the moment of the Zero Hour and Germania rasa, the moment of plain speech after the hateful jargon and lying bluster of Nazism, the moment of frank avowal and litany of destitution.”

As Belle Randall put it in her own review of the book, Eich was one of the three postwar writers whose work “answered Adorno's sense that no poetry could be written after the Holocaust.” The other two were Celan and Beckett. However true this may be, Eich was also aware of the urgent need for a critical awareness of the Cold War.  Like Lévinas, he shows the isolated individual as human and warm; only when abstracted in a crowd or political message does the individual lose his humanity—like in “Rauchbier” (Smoked Beer):

My headlines,
deaf-mute pretzel sellers
hunkered in the passage
sharing a beer,
I stare at their conversations,
their modest
and continual horror,
my headlines,
my Kennedys,
my Kruschevs.

As with Brecht's late volumes, Eich's are like blasphemous hymn books. The language of Luther's Bible pervades these poems: the repetitions, the inversions; as Eich puts it in “And”: “It will last/so long as the and doesn't/slip my mind like the other words./It's enough, thanks, it's plenty.” Amen.

Much of the freshness and vitality of this volume is owed to its translator; Hofmann delivers Eich's philological precision and lightens it with a seamless syntax. Despite my lack of German, it is plain to me that Hofmann takes liberties only when absolutely necessary, and while his Eich feels German, the transposition into English is utterly harmonious, proving Paul Celan's dictum—that bilingual poetry “goes to the dogs”—to be fortunately wrong. Linguistically challenged aficionados of German poetry owe Hofmann a Vielen Dank!; indeed, it is most fortunate that, after two decades of dedicating himself almost exclusively to prose (to him we owe Joseph Roth among many others), Hofmann has now increasingly turned his hand to poetry. In the past five years we have had his Faber Book of Twentieth Century German Poems, an essential introduction, a volume of Durs Grünbein's poems, Ashes for Breakfast, this Eich, and a forthcoming Gottfried Benn. It is easy to underestimate the importance of such work. Very few translations are readable, and even fewer transmit some of the suspected magic we are told lies in the originals. At slightly under two hundred pages, Angina Days: Selected Poems, is as complete a portrait of Eich as is currently available. This is no small feat considering that, as Hofmann says, Eich “wrote relatively little.” One is also pleased to see quite a few poems from his radio plays included at the end of the volume.

Published Jan 13, 2011   Copyright 2011

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