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Oblivion City

Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems

By Durs Gr ünbein

Translated by Michael Hofmann

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 298 pp., $16)

Although some poems by Durs Gr ünbein 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 Gr ünbein's coruscating writing. Gr ünbein 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." "I was half zombie, half enfant perdu," he says, "myself just a cipher in a simultaneous equation." 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 Gr ünbein'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, a writer of notable essays (appearing in translation from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2010) as well as of these masterful poems. He has won prize after prize in Germany for his poetry.

Even I, with no formal knowledge of German (but, after years of lieder and opera, able to follow it haltingly), couldn't help but stay awake all night reading Gr ünbein's severe work--an absolutely unignorable body of verse. With Gr ünbein, as with other poets whose language I did not know--Milosz, Szymborska, Transtr ömer--I have felt compelled to write about the work on the principle that these poets are so striking, even in translation, that some proportion of their poetic qualities could be described and investigated from outside their own language. Many things from foreign poems can be imported into consciousness- -montages of images, epigrams, historical panoramas, allegorical emblems, passages of personal distress--and English-speaking poets have often owed significant developments in their own writing to works they cannot read in the original. (Seamus Heaney's The Haw Lantern, for example, was visibly influenced by Eastern European poetry.)

Ashes for Breakfast contains only what Michael Hofmann found himself able and willing to translate from a very large mass of work. Hofmann, who is capable of extraordinary stylistic invention, says of the "tracing" required in translation, "I have the ability, I think, to go over lines, and make it seem like freehand":

"The worst thing in a translation, it seems to me, is the appearance of being remote-controlled, ferngesteuert. You have to look comfortable, voluntary. The Grünbein translations will look like--I hope to God they do look like--not the product of steel rulers and midnight oil, but like poems that want to be poems.. .. What I'm anxious not to do is offer something exotic, wooden, pointless, and dead."

Hofmann can be proud: his language is springy on the page. And even if it must, from time to time, depart rather far from the actual word-for-word brilliance of Grünbein's line, it usually keeps the poet's import and tone. And tone in Grünbein--dry, sarcastic, impassioned, aggressive--is as crucial as the electric metaphors that invigorate the poetry. 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.

What was it in Grünbein that so seized my attention? It was the sardonic humor, the savagery, the violent candor--all expressed in lines of cool formal elegance. In Grünbein's pages, uncontrollable feeling encounters the at first invisible control of an expert technique, creating that exciting "deadlock" of equally strong matter and manner that Robert Frost in his Notebooks found essential to poetry. Grünbein's earlier poems are allowed more sprawl than the later ones (which are hard, tight, classical even when they are most slangy or scandalous in indignation). His successive volumes are linked by a submerged autobiography (usually impersonally expressed), which in its unfolding draws the reader on from poem to poem. (With regret, I have represented all of Grünbein's lines as flush left, because of the limitations of column width.) One of the earliest autobiographical poems in this collection, "Trilce, C ésar"-- about Grünbein's discovery of Vallejo--shows the poet as one of East Germany's young generation of writers longing to escape a boring stasis, a deadening isolation:

There were days it was all we could manage
to say, "It may never happen" or
"Something will turn up ... " bored in
overheated libraries where, in moments
before they completely glazed over
our glances found themselves drifting
like smoke rings
under the lofty coffered ceilings
of Alexandrian reading rooms.
Most of us
wanted to get away (to New York
or someplace): we were students

with funny cracked voices
enthusiastically turning
failed projects in our heads.

The early poems are pervaded by the deterioration of East Germany, where the poet's aesthetic sense is stifled. He groans as his gaze passes from place to place: in a "bubbling stream" with "old auto tires, broken glass,/household junk," and "polystyrene and crap," there bobs a child's toy, a "yellow plastic duck," and at the sign of this filth-covered souvenir of innocence the poem resists its own disgust, imploring: "Kommt/Wellen klaren Wassers, kommt"--"Come, waves of crystal waters, come." The ghost of Schubert's flowing water and the "Come" of "Veni Creator" hover behind the repellent polluted brook, one of many cases in which the shades of lost ideals form the implicit background to Grünbein's jeremiads.

The free-verse "Trilce, C ésar" appeared in Grünbein's early book Mornings in the Grayzone. The book tightens up considerably with a series called "Monological Poems," manifestos exploring the poet's aesthetic: like Yeats, he aims at poems at once cold and passionate. As Grünbein wittily puts it in "Monological Poem #1,"

There are hot forms and
cold forms and poems

no matter how you break them and
what you print them on

are always cold (no matter how
hot they were at the manufacturing stage).

But in spite of his ambition to remain in cold charge of his hot material, Grünbein, like many another poet, discovers that poems have a will of their own, often the contrary mirror-image of his own conscious aims. As he writes in the equally witty "Monological Poem #4,"

You pursue your own
eccentric designs you re-

fine the images you order
the moments but you don't

listen to them
as quite differently in their own ways

they pursue their eccentric
designs refine

images show chance movements
move differently

in the same spaces and damned
if they're going to listen to you. That

is the nub.

"Das/ist der springende Punkt," says the German, "that is the crucial point" of poetry: it has to awaken itself under the poet's hand and sketch out its own desires. It was inevitable that Grünbein, with his elegant architectural sense, should see, and wryly rue, the way in which the poem of the linguistic unconscious runs in competition with the one pursued by the poet's will.

The result of the opening of the West to Grünbein's scrutiny was the extraordinarily unsettled 1994 sequence called "Variations on No Theme," composed of thirty-nine untitled and unrhymed thirteen-line quasi-sonnets (deriving, says Hofmann, from Brodsky's "A Part of Speech"). Grünbein's "Variations" seem the exacerbated utterances of a mind in terminal distress, imagining, even when taking a shower, surreal threats linked to the German past:

And in the morning, you turn on the shower,
And out comes...water, what did you think?
Red and blue stand for hot and cold.
The skin wasn't peeled off in strips like wallpaper.
That's just a nightmare, silly.
There's no thorn in the towel, no blood
On the tiles--the plug hole's gurgle
Signifies cleanliness, not death.
As to whether they still make soap
Out of bones, the foam drying
On the lines of your palms takes the fifth.
Dragged along by the hair, briefly, fear-
Fully animated, a short-lived suspicion dies.

Possessing neither the formal perfection of the fourteen-line sonnet nor the twelve-line balance of the douzain, these thirteen-line poems are models of disequilibrium. Avoiding the first-person "I," as he often does, and resorting here to brief second-person self-address, Grünbein adopts, as a sign of precariously maintained stability, the pretext of a tone of absolute objectivity: "Red and blue stand for hot and cold." When, in another poem, the speaker finds his external surroundings unreal, only books remain as sustenance:

Unreal, the room you live in by yourself,
The fly-spotted mirror, dust
In the corners clustering round a long hair
That's been lying there for weeks.
No bowl of fruit, no vase,
The only cornucopias, stacked tight,
Are the books.

In German, the "long hair" is a Frauenhaar, a woman's hair: the forlorn room has lost its other inhabitant.

The mode of this member of the sequence, one of disenchanted inventory, governs many of the chilling "Variations," which embark on an autobiographical journey. Grünbein begins with birth, when the cutting of the umbilical cord is the first sundering by the Fates; now, the "trusting smile" of the earliest photographs dissolves and rejects the present gaze of the speaker. Childhood brings "the conspiracy/Among the growns to feed and stifle you," provoking "Great clouds of hysteria / Where you learned to walk, and to fight back." In time, a form of unbearable response begins to stain everything with horror-- from a fishmonger's shop to a cat's cry:

    With a shudder
You see the crab with rubber bands
Round its claws, the trout and eel nuzzling
The slimy belly of the vast carp.
A cat cries in the car trunk for air.

As "Variations" continues, the green of spring and the song of the blackbird induce a temporary relenting of the malice of time, but even then, the speaker is conscious of graves under his feet:

Nothing is lost, not while grass sprouts

From every crack....

      How your heart leaps

To hear the scolding blackbird

Defend her patch of lawn by the side of the road,

And green everywhere. Your walk takes you

Over graves, knocked down to pathway.

Nature's rebirth, however welcome in itself, cannot cure the intensity of exposure present in the most shocking (if still impersonally phrased) self- portrait in "Variations," the poem that opens, "Shivering under masks of knowledge." "So wird man Sarkast," "This is how one becomes sarcastic," Grünbein explains. The poem anatomizes the human being produced by life in East Germany, confined to the oratory of its "cheerful killers" on the television monitor:

Shivering under masks of knowledge,

Freaked out by the extraordinary,

Dreamless by day under cynical clocks,

Timetables, scales, counseled by

Cheerful killers, in front of the monitor--

It made you sarcastic.

By the end of the poem, the self has had its sight immedicably corrupted: "The backs of your eyes peopled by monsters." ("Insects," not monsters, in the German.) The insects, as actual beings, seem more frightening than monsters (out of legend). The despair in the ironist's retrospect is felt in the shadow presence in the poem of the child he was, whose "sweet songs" antedated the sarcasm of the present.

The darkness of Durs Grünbein's vision has disturbed readers and reviewers. The poems, with their grim gaze, rarely offer relief from their short, knifing sentences. They challenge the reader to a contest in truth-telling: can you, reader, really deny this unsparing account? For readers who find a confirming darkness in themselves, in society, or in the powers that be, Grünbein appears as a voice in the wilderness, an astringent corrective to the mandatory blandness of those cheerful murderers talking at us from the television.

Grünbein's principled refusal of all transcendence did not falter after "Variations." In 1999, in After the Satires, his sight trains itself on society. In the original edition, Grünbein comments on the reference in his title to the satyr-plays following the tragedies: "After the satires: that meant once everything had been said and chewed over, the way home, the hang-over, the time for intellectual play and digestion." The scholar Judith Ryan remarks that "the poems attempt to register a bitter awakening on the part of East Germans after the first excitement of German reunification has worn off. Expecting to enjoy the economic prosperity or 'full plate' of the Federal Republic, former East Germans are disappointed to find that their lives are still difficult and that they are not always fully accepted by their new fellow citizens. Traces of the East German past remain engraved, as it were, on the faces and in the minds of those who experienced it."

The frequent criticism, by others, of Grünbein's bleakness is embedded in his "Memorandum":

Poets, so they tell us, are awkward customers

Not up to much. Even laughter has a keener, full-throated edge

When they're not around. They're notvery amusing.

No, poets are not very amusing. Even college students, confronting Emily Dickinson, ask, "Does she always have to be so depressing?" The peculiar exhilaration that attends every reading of a stunning poem is felt, perhaps, by only a minority: those reading solely for "content" are put off by "depressing" observations. 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." Perhaps poets of innately optimistic temperament are found more appealing than poets of the steely-eyed sort, just as poems of simple vocabulary tend to be preferred to poems of knotty intellectuality. 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.

The "thirteen fantasies" that Grünbein clustered (in After the Satires) under the hellish title "Ashes for Breakfast" seem to abandon the faith in both the classics and the sciences that had been a bulwark in Grünbein's writing. Although the individual poems in "Ashes for Breakfast" are intricately formal and for the most part rhymed, their content is often brutal. Human beings, members of the animal kingdom, seem hardly distant from those ancestral primates whose busy louse-hunting has evolved into our ceaseless "Unrast," restlessness, "the ruin of our species." Behold man in Grünbein's pitiless portrait:

Between snackbar and coitus, how often, miles from the Olduvai Gorge,

The hairy geezer puts in an appearance, hobbling along on the backs of his hands,

Failing abjectly as he reaches for the stars, because of a crooked ladder or a jammed elevator.

(So much for The Origin of Species or Civilization and Its Discontents.)

The veneer of education, ad astra per aspera, seems miserably thin before such an apparition. There are even, for Grünbein, disheartening moments "when the books close ranks and it transpires they don't speak." Goings-on in the outer world are only a momentary distraction: after reading the newspaper, the poet announces that "I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread." 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 black

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.

And 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. Besides "Ashes for Breakfast," there are three other distinctive rhymed sequences in After the Satires: "Berlin Rounds," "Greetings from Oblivion City" (both about Berlin), and "Europe After the Last Rains" (about Dresden). 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. The poem in "Berlin Rounds" about Friedrichshain (the area in which the poet has his study) ends with the half-forgotten evils of the Russian occupation: "That pleas went unheeded in the cellars/Is something you can sense, in Friedrichshain." But not everybody wants to sense such things. As the new Potsdamer Platz is being constructed, human scale vanishes, and the Russian-occupied past vanishes along with it:

What's going on here, you ask, nothing

    looks familiar

As you hunch under cranes. Didn't you

    use to be a giant

And have the place at your feet?

    Squares shrank to Lilliputian scale

When you surfaced. One "Atchoo!"

    brought down whole apartment


This used to be waste ground, sand, and

    a bit of scorched grass,

Not marked on the map. Now no one

    believes you when you say

Goya's colossus used to sit here, waiting

    for it to revert to steppe.

Grünbein's sudden surges into another plane--from Potsdamer Platz to Goya's grossly over-sized man-eating monster--are richly typical of his agile imagination, which can swoop in a single line, with the celerity of incensed intelligence, from a banal present to an anguished past.

The tone taken about Berlin lightens somewhat in Grünbein's postcard sequence, "Greetings from Oblivion City." My favorite moment of lightness is the one in which the poet thinks up new constellations appropriate to industrialized postmodernity:

Among the new

Constellations, glittering alongside the

Lyre, the Swan, and Sagittarius,

Is a sports car at full tilt, hounded by a


Over the Revolver hangs the

back-to-front Baseball Cap....

Seen from the air, the city looks like a

scrambled text anyway

That only beings with polyhedron eyes

could ever crack.

And it was time (one thinks, reading Grünbein) that the modern fetish of working-out got its comeuppance:

A studio at night. A picture window.

    Running on the spot,

Earplugs in, you see women strapped

      to metal equipment

That resembles torture bench and

    garrote. Fitness is the magic word


But 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?"

It was at one and the same time

long doomed, still inhabited, and

    already forgotten

by the last of its fly-by-night tenants,


    Furies flitting

from civilization to ashes.

In postwar Dresden, fragments of baroque architecture could still be seen along the Elbe; and Grünbein's analogizing mind juxtaposes those fragments with looming architectural shapes unearthed from the remote past:

Along the scuffed banks, worn brown

    in parts,

you still encountered massy baroque.

    Some souls might find

their personal Angkor Wat there in the

    chilly moonlight.

The eleven poems of "Europe after the Last Rains" differ so greatly in length, rhyme scheme, and line length that they exert a formal fascination. Several poems play with various species of quatrain rhyme: there is a dizain here, a douzain there. And Poem IV is a sonnet, rhyming oddly, as it brackets the octave with its a rhyme, and the sestet with its e rhyme: abcd bcda efg fge (I separate the rhyme-units for convenience, but there are no spaces between the lines in the poem). Strange though it seems in its rhyme, this sonnet depends on one of the perennial sonnet conventions, the "running over" (from sheer emotion) of the octave into the ninth line. After the ninth line Dresden goes aflame, the water of its river useless to its burning inhabitants.

Only at the sixth poem of the eleven-poem "Europe" does one recognize the strict structure of the whole arc: 5 + 1 + 5. Poem VI, the central one, reveals the death of Grünbein's grandmother in the bombings of Dresden in February 1945 by the Royal Air Force and the American Army Air Force. The incendiary firestorm that engulfed the city killed thousands. I will quote the whole of this extraordinary poem of apocalypse, which includes the angels of the Last Trump. The poem as a whole, punctuated by three successive waves of bombers, is dedicated "To my grandmother, Dora W.":

When the first wave of bombers came, she was

In hospital with scarlet fever. The air-raid alarm

Tore many from their dreams. The winter air grew warm,

And the night was bright as day.

Like ghosts in their white nightshirts,

They ran barefoot to the Elbe meadows ...

Panic, a surge of air from the bomb bays,

Before the angels trumpeted from on high.

And when the second wave of bombers came,

The city vanished into a silent film, and no shadow fell

As it burned through the wall of flame,

That was objective to some, and a trap to others.

On one twentieth-century night, planes

Delivered a second stone age.

The odd bomb shelter, like the tomb behind the stone,

Housed man, wife, and child, all done to a crisp.

And when the third wave came, she was walking

Calmly in the line of refugees, on tottering legs

To the afterlife. There were no tears,

Nothing left to cry with in whatever was left.

Even in translation, the poem is arresting (although "done to a crisp" seems to me a false note). But the original--with its elegiac subject, its harrowing images, its basis in family history, its dryness of statement, its solidity of technique--seems to me a work destined to last.

Grünbein is not unaware of what went on in Dresden before the bombing. In Poem VIII, recalling the destruction by bombs of masterpieces of painting and music, he acquiesces in that loss "in the name of what happened there," the death transports bringing innocent people to concentration camps. Then he asks the forbidden question: "Was it worth it?"

    In the name of what

         happened there

One gives up the Vermeer (burned)

And the Bach (disappeared).

Was it worth it? That whole cities,

From which the death transports rolled

Became wastelands on Lethe's banks.

Before the final subsidence of his Dresden sequence into blank erasure, Grünbein allows himself a surreal report of the city's chaos during the bombing, as circus animals flee into the fire, watched with dismay by the damaged statues of Apostles surveying the destruction from the roofs of churches. With understandable and unreasonable bitterness toward the young bombers, the poet remarks of the circus animals that none of them was a monster,

Compared to the smart boys, the pilots,

Who went after man and beast on diving raids.

They did their stunts without a net or trapeze

Above the arena. The charred

Apostles on the roofs stand there in dismay.

The dismay of the charred Apostles as they gaze on the firestorm is a view from outside the world of bomber and bombed alike--a view unattainable, perhaps, to anyone but these appalled statues.

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 Grünbein'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 originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.