Durs Grünbein - I was my own dog, in the suicide strip, equidistant from East and West

Durs Grünbein, Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems, Trans. by
Michael Hofmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005)

"[Grünbein's] poems have a nonchalant grace, and shine against their setting of Stalinoid concrete, drabness and dreck. What makes them especially appealing are their volatile shifts of perspective, a sardonic wit and the way they seem to limn out a whole series of potential directions... The unhoused quality of these poems has found as permanent and well-constructed a home in English as anyone... could wish." —James McKendrick

"Younger by five to ten years than most of the poets once gathered loosely around the former Prenzlauer Berg 'scene' in East Berlin, Durs Grünbein... has emerged as one of the most visible, prolific, and intellectually serious poets of that generation. Unlike some of his peers, who seem to have become disoriented by reunification—e.g., Uwe Kolbe and Bert Papenfuß-Gorek—Grünbein has consistently worked to develop his own idiom and poetic identity." —Neil H. Donahue

"Durs Grünbein is one of the most intelligent poets writing in German today. His subject is nothing less than 'this life, so useless, so rich.' It is wonderful to have his selected poems in Michael Hofmann's note-perfect translation." —John Ashbery

"Grünbein is a highly original poet, an heir to the riches of German and European Modernism. What's striking in this poetry is a hard, almost cynical tone which turns out to be just a lid on a jar containing many substances." —Adam Zagajewski

"Born in Dresden in 1962, when the city was under East Germany's Communist rule, Grünbein has established himself as the leading poetic voice of unified Germany after the fall of the Wall in 1990. A gifted poet and clever scavenger of various literary traditions, he picks through the linguistic debris of European culture to mold his findings into well-metered and often deeply captivating verse. Packed into this selection, which has been culled from collections published between 1988 and 1999, are electrifying insights into Germany's effort to understand its role in the world today. Grünbein's predominantly unrhymed, formal poems run on the alternating currents of present-day Germany's giddiness at having no greater responsibilities than any other nation and the country's equally overwhelming grief at having so horribly squandered its potential for prominence. With wit and psychological acumen, Grünbein's poems at their best transform the specificity of this peculiarly German dilemma into a general, human concern... " —Library Journal

''From time to time / I have these days when / I feel like embarking / on a poem again / of a kind that still isn't / all that popular,'' the young Dresden-born poet Durs Grünbein wrote in his first book, ''Grauzone Morgens'' (''Mornings in the Grayzone''), published shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. ''I mean / one without any meta- / physical refinements or / that thing that lately has stood in / for such... that type of... standing gasping akimbo / in the tough East-West marathon.''
In spite of this proclamation, though, the selections from ''Grauzone Morgens'' that appear in English for the first time in ''Ashes for Breakfast,'' along with poems from four other collections, are overwhelmingly concerned with the effects of Germany's split identity, and the grim, smeared landscape of the former East Germany. ''The elephantine / gray of these / outlying suburbs'' created by Communist housing blocks hovers over everything. Here is ''Dresden / viciously fire-bombed back / another cold century of tiredness... the streets / full of echoes of secret echoes,'' and Grünbein himself ''nothing but a / wiry little extra / most of the time'' in the grand drama of the East German regime.
In Grünbein's post-Wall poems, the East-West divide is no less visible. His next book, ''Sch* delbasislektion'' (1991) (''Skull Base Lesson''), contains poems about dogs that render the plight of former Easterners in scenes and images that have the odd distinction of being whimsical even as they disturb. ''Umpteen years of service with a view of barbed wire fence, / Trotting back and forth upcountry and down, only a dog could endure,'' he writes, evoking entrapment and blind loyalty. ''I was my own dog, / In the suicide strip, equidistant from East and West. / It was only here that I sometimes performed / My salto mortale in the gloaming between dog and wolf.''
The dog and its more vicious predecessors finally carry Grünbein, who was born in 1962, out of his post-Wall funk and back even farther into evolutionary history. The first haunting glimpse comes in a 1994 poem about shaving, wherein the poet looks at himself in the mirror and sees ''the eye glazed in the morning light, an animal / In double jeopardy, practicing / The use of edged tools.'' From there it's a quick leap to a group of poems written to animals in zoos. There is a chimpanzee in London, an okapi in Munich and finally a penguin in New York that Grünbein sees first as a former G.D.R. official, ''eyes and medals front,'' and then, poignantly, as ''A hero of early vaudeville, of flickering black-and-white / Comedies, imperiled by flights of steps, by a windy world.'' Even the animals can't escape the pull of politics and revolution.
Whether we're party apparatchiks or poets, Grünbein explains, we're none of us too far from our roots. ''Between snack bar 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.')''
''Ashes for Breakfast'' is a brilliantly layered book, which, despite Grünbein's obsessive recitation of his main themes, never becomes repetitive thanks to its almost organic sensibility. In spite of a few distractions in Michael Hofmann's generally good translation (the nonsensical compound ''haiku-unerringness,'' for example, where a slightly longer but less jarring phrase like ''the simplicity of haiku'' would have sufficed), Grünbein's poems read as if the forces of history pressing in on the present drove them into this world." - Melanie Rehak

"For those of us who truly care about poetry as a living entity, the present moment is always the best. Whether a poem is written down today or scratched into clay eons ago is of little consequence, but what does matter is that the poem can reach us where we live now. This is the reason a Babylonian epic can still reach across the millennia to capture our imaginations.
It is also why it is so important that new voices in poetry have their chance to be heard. Poetry, more than any other literary form, is a transcendental tradition that connects the past with the present; blind Greek bards with urban hip-hop slammers.
Fortunately, despite the portentous and ubiquitous death knells sounded by many cultural critics, poetry is doing just fine, and for anyone in need of evidence, the work of Durs Grünbein should suffice.
Since the late 1980s, Grünbein has established himself as the poetic wunderkind of East Germany. Now English-reading audiences will have a thorough opportunity to explore the breadth of his work in the intelligently translated collection "Ashes for Breakfast."
Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962, and his first collection of poems, "Grauzone Morgens (Grey Area in the Morning), "was published just as socialism in East Germany began its final cycle of deterioration." Within this context of decaying ideology, the processes of disconnection and reunification became central tropes in much of Grünbein's work.
Reunification became not just a political process of consolidating the two Germanys, but in a deeper, symbolic sense a rejoining of once-internalized thought with newly freed forms of expression. If oppressive regimes have one advantage it is the ability to make us appreciate the little things. As Grünbein writes, "what adorable objects bathtubs are, enameled/ and sleek and altogether/ unapproachable with their/ heroic curves of wrought-iron."
Early in the collection, Grünbein's landscape is a dull tenement-gray palette against which is contrasted flashes of color. This landscape may be ruined, but it is not dead, and Grünbein finds the most human reprieve in simple objects such as a "yellow plastic duck" bobbing "on a lagoon of oil."
Grünbein's work reflects a world of humans disconnected from themselves and reduced to machines, and a menagerie of animals (particularly dogs) playing anthropomorphic service as metaphors of personal, social and political subjugation.
In Grünbein's next work, "Schädelbasislektion (lesson at the base of the skull)," a series under the title "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)'' combines many of the themes that are found throughout the poet's work. On the surface this series examines a quirky reality of man qua dog, but at a deeper level it explores the conflicts resulting from a world that has moved from homo faber (man the maker) to homme machine (man the machine). This is appropriately a world of many borders, both physical and metaphysical, a world caught between the tensions and disconnectedness of East and West, nature and science, humans and technology.
Grünbein's best work comes not with his stand-alone poems, but in poetic cycles where the momentum builds from poem to poem. This is best exemplified in a long series of poems from his 1994 collection, "Falten und Fallen (Folds and Traps)," called "Variations on No Theme." Actually, this series does have a theme, which is technology, or rather how the material of humanity exists in a technological world where "your days numbered, your life became an interval."
Grünbein's poems always seem fascinated with the simple existence of flesh and bone contrasted with the inanimate, and often the inanimate takes on expressions of human life, as when "from the vantage point of a chair leg, every table is a coffin."
This series also projects a softer and warmer tone in Grünbein's work, which is wonderfully expressed in a poem where a baby is born, "and it all began so inconsolably,/ with a piercing yell, when the world/ moved into your lungs with a rattle." Grünbein envisions a world at conflict with itself, but as a poem says, "nothing is lost, not while the grass sprouts/ from every crack."
Despite the very modern feeling to much of Grünbein's work he does not become trapped in a limited worldview, and allusions to art, history and classical literature abound and generate a type of universalism through their sometimes anachronistic placement.
One of the pleasures of collections of "selected poems" like this is the opportunity to see a poet develop over time. Grünbein's earliest work is mature to say the least, but over time his work has really come into its own. The youthful frenetic quality in his less-disciplined poetry has been replaced by a confidence and command of the form. The most recent work comes from the 1999 volume "Nach den Satiren (after the satires)." There are almost too many quotable passages to consider, but it does seem appropriate to share a few lines about his hometown of Dresden from a poignant cycle of poems under the title "Europe After the Last Rains.''
'It was at one and the same time
long doomed, still inhabited,
and already forgotten
by the last of its fly-by-night
tenants, the Furies flitting
from civilization to ashes.'

One might wrongly assume that this German poet coming out of the Eastern Bloc would be interested in politics for politics sake, but instead he finds the real germ of politics in what is immediately the personal, and after all, the role of the political as personal is one of the most essential tasks of poetry.
Grünbein now has the opportunity to reach a wider audience with this bilingual selection of his work, and much of the credit goes to his dedicated translator, Michael Hofmann. Hofmann, himself an established and respected poet, had the daunting task of making Grünbein's poetry accessible to an English-speaking audience. In large part he succeeds, and this in spite of the fact that Grünbein's German is deceptively slippery and demanding.
The German language has the ability to be precise and vague at the same time, and Grünbein uses this to his full advantage. At one moment his lines read crystal clear and can be translated readily, while at other times they are full of double meanings and compound nouns that are notoriously difficult to translate.
In the translator's preface, Hofmann owns up to his limitations and strives to focus on using his own voice to establish a tone that is as close and authentic to Grünbein's as possible. With this approach a lot of literal meaning is lost, which is fine, but Hofmann occasionally does too much to explicate meaning, which robs some of the poems of important subtext. In being a diligent translator, Hofmann occasionally forgets that much of the joy in poetry is the reader's task of finding the hidden meaning that resides beneath words and lines. Nevertheless, Hofmann has accomplished an admirable undertaking, and he never gets to the point where he leaves the poems sterile and lifeless, which happens all too often with translated poetry.
Grünbein is a vital new voice in the world of poetry, but his poems require a certain amount of effort to be truly appreciated. Many of them require several readings before yielding their full graceful and even profound significance. Grünbein does not offer the pedestrian pleasures of, say, a Billy Collins, but like Joseph Brodsky, to whom he is often compared, he is a serious and focused poet whose work has a depth that deserves our attention. If given the chance, this momentous volume will offer many pleasures." - David Hellman

"Anyone who is interested in transatlantic poetics, European poetics, poetics after communism, poetics after regime change, etc., should buy this book. It is arranged chronologically and extends from his first book, Grauzone Morgens (1988), through the zoological poems of Falten Und Fallen (1994), through Den Teuren Toten (1994) a series of 'reports on the death of insignificant people,' written in the form of ancient epitaphs and finishing with Nach Den Satiren (1999). From his publisher, we learn that Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962, and “is the most significant and successful poet to emerge from the former East Germany, a place where, he wrote, 'the best refuge was a closed mouth.'” We also learn that Grünbein has received many awards, including Germany's most prestigious literature prize, the Georg Büchner Prize (1995). All of this sets the stage for a certain type of political reading. Although the major societal clash is now between liberal democracy and a certain type of fascist-fundamentalism, Grünbein's poetry reminds the reader of the barely buried clash of the Cold War. The author rewards the reader with poetry that is more ambivalent than purely political poetry requires. Most of the pieces here are everyday poems inflected by the political.
Grünbein's world is a grey world in which we do regular things. For example, in “A Single Tin,” Grünbein writes about a tin of sardines that has drifted up among the “flotsam & jetsam / so far inland” that it “keeps / whatever this morning promises / by way of beauty.” Things float to shore, as into our lives, some of them are awful, they jumble together and yet there is something beautiful coming in on the tide. In Grünbein's work, bits and pieces of culture float together to form poems. This is the everyday world and it is deadly serious business, yet it is also possible that it is impertinent or irrelevant. One of the questions these poems ask is What is not impertinent?
These questions are also related to the questions of garbage: How do things come together? Or the Aristotelian, what is substance and what is merely accident? What parts of our identities can we dispense with? Garbage is another recurring theme, as is seen in “Untitled”: “I said I had enjoyed / wandering over the garbage / heaps with you. But you / were wearing those crazy / shoes: canary yellow, and / we were in a hurry as / a particularly cool drizzle / started to fall.” The idea of flotsam and jetsam (or of fragments coming together) reemerges when Grünbein attends to the act of writing poetry itself. In “MonoLogical Poem # 1” he asks, “what is the whole surreal jokeshop / of terrors compared to the / infinitely chance little / tricks of a poem.”
Yet life is often dull and boring during times of soldiers: “Impregnated by the foul / breath of a soldier, / whose outing had / gone wrong, she stood / in the last carriage feeling / seasick and you had to wonder / frankly how she would / ever get out of there.” These are times of soldiers, but not times of war. In this respect, Grünbein's poems are essentially European. They are poems of memory, but not of aggression. And as was seen in Europe's response to America's war in Iraq, they would prefer diplomacy to bombs. The standard line is that because Europeans remember the ravages of war they will not allow them to occur ever again except under the direst circumstances. This memory creates a morality centered on ambivalence and skepticism.
Philosophically, grayness and ambivalence permeate the book. In “Almost a Song” Grünbein writes, “Stands to reason / almost any poem / is going to make you puke / with boredom / like an ill-fitting / speech bubble: / one line's / as good as another / on this graygray color chart.” Later in that same poem he concludes, “Otherwise / it's probably just about OK.” And this is the landscape these poems inhabit: just about OK. In fact, this is perhaps the landscape of much of the world right now. It is not a time for holocaust poets. It is a time for moving along with history. And indeed on display in these poems is the morality of moving on with history. Moving on from history is not in man's design. If we move on we carry things, and Grünbein carries a certain feeling about Europe and East Germany.
A profile in Poetry International remarks that “Grünbein urgently requested to be left out of the Flemish magazine Deus ex Machina which was planning a special on literature from the former D.D.R. a few years ago. In an interview with Der Spiegel he commented briefly and angrily: 'I was lost to the D.D.R. the moment I was born.'” Ambivalence about the D.D.R. persists throughout the poems until East Germany is placed into poetic opposition with Europe.
Or, as Grünbein writes in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie),” “What a country, where a word on something topical / Provokes more than the unsayable / Remaining unsaid.” The hidden history of the D.D.R. is visible in its absence from speech. In another section of “Portrait”, Grünbein writes, “In the West, so they said, the dog precedes / His master. / In the East, he trails him--at a distance. / As for me, I was my own dog, / Equidistant from East and West, in the suicide strip.” The article in Poetry International also notes that “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Durs Grünbein became one of the first writers of the reunified Germany. His personal life clearly reflects this: he lives with wife and daughter in East Berlin, but works in a rented room in the West.” He is a skeptical unified man living his life with these tensions.
In an analysis of Grünbein's zoological parable “To an Okapi in the Munich Zoo,” Renat Bekbolatov writes, “The poet clearly displayed the formation of the new identities and new stereotypes . . . he uses the identity of a wild animal as a metaphor for the east Germans . . . The poem's main theme is that the east Germans had to adopt a new identity, however it wasn't pleasant to them; they had no choice. They came from one cage to another. The poem is a skeptical remark on the unification of the Germany, because the author understands that the German Wall meant more than just a physical wall; his view is that the Wall, being a border, created two different identities for people of East and West Germanys.” This skepticism concerning reunification (and thus, the rationalist's project) emerges through the book. If unification is not possible, flotsam and jetsam will have to do." - Francis Raven

"Translation is complicated. Need evidence? Use the Babel Fish translator on Altavista.com, where the name of East German poet Dürs Grunbein becomes "Durs green leg." While ridiculous, that may be literally correct; I wouldn't know. Which brings me, of course, to a necessary disclosure: This is a review of Ashes for Breakfast, a selection of poems by Durs Grünbein, translated from the German by the British poet Michael Hofmann. Oh, and I don't read or speak a word of German.
Which really just means that I cannot attest to what has happened to Grünbein's own words in Hofmann's collection. I can tell you that Hofmann, known for his award-winning translations of German prose, ranging from Kafka to Koeppen to Joseph Roth, has never published verse translation before. But, I can tell you that Hofmann's poetic work, sparsely emotional and concisely insightful, offers us one of the most acute and powerful voices in contemporary British letters. And, that I would also guess that there is no better bilingual than him -- a native German speaker, a gifted English-language poet, an accomplished translator, and as we learn from the introduction, a like-minded friend of Grünbein's -- to haul this selection across the linguistic border. Yet as a reviewer, I can only analyze the shipment, not the shipping (or, to riff on a translation metaphor Hofmann uses in his prefatory note, I can eat the meal, but I cannot speak to the cooking.)
Grünbein, born and raised in the formerly socialist East Germany, has been praised as the first East German poet to gain broad popularity in the now unified country. In 1995, and at the age of 33, he received the Georg-Buchner-Preis, Germany's highest literary award. Since 1988, he has published eight volumes of poetry, five of which are represented in Ashes for Breakfast, including the collection Nach Den Satiren, or After the Satires, from which the title poem "Ashes For Breakfast: Thirteen Fantasies" was taken.
In this thirteen part poem -- or series of thirteen short poems -- which sits at the center of Hofmann's book, Grünbein's fantasies, ironically, entirely lack the fantastic. Rather, they wade through the mundane, the puerile and the petty. But not really. They are Grünbein at his best.
Opening with a meditation on capitalism's effects on individuality, Grünbein presents his signature satire: the poem cycle begins "And then comes the fun part of dying." But there is nothing Larkin-esque in Grünbein's humor, no sense of bitterness in his critique. Rather, there is rather a fresh and unrelenting confrontation with the absurd reality that is the modern world.
In the ninth poem of the cycle, "(On The Daily Newspapers)", we learn that the ashes eaten with the most important meal of the day come from the blunt reportage the news offers us about this complicated world. They are stories we read and toss aside, that we ingest without thought, and yet, Grünbein tells us:
There, just as I folded them up,
The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.
To Grünbein, there is beauty and horror in this subtle shiver -- and life. The world is a mess, yet the mess Grünbein gives us is convincingly charming, part and parcel of our utterly comfortable (albeit mad) home. Consequently his tone, wryly self-critical but not self-effacing, and his voice, self-conscious, but literally so, not neurotically, harbors an underlying humbleness, a wide-eyed appreciation of the lunacy he witnesses. Death, he tells us, is "the deal-making, contract-breaking day," and "this life, so useless, so rich," is meant to be appreciated as much as possible in the moments of observation (even though "each moment is instantly ended").
There is an ease to Grünbein's method of getting this message across. A poem beginning
And why, you ask yourself (why being the most childish of questions),
Why am I involved in this rat race on battered ground
ends with reverence for sex: "the mole beside your navel… kissing a hand here, inclining/ Your supple torso there."
Refreshingly, Grünbein does not stand on high ground. It is through the muck that he sees the muck, and it is the muck for which he is looking. There is a critique, but also a contentedness, a conflicted love of it all: "Oh, to be a child again, grubbing in real feces." And this is the charm and the depth that is most striking about the entire Hofmann-translated selection. Of the 41 included poems, no two are alike in tone or voice, themes that are revisited are not rehashed, and yet still, a sense of Grünbein as a certain and singular poet does come across. Aware of "how many scenes there are/ That go unwitnessed," Grünbein's work -- which, in many places, is melancholy, politically tinged, or far from satire -- is always fervently curious, and always pungent in its honesty.
It is fitting, of course, that I cannot understand a word of Grünbein's German; for his is a project meant for the muddle and disorder of translation. His is a project steeped in the confusion of the modern world, content to watch and wonder and misunderstand. In an interview with a Heidelberg student paper, "Ruprecht", Grünbein states that "Ich glaube, daß ist auch heute noch eine gute Wurzel für ein intensives Beschäftigen mit Texten: Unverständnis als Quelle von Produktivität" -- or as Babel Fish puts it: "I believe that is also today still another good root for intensive employing with texts: Lack of understanding as source of productivity." Lack of understanding? I may not understand German, but I can appreciate that." - Joey Rubin

"Dresden-born poet Durs Grünbein has been likened to Georg Büchner, the original enfant terrible of German letters, and not just because he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 1995. By the time of his death aged 24, Büchner had written three wildly passionate plays, one radically innovative novella and one scientific dissertation on the nervous systems of freshwater fish. Grünbein, too, has the allure of a young genius - his first collection of poems was published when he was 25 - and his lines simmer with a similarly jumpy intensity. He shares Büchner's fascination with biology: Grünbein writes poems about dogs, hedgehogs and penguins, and his 1991 collection Skull Base Lesson came complete with anatomical drawings.
It has taken Grünbein a good two decades to arrive in the English-speaking world, but that's less of an indication of his talent than a testament to the limited appeal of modern poetry, and modern German poetry in particular. The poems in Ashes for Breakfast have been selected and rendered into English by Michael Hofmann, himself a versatile poet and estimable translator.
"Translator" seems like a dirty word here, given that "poetry in translation" is, according to Robert Frost, an oxymoron - the former being precisely what gets lost in the latter. In fact, it makes more sense to think of this book as a collaboration than a translation. In his foreword, Hofmann points out that he sees Grünbein as an equal, not a master: his work is "not the product of steel rulers and midnight oil", but "poems that want to be poems". Hofmann cheekily extends his artistic licence: Grünbein's self-defining lyrical sequence "Porträt des jungen Künstlers als Grenzhund", becomes "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)". The collie is nowhere to be found in the German - not that Hofmann would care.
There's much to commend this recklessness - in fact, one is left wishing that Hofmann had taken his approach a step further. Grünbein loves to jump from one register to another - one moment he is the street poet of Berlin, the next he comes over all marble and ancient philosophy. In English, Grünbein in public-intellectual-mode is as much of a mouthful as in the German - but the more colloquial passages never quite seem to get off their teutonic stilts. At times, Hofmann's phrases ring with the triumphalism of the accomplished bilinguist rather than with their proper music. In "Robinson in the City", a "malodorous hole" in the ground yawns at the human spectator. "Stinky", I think, would have done the job just as well.
This is not to say that Ashes for Breakfast isn't an overall success. When the teeth of Hofmann's vocabulary grip into the material of Grünbein's ideas, these poems can develop an irresistible emotional pull. "Greetings from Oblivion City" has the popular appeal of a Radiohead lyric, "Portrait of the Artist" works as a riveting, veiled historical epic and "In the Provinces" is a stoically comic cycle of five poems about different species of roadkill. "No resurrection, save in the form of the larvae / Of the flies that will hatch from it tomorrow", say Grünbein and Hofmann: cynicism is a sentiment that speaks all languages." - Philip Oltermann

"For a rather long time now - approximately, since the Berlin Wall came down - the name Durs Grünbein (b. 1962) has been the answer to the question: who's the leading young poet in Germany? He comes from Dresden, that is, from the former East Germany; he has published eight collections of poems, collected several of his essays, translated some classical tragedy including Seneca and Aeschylus, written a libretto recently for the composer Johannes Maria Staud, based on Edgar Allan Poe's story "Berenice", and won several prizes.
Now his poems have been translated into English and are published in hardback in the States by Farrar Straus. Ashes for Breakfast is the title. Next year, Faber will bring out a paperback. The translations are by Michael Hofmann, who tells us, much to my surprise, that these are the first German poems he has translated in over 25 years of a productive life as a poet (in English) and translator (of German prose).
All this comes as welcome news to those of us who have long been curious to read Grünbein's work but have found, when we tried to tackle the German, that we were being over-ambitious. Now we can begin. And that's what I started to do this week, noting as I did so that even Hofmann tells us that "there is a for midableness, a dauntingness about Grünbein that I don't have, perhaps can't do, and find it difficult even to respond to".
There is, however, a way in that I have discovered: that is to begin not necessarily at the beginning of the selection but towards the end. There you will find a sequence of poems called "Europe After The Last Rains", forming a magnificent elegy for Dresden, and it is there that the English reader will be perhaps most likely to say, "Yes, I see what the admirers are talking about". One might expect a poet born in Dresden to address the subject of the fire-bombing of the city, but one could equally imagine the undertaking, through its gigantic appropriateness, to be the most inhibiting.
You may recall that Kurt Vonnegut, who, as an American prisoner of war, was actually present at the bombing of Dresden, took his time, and an astonishing roundabout route, to bring us face to face with that episode at the climax of Slaughterhouse-Five , a classic of the literature of war. I happen to have been reading this very recently. Grünbein's elegiac approach seemed, by contrast, to go rather directly to the point.
I do my best, when reading in this volume, not to use the Hofmann versions simply as a crib for the German, but to read them for their own sake first. The translator anticipates, and he is right, that printing the two texts creates its problems: "You can't settle down to anything; the original faces down the translation." This is particularly the case when, as happens not seldom, Hofmann has used an odd word or idiom that provokes one into wondering what the equivalent could have been in German.
For instance, the emperor Tiberius, in a monologue called "The Misanthrope on Capri", suddenly sounds like Dame Edna Everage. "That's not all, possums," he says. The eye darts to the opposite page to find, "Nicht nur das, liebe Freunde." One wonders what it was about the expression "dear friends," in this context, that provoked this flash of Australian camp.
The "Translator's Preface" examines at some length the question of far-fetched solutions to lyric problems: "What you translate has to come out of you; you have to be able to encompass it, in other words. You can't quite say things you couldn't have said, even if you have been given them to say." However much you want to extend your range, and try to do so, you must in some sense remain yourself. Hofmann tells us that he "grew up as an English poet: small-scale, occasional, personal, wincingly witty, articulate about dirt". "Temerity takes you further. And for me that's a real motivation: I should like to learn temerity." (Well, he already has temerity to some degree, if he describes himself as witty, even wincingly so.)
The passage continues: "But there are many poems and places where Grünbein is too skilful, too euphoric, and too rhetorical for me to follow him. Sonnet sequences, poems praising Italy, his more neutral and classical - unPoundian - vein of classicism (what I think of in him as 'marble'), anywhere, in fact, where rhyme - to Rilke the vector of praise - presents itself as an issue."
This seems covertly ideological to me, as if the translator is hinting: my artistic integrity will not permit me to rhyme. Actually Hofmann does occasionally use rhyme, but there is less in the Dresden sequence than in the original. He can't cope with "the finickiness and perfection" of certain of Grünbein's poems. What he has instead is his own "line": "My own idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness." Accordingly, he says, he has to diminish Grünbein, to limit the range of poems he is prepared to tackle, and sometimes not even make a gesture at the German poet's forms.
"The worst thing in translation, it seems to me," says Hofmann, "is the appearance of being remote-controlled, ferngesteuert ". I see the point. But another worst thing is wilfulness." - James Fenton

"Long overdue, Ashes for Breakfast is the first collection of Durs Grunbein's poetry to be published in English translation. Though still young, Grünbein has been one of the leading Germans poets for over a decade - certainly ever since he received the most prestigious German literary prize, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1995.
Ashes for Breakfast offers selections from five of his poetry collections, omitting only the playful epitaph collection, Den Teuren Toten, and the recent Cartesian epic, Vom Schnee. The range, and Grünbein's rapid evolution as poet, is certainly evident in this generous selection.
Born and raised in East Germany, Grünbein's first collection, Grauzone morgens ('Mornings in the Grayzone'), was published when it still was the GDR - though the collection only appeared in West Germany. Whereas the poems in later collections are more strictly formal, in some of these the words are literally all over the place. Among them are a series of 'Monological Poems', as well as poems titled: No.3', 'No.8', and 'Untitled', while others promise something more specific, such as a 'Reason to be temporarily in New York'. Descriptive, the poems mostly loosely unfold and leap unexpectedly to different images or thoughts.
Quickly, translator Hofmann's presence is felt: the "Kino des Status Quo" becomes "BBBBBB films", "Landungspontons strudelnd in Seenot" suddenly gets an unignorable - and doubly emphatic - political subtext rendered as "pontoons were adrift Mayday Mayday", while in one instance when he can't choose between meanings he offers both:
Da war diese grüne Hülle der Zahlungs-
fähigkeit

Becomes:
There was this green carapace of bank-
ability or do I mean creditworthiness
It's one way of conveying the ambiguity of a term - give both translations - but it is a lot extra to shove into the poem (and as the 'I' here the translator surely imposes himself much too much on the poem).
Grunbein's playing with language, and especially the tight leash he keeps it on - these are poems that are precise and concise -- poses obvious problems for the translator. The approachable 'Untitled' sounds fine in English too, beginning, for example:
A new poem began
on this foggy morning
of the anniversary of García
Lorca's murder
But "foggy morning" is only the best one can do for the German "Nebelmorgen" that Grünbein chose (rather than the "nebliger Morgen", as the literal translation of Hofmann's English would have it), and the anniversary of the murder lacks the direct power of the original "Ermordungstag". Hofmann does reasonably well with these choices, but other - simpler ones, one might think - are more questionable.
'"Accept it !"' begins:
Soviele Tage in denen nichts sich
erreignete, nichts als die
knappen Manöver des Winters
Unaccountably then Hofmann does not repeat the "nichts" ('nothing'), offering instead:
So many days and nothing
happening, only
sketchy winter maneuvers
Elsewhere Hofmann chooses to provide more translation than is perhaps called for, for example in translating what Grünbein leaves in the original:
Nicht erst seit Vico oder Machiavelli sind
I due occhi della storia blind.
Becomes:
That says it wasn't Vico or Machiavelli
Who said history is blind in both eyes.

Hofmann admits in his Preface that: "There are many poems and places where Grünbein is too skilful, too euphoric, and too rhetorical for me to follow him". This is reflected first in the choice of what poems are translated, but then also the translations themselves; Hofmann offers some explanations for how he approached them, but there's only so much satisfaction to be found in that. Fortunately, the collection is bi-lingual, the unadulterated originals facing Hofmann's versions
Among the poem-choices Hofmann makes is to take from the collection Schädelbasislektion only one long cycle, 'Portrait des Künstlers als junger Grenzhund' (which he elaborates into: 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)'). Offering only this cycle misses the transitional quality of the collection, with poems written from the late 1980s through German reunification, but the impressive series of canine-portraits cum cultural-political commentary, artfully but accessibly expressed (without the denser ambition of some of the later cycles) is an obvious choice for a foreign audience.
Hofamnn offers a generous portion of Falten und Fallen, the bulk of the poems 'Variations on No Theme'. Starker, more physical, the variations make clearer some of Grünbein's obsessions, though strikingly the shades, shadows, and talk of death are still very much focussed on the present, whereas in his later poetry Grünbein leans much more on the classical and historical, and much of the death and afterlife-talk comes with classical allusions.
Death and history mix especially successfully in the selections from Nach den Satiren, and several of the poems address specifically German history (with a focus on Grünbein's native Dresden), from Germanicus's campaign to the Elbe to the firebombing of Dresden. Including the 'thirteen fantasies' of the title-poem, 'Ashes for Breakfast' (beginning cheerfully: "And then comes the fun part of dying"), it includes several of the most powerful poems and cycles, including 'Europe after the Last Ruins'.
Erklärte Nacht is then only represented by a brief excerpt, two fuller poems, 'Berlin Posthumous' and 'Arcadia for All', perhaps giving the misleading impression of a more specific approach that Grünbein might have moved towards; in fact, the actual collection is remarkably varied. The title-poem from that collection, making the claim: "Was bleibt, sind Gedichte" ("What remains, are poems"), is in its summary a regrettable omission from Hofmann's collection.
Ashes for Breakfast is a good introduction to the work of Durs Grünbein, the selection of poems at least broadly representative. His work poses huge problems for a translator, and Hofmann's approach isn't entirely satisfactory - though at least he has clearly thrown himself into this with considerable energy and quite a bit of abandon. The results can be hit or miss (and some of the English renderings miss Grünbein's qualities by quite a wide margin), but Hofmann is certainly sympathetic to this verse, and that does come across. With the German originals at hand (only in the US edition ! the Faber edition does NOT include the originals) to compare Hofmann's versions it is easier to accept (or rather overlook) some of the questionable choices -- though readers who have only English don't have it quite so easy.
Certainly recommended, but handle with care." - The Complete Review

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