Went to the launch in the Goethe Institut of Das elfte Gebot/The Eleventh Commandment/An tAonú Aithne Déag, a selection of poems by Michael Krüger, another in the series of tri-lingual editions of German poetry, handsomely produced by Coiscéim, and translated into English by Hans-Christian Oeser and into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock. Previous outings in this series have included Günter Kunert and Hilde Domin. Kruger is active as a publisher, critic and novelist, but is best known in Germany as a poet. Carcanet brought us Diderot’s Cat, with translations by Richard Dove, in 1993.
Introducing him, Chris Oeser calls our attention to his ‘highly developed sense of time’. The poems ‘serve as snapshots, as photographs freezing a moment in time'.
It may be an intensely private moment such as locking up a holiday home for winter or coming across a set of old keys, it may be a social encounter with three beggars or with a saint in a cathedral, or there may be allusions to the weight of history, to the burden of the past: unaccounted victims under a blanket of snow, a train that pulls coffins through the valley. In that sense it is a poetry of history rather than a poetry of geography
They’re the poems of a traveller, poems of places rather than of place; ‘he seems to travel through many landscapes and yet none because they preserve their anonymity.’ Chris also talks about another aspect of his work, its quietness. Most of these poems, he says, ‘breathe quietly’, which is ‘not to say that they breathe easily’. They’re full of ‘the sinister, the menacing, the eerie’.
You see a fire leaning towards you, a wind is in search of fire, a fire pits its strength against the dark. Where landscape occurs, it seems to be threatened or threatening. Has place become contaminated? A cloud of melancholy hangs over his descriptions of nature. Nature is not innocent, it is either something neglected or something unattainable or something torn. Wolves in a suburban garden might be an image for a modern reality show on tv but at the same time there are wolves in a suburban garden.
Maybe because they operate with a clarity of line and language and strong images, the translations work effectively. Here, for instance, is ‘Cello Suite’
Vom Fenster aus
sehe ich die Bahn kommen,
ein rostiges Insekt
mit geweiteten Augen.
Wie leicht sie die Särge
durchs sonnige Tal zieht!
Einundzwanzig, zweiundzwanzig ...
Sind sie gefüllt oder leer?
Jetzt läßt sie zischend Dampf ab,
der sanft zu mir her zieht
wie eine undeutliche Botschaft.
Ich drehe das Radio lauter,
eine Cellosuite, im Hintergrund
der keuchende Atem
des Musikers, deutlich zu hören.
From my window
I see the train approach,
a rusty insect
with widened eyes.
How easily it pulls the coffins
through the sunny valley!
Twenty-one, twenty two. . .
Are they full or empty?
Now it hisses, letting off steam,
which gently drifts towards me
like some vague message.
I turn up the radio,
a Cello Suite, in the background
the wheezing breath
of the musician, clearly audible.
Sraith do dhordveidhil
Feicim óm fhuinneog
an traein ag teacht,
na súl mór.
Nach éasca mar a iompraíonn sí na cónraí
trí ghleann na gréine!
Fiche is a haon, fiche is a dó. . .
an folamh nó lán iad?
Sioscadh anois uaithi, ag ligean leis an ngal
a shnámhann go séimh chugam
mar theachtaireacht éiginnte.
Ardaím an raidió,
Sraith do Dhordveidhil, sa chúlra
i gclos do chách
anáil chársánach an cheoltóra.
This is typical of how the poems work – or at least the short poems. The constraint of publishing a trilingual book is that it necessarily means the emphasis is on the shorter poems. The poems here tend to develop a single strand of thought and image; they’re a kind of inspired note-taking, and are full of unobtrusive surprise. The real world, acutely observed, is inclined to wobble like houses in an Amsterdam canal:
When my friend looks out the window,
the city doubles.
At dusk the classics step
from their shelves and start working,
a dog serves them cheese and wine.
And at night an angel sweeps with great care
the pavement between water and front door,
as though impelled to clean up one of the four rivers
(‘A visit to Amsterdam’)
Another kind of wobble happens in ‘A visit to the graveyard’ as the poet looks into an open grave
Lumpy clay, snails,
wood and a few bones, nothing
to frighten us. Had I expected more?
As a child I wished to know what disappears
together with the dead, never again
to surface, the sacred things of life.
I walk on, my shadow of its own
accord searching for other corpses,
teetering like a sleepwalker
on the green ridge between the graves.
There are also a number of poems for voices: ‘What the gardener says’, ‘What the philosopher says’, ‘What the taxi-river says’, ‘What Marx says’ etc, though these didn’t work as well for me. They’re a bit too slick, or maybe it’s that they announce themselves too clearly. I like the poems that creep up on you a bit more stealthily and then enact their mild surprise:
Wolves now live in our garden.
Choked with emotion we watch them
lick their bloody paws.
Their stench spreads like gas.
One has a duck in its claws, another
has two blackbirds. Hapless creatures.
We ask nature for its counsel
but the sun takes umbrage,
and the rain has decamped to the centre.
Hungry beasts. Their eyes aglow
like ink and blood. At night they lie
under the apple tree and noisily
grind their teeth.
For anyone who’s wondering, by the way, the eleventh commandment is
nicht sterben, bitte
Michael Krüger, Das elfte Gebot/The Eleventh Commandment/An tAonú Aithne Déag, Ausgewählte Gedichte/Selected Poems/Rogha Dánta
Translated into English by Hans-Christian Oeser
Gabriel Rosenstock a d’aistrigh go Gaeilge
Coiscéim, 12 euro