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Poetry book review: In Time’s Rift by Ernst Meister, translated by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick

September 29, 2012

Like Buddhism, this volume presents life and death, light and dark not as opposites but as inter-dependent duals, each in the process of creating the other. But, perhaps unlike Buddhism, these poems have chosen to look at that equation standing on end of it. That is, light is seen as dark, and life is viewed as death, rather than the other way around:

Und was
will diese Sonne
uns, was

aus enger Pforte
jener großen Glut?

Ich weiß
nichts Dunkleres
denn das Licht.

And what
does this sun want
with us, what

from the strait gate
of that huge glow?

I know
no greater darkness
than the light.

A word yokes together certain aspects of certain memories, but, paradoxically, with this gathering an opening is formed, a rift in time, through which spectres of the future reach us. Consider, in particular, the word death:

ER ist ER, obwohl
einzig ein Wort,
Erbe der Zeugenden. Er
entspringt, wenn ich falle,
ganz beraubt, vom
Rücken der Tierheit.-
Ich sei nun getroffen oder
verwelkt, ER ist,
Wort aller Worte, ein
Leeres in mir.
HE is HE, though
only a word,
heir of those who procreate. He
leaps forth, when I fall,
entirely robbed, from
beastliness’s back. –
Whether I’m now struck or
shriveled, HE is,
word of all words, a
blank in me.

Hope and fear are emotions we feel about things that haven’t happened yet, experiences we haven’t had – so necessarily they’re built from experiences we have had. Necessarily, when I fear my death, it is not my own death I’m thinking of, it’s someone else’s. And since the narrator feels so acutely his own mortality, I am confident the answer to the following question is in the affirmative:

Wir hatten
wir hatten, von Namen,
Tod, den
unerlebbaren Punkt, wir
hatten Sprache – aber
gab es Wir?
We had
toy clockwork,
we had, of name,
death, the
unexperiencable point, we
had language – but
was there We?

And this demonstrates one of the productive tension in these poems. The poems are dense with grief, but the narrator keeps twisting its presentation – denying loss, claiming lamentation itself is lost and needs to be lamented, or inverting grief into that fear of one’s own death. From the poem beginning “Old lamenting:”

Tritt hinzu
im Harnisch einer,
will, daß ich
das alte, frühe
Klagen klage.

Spricht mirs vor,
ich sprech die Worte
frühen Klagens,
alten Klagen.

Ihre Wahrheit,
ich erbrech sie
über jenen

Stepping up
in armor, someone
wants me
to lament the old, early

recites it for me –
I speak the words
of early lamenting,
old lamenting.

Its truth –
I vomit it
over that
budding sprig.

How does such simple, repetitive diction become so effective! In this poem with just over fifty words, the word lamenting/Klagen appears nine times. In prose (or lesser poetry) such repetition would become tedious. Before I could empathize with the narrator of a novel, she would have to spend a long time describing a particular scene, a particular person lost, and a word like lament might not even come up, for fear it would distract from all that detail. But here, with almost no detail at all, I’m able to empathize, because instead of description I’m given some symmetries in the structure and a couple of well-timed, straight-to-the-point metaphors. We’ve all seen a budding sprig, and we’ve all vomited. These are the visceral images that allow the word lamenting to drill directly into my private experiences with loss, even though the narrator knows nothing of them.

Ernst Meister is a very compelling poet, and I’m very glad Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have made this effort to adapt some of his work to the English language. In Time’s Rift is published by Wave Books.

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