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Authors: Durs Grünbein

Ashes for Breakfast


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Title Page

Copyright Notice

Translator's Preface

Mornings in the Grayzone

Eine einzige silberne Büchse

A Single Tin

Trilce, César

Trilce, César

No. 3

No. 3

No. 8

No. 8

Dieser Tag gehört dir

All About You


No Fun

›Nimm es an!‹

“Accept It!”

Grund, vorübergehend in New York zu sein

Reason to Be Temporarily in New York



Ohne Titel


Fast ein Gesang

Almost a Song

Belebter Bach

Bubbling Stream



MonoLogisches Gedicht No. 1

MonoLogical Poem #1

MonoLogisches Gedicht No. 2

MonoLogical Poem #2

MonoLogisches Gedicht No. 4

MonoLogical Poem #4

MonoLogisches Gedicht No. 5

MonoLogical Poem #5

MonoLogisches Gedicht No. 13

MonoLogical Poem #13

Perpetuum mobile

Perpetuum Mobile

Skull Base Lesson

Portrait des Künstlers als junger Grenzhund

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)

Folds and Traps

Variationen auf kein Thema

Variations on No Theme

Einem Schimpansen im Londoner Zoo

To a Chimpanzee in the London Zoo

Einem Okapi im Münchner Zoo

To an Okapi in the Munich Zoo

Einem Pinguin im New Yorker Aquarium

To a Penguin in the New York Aquarium

from NACH DEN SATIREN (1999)
After the Satires

In der Provinz

In the Provinces

Klage eines Legionärs aus dem Feldzug des Germanicus an die Elbe

Lament of a Legionnaire on Germanicus's Campaign to the Elbe River

Der Misanthrop auf Capri

The Misanthrope on Capri

Club of Rome

Club of Rome

Tizians neue Zimmer

Titian's New Pad

Einer Gepardin im Moskauer Zoo

To a Cheetah in the Moscow Zoo



Asche zum Frühstück: Dreizehn Fantasiestücke

Ashes for Breakfast: Thirteen Fantasies



Berliner Runde

Berlin Rounds

Grüße aus der Hauptstadt des Vergessens

Greetings from Oblivion City

Vor einem alten Röntgenbild

In Front of an Old X-Ray

Vita brevis

Vita Brevis

Mantegna vielleicht

Mantegna, Perhaps

Europa nach dem letzten Regen

Europe After the Last Rains

from ERKLÄRTE NACHT (2002)
Configured Night

Berlin posthum

Berlin Posthumous

Arkadien für alle

Arcadia for All


About the Authors



For upwards of twenty-five years, you have written English poems, and translated not poetry, but German prose. You felt no particular disquiet at this separation of powers. But finally, you don't want to spend your entire life in avoidance of something, in fear or disdain, however well grounded. There are translations of foreign poets to which you feel deep gratitude: Cavafy, Akhmatova, Zagajewski, Montale. You love your Waley and your Pound. In fact, the first poet you ever read, at the age of eight, was in translation: Zbigniew Herbert. (The poem was “From Antiquity,” the one about the barbarians and the little salt god, and you've never forgotten it.) Above all, you feel an attachment to the idea that you have some German poet twin—the one who, unlike you, stayed at home—whom it is your duty and your sacred pleasure to translate into English.

I would never claim Durs Grünbein as my twin—he's a much better poet, and he's five years younger—but I did experience this feeling of kinship when I first met him and heard him read, ten or twelve years ago in Rotterdam, and many times since. For various practical, urgent occasions, I have supplied English cribs for his poems: another time in Rotterdam, once in London, at a talk in Hamburg. We share a derisive melancholia, an interest in amplitude (much more developed, in his case), a love of the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, a fascination and a belief in the classics (again, much more developed in his case). At the same time, I am painfully aware of many things that divide us; medicine, neuroscience, animals, ancient history, contemporary art, responsible metaphysics are all avocations of Grünbein's of which I am, as they say in German,
Innocent. There is a formidableness, a dauntingness about Grünbein that I don't have, perhaps can't do, and find it difficult even to respond to.

You see, the different countries and different languages have evolved different types of poets—although, thrillingly, probably for the first time in history, one's formation as a poet is almost bound to be cosmopolitan nowadays and polyglot, and if it isn't, it damned well should be. I'm saying that I grew up as an English poet: small-scale, occasional, personal, wincingly witty, articulate about dirt. Grünbein is much more like another English poet, whom Brodsky also revered, but who was so much a one-off in or from the English tradition, that he described himself as “a minor Atlantic Goethe”: W. H. Auden. Grünbein is squarely in the line of German poets: a
poeta doctus
and an intellectual. Further, there is a frontality and an abundance in him—massive poems, great sequences of numbered parts—that I can only wonder at. He has solved the problem of inspiration that Rilke worked at in his
Neue Gedichte
of 1907 and 1908. Grünbein has such facility and industry, it is as though there had been a Rodin in
life once as well.

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. (In an odd way, this is more of a problem for poet-translators, who tend to suffer from self-consciousness and squeamishness, and a firmer sense of their own edges, than others, who are perhaps better able to slip into costume and lose their inhibitions.) You have to work on your own plausibility, your range, your idiom, your connections, and you try of course to extend them. Perhaps you're like a parrot, saying back things the way you've heard them said. (But always it has to come from you.) Temerity takes you further. And for me that's a real motivation: I should like to learn temerity. But there are many poems and places where Grünbein is too skillful, 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.

Accordingly, inevitably, I have to diminish him. Sometimes this will express itself in the range of poems that I feel able to tackle at all, sometimes in my inability to match, even to gesture at, his forms. (Though Brecht said: “When poems are translated into another language, most of the damage tends to be due to people trying to translate too much. Maybe they should confine themselves to translating the poet's ideas and attitudes.”) Translation is most often described—perhaps can only be described—in metaphors, many of them drawn from the world of performance. (We've already had the actor, and the parrot.) Here, I'm tempted to say that translation is like tracing. Going over an original on onionskin paper. Well, in the case of those designs of Grünbein that most resemble architectural drawings—and there are many poems of his like that—I can't cope with the finickiness and the perfection. But what I suppose I do have—and Grünbein has declared himself willing to accept this, in fact, in his generosity, not even to see it as a
a second-best—is my own “line.” My own idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness. I have the ability, I think, to go over lines, and make it seem like freehand. (I have learned to do this, both from my own writing and from making so many prose translations. The worst thing in a translation, it seems to me, is the appearance of being remote-controlled,
) 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. I may not be able to limn them from the outside, but I hope I can animate them from within.

I am aware of course of the likelihood of there being something specious and sentimental about this argument. (I
say that, wouldn't I? Well, of course!) Actually, I'm not at all convinced that this is the better way, or that the specter of the point-for-point and formal translator—Lowell called him the “taxidermist”—has been put to flight. Auden, by way of a germane instance, used to say he first looked at the “contraption” of a poem, and only then at whatever it might express. I fear my versions of Grünbein won't be all that interesting as “contraptions.” The exemptions I can see (once again, like Montale to Lowell) are those poems of his with bulk and quiddity, those poems of his that are interesting as prose.

I have perhaps one last thing to cheer me up and lead me on. As I've said, one of the things that Grünbein and I share is a love of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Really from the moment I first heard Brodsky, in 1981 as a recent ex-undergraduate in Cambridge, I had the sense of his poems existing in a weirdly trefoil or trinitarian fashion: there were the trim, carved stanza shapes, the vast oceanic surge and melody of them (especially of the Russian), and the wry modern first-person concreteness of them. And while I liked very much Anthony Hecht's “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” and the poet's own astonishing English versions of “A Part of Speech,” my favorite translations are a couple that were done by a Slavist, Barry Rubin, which are unrhymed and unscanned. Here is the beginning of “San Pietro”:

Three weeks now and the fog still clings to the white

bell tower of this dull brown quarter

stuck in a deaf-and-dumb corner

of the northern Adriatic. Electric

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