April 2005

Joey Rubin


Ashes For Breakfast by Durs Grünbein

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.

Ashes For Breakfast by Durs Grünbein
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374260745
298 Pages