Impromptu translation of 20th-century German heavyweight

Poetry

Gathering evidence: the Irish poet Caoilinn Hughes draws on scientific language

Gathering evidence: the Irish poet Caoilinn Hughes draws on scientific language

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:00

Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus (Faber, £14.99) brings into English the work of one of the most distinctive of 20th-century German writers, a poet who, Michael Hofmann’s introduction claims, is the greatest in the German language since Rilke.

Hofmann’s introduction stakes this claim by way of Benn’s biography, noting that the unsettling tone and pessimism of his work – which often feels almost involuntary, as if it has been squeezed out under great pressure – are related to his medical career, which included spells as a military doctor in the first World War, and is also informed by his early and brief support (in 1933) of the rising Nazi party.

That past and his experience of war form an inevitable backdrop to the poems and is the explicit subject of some:

And in the rain

falling on the leaves,

I hear an old song –

of forests once crossed

and revisited, but not

the hall where they were singing,

the keys were silent,

the hands were resting somewhere

apart from the hands that held me,

moved me to tears,

hands from the eastern steppes,

long since trampled and bloody –

only their singing

in the rain

dark days of spring

everlasting steppes.

( Tracing )

Hofmann’s Benn, like Hofmann himself, is a poet for whom style always trumps or, better, constitutes a major part of the subject matter: the poems read like a series of intense hesitations, sudden plunging statements, explosive declarations and unusual emphases.

Hofmann’s impasto translations slather Benn’s poems with layers of idiom, roughening up the surface of the poems with bits of precision alongside old school English and stagy American: “what’s left? / The sixty four thousand dollar question!” declares Still Life , while Evenings of Certain Lives binds together its jerky shifts in register with little alliterative riffs as it offers an ars poetica that then, almost immediately, is subjected to sardonic undercuttings:

Greatness – how so?

I pick up the slate-pencil and certain things appear

on paper or canvas

or whatever the heck else –

result: bronze Buddha hocked for booze

but I draw the line at homages under ornamental plants,

banquets of the painters’ guild –

something for the boardroom!

Hofmann’s inventiveness, the zest with which he attends to the syllable-by-syllable advance of the poems, makes Impromptus utterly compelling and, in spite of its often dire subjects, an enjoyable book – and just when readers might feel that Hofmann may be overegging the translations, he introduces the rueful epiphanies that are such an affecting part of Benn’s work, as at the end of one of his better-known poems, People Met :

I have often asked myself and never found an answer

whence kindness and gentleness come,

I don’t know it to this day, and now must go myself.


Different strokes
Bill Manhire is a very different kind of poet from Hofmann’s Benn, cool, painterly and ironic in the way he develops and arranges his poems, though equally likely to shift direction and surprise his readers with the suddenness that Hofmann prizes.

In Selected Poems (Carcanet, £14.95), Manhire avoids straightforwardly confessional or literal representations of his experience. My Childhood in Ireland , for example, begins with a typical sketch of a world that feels tantalisingly within reach: “I never climbed the hill / or strolled to the end of the pier / to see what the walkers in the rain / might be finding out there.” Turning away from that scene, he writes: “I walked back to the house. / My sister’s new child was chained / to her breast. She drifted / inside a dark forest.” Then the poem takes a final and typical twist, keeping its language very plain but inviting readerly interpretation as it relocates one of Wordsworth’s most famous verbs to a very different context:

Well, you manage to find

what might make you happy.

I went on the Net. I wandered.

Asian bukkake.

In Kevin , Manhire performs an equally nimble wrongfooting of the reader, setting resonant images in a bleak elegiac scenario as he imagines a body being literally lifted into an alternative afterlife, though instead of heaven Kevin describes the consolations of “the dark furniture of the radio”.

And when Manhire uses New Zealand as subject matter it becomes another way of zoning in on the feelings and double takes that are his speciality, as when Milky Way Bar begins by stating: “I live at the edge of the universe / like everybody else”.

Selected Poems confirms that his original voice, with its riddling insistence on the importance of marginal notes, may well “live at the edge of the universe”, but its discoveries there should interest “everybody else”.

The young Irish poet Caoilinn Hughes studied at Manhire’s workplace at Wellington University, as have many other creative-writing students, including this year’s Booker winner, Eleanor Catton.

Hughes’ debut, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet, £9.95), as its title may suggest, draws on different kinds of scientific language. Poets have quarried the language of science for centuries, but Hughes’s book uses scientists more as a narrative prop than as a source for new metaphors. The poems occasionally feel too heavily tilted towards information, as if their speakers are constrained by the obvious amount of research and intelligence that has gone into their accumulation of diverse materials. When it comes off, as in her excellent poem about Marie Curie, the facts seem like a natural extension of the poem’s mood and flickering ideas:

Seeing her brilliance, Pierre left his crystals behind to assist

the weighing out and grinding of pitchblende and chalcolie

with a pestle and mortar – unaware that the diamond they sought

was not a diamond but a needle, which could not be found

in 100 grammes of haystack but tons of ore.

( Rational Dress )

John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. His latest collection is Of All Places (Gallery Press).

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