The 2014 Ice Roses: Selected Poems of the German poet Sarah Kirsch, published a year after her death (Kirsch was born in 1935), and translated into superb English poems by Anne Stokes, opens with “By the white daisies”:
By the white daisies
In the park I stand
Underneath the willow as he instructed me
Unkempt ld woman without leaves
See she says he isn’t coming
Och I say he’s broken his foot
Choked on a fishbone, a street
Was suddenly moved or
He can’t get away from his wife
Many things detain us human beings
The willow sways and creaks
May even be he’s croaked
Looked pale when he was kissing you under your coat,
May be willow may be
Then let’s hope he doesn’t love me any more
As with many poems by this extraordinary poet, “By the white daisies” intimates how we ought to understand what she is at in her poetry, without being reducible to self-commentary. The willow in the poem would have the speaker adopt a pessimistic view; she refuses it, not with certainty that the situation merits optimism, but with preparedness for how bad things might be, and with a stoical reconciliation to life’s uncertainty. Most importantly, she resists how it would have her see things; her view is sharper than the willow’s, and so she will live her life, stake it on hope, and tell the tree to piss off. But the willow remains; it’s the meeting place; she can’t leave it behind any more than she can leave behind the world in which encounters happen, memories form, hopes arise. It might seem that the poem is a drama of conflict between poet and world, between speaker and tree, written in the hopes for an absent loved one, a future happiness; but the poem is not written towards or even at the tree. It looks outwards, beyond the situation, a dispatch of what happened, a dispatch from the poet’s life, like a message in a bottle.
What matters for Kirsch here and elsewhere is that the dispatch is not coded, is as candid as can be. The analogy to the message in a bottle (Montale’s, I think) is dashed against rocks; there is little hermetically sealed in Kirsch’s poetry; the sense that they are sent out, on what might be a fool’s errand, comes from what the poems say about the world, that it makes many attempts at honest, candid speech a risky proposition, that it imposes separations, and that it would (as the tree does) coerce us to speak with even a pessimism that is false. The poem itself, then, is a rebuke against the tree and the world in which it grows, the earth that sustains it and its message: it is worth the hope of writing the poem as much as it is worth the hope of waiting because in both cases the hope is resistance to a world that would have it seem that no hope can be forthcoming.
Even the decision to write a dispatch as a poem is a decision to communicate on the world’s affairs other than as the world would have her. This poem, like others by Kirsch, is sustained on a paradox that there isn’t necessarily cause for hope but that since so much of the world wants to deny hope entirely, poetry, inessential, frivolous, a strange form of dispatch, must be written as if there were some.
Kirsch translated Akhmatova into German; she must have been intimately familiar with the poetry of Tsvetaeva too. I suspect she admired Montale, also. And, to round out a list of the European poets whose works were shaped by the politics and history leading up to war, she would no doubt have been a careful reader of Paul Celan. In her mid-career poem “Erdreich” (Earth), she alludes to the latter, and to his reading of Mandelstam:
News from the life of caterpillars
The cuckoo is stammering and the baked beds
Crack up when I drag watering cans
Look helplessly at the louse-ridden vegetables
That have been placed in my charge, years ago
When I went into my father’s garden
The seven-fold plagues hellish pests
Did not exist and the earth
Still did its bits, this here
Is a drop-out vile and lazy
You have to beg it blow in
Dung in all directions or it
Doesn’t even bring forth a chanterelle,
How people must have offended the earth,
To save twenty-seven rose trees,
A scattered angel comes to me
A yellow canister strapped to its mouldy wings
The heavenly thumb in the rubber grlove
Presses down on the valve
And it smells for hours of bitter almonds.
The last line is an echo of Celan’s, “Number the Almonds,” “Zähle die Mandeln,” which begins:
Zähle die Mandeln,
zähle, was bitter war und dich wachhielt,
zähl mich dazu:
“Mandeln” is “almond,” but also a play on Mandelstam.
Kirsch is not kin to these poets, coming as she does a generation later, but she sees herself in the same family. They have been called poets of witness, but I think that the image of “dispatch” is helpful too, specifying as it does the sense of urgency, the facing outwards to those who might not see and might not know, their foregrounding of their personal experiences amidst the events they witness, and even the form of the poems, which might seem hasty, abrupt, abbreviated, fragmentary, but which by no means always do.
Reading any poetry from the past involves an encounter with a part of history; poetry reveals something historical as meaningful and intelligible (or unintelligible), even (perhaps mostly) when it leaves us wanting and needing to know more about the circumstances in which it was written. Poetry also contains within itself criteria of rightness by which its standards and choices of meaning and intelligibility are justified; in the implicit affirmation that the poem’s form is valid and correct, we can discern an argument for what from the past is significant and how it is intelligible.
That does not mean that all poems are about history; they are not all about the concept and experience of history. But for poets of dispatch, of whom Kirsch is one, poetry is also about history, and so reveals criteria by which we can understand what history itself means, how history itself, as a concept and experience, is meaningful.
Writing first in East Germany, then in West Germany, and then in the Northwest region of the unified Germany, Kirsch’s poetry is about post-war history, and about “history” in a post-war world, and with it attendant notions of forgetting, loss, regrowth, habit, routine. It is almost too inviting for theoretical bloviation, and all of that would be entirely opposed to the poetry itself which is neither icy, nor spindly, nor whimsical, nor coy, nor sly, nor shy, nor reticent, nor delicate, nor bruised….
The whooper swan flew over the strand
We forget the darkness that
Engulfed us and made us grouchy for so long.
And soon the curlew squawks
About the quiet death of flowers
Always in the same way. I don’t want
To go into the house.
If you were to accuse Kirsch of reticence, coyness, or any of the things I mentioned above, she would scoff: what more is there to say? She has said what happened? What we want from a dispatch is candor, but candor, the openness, integrity, fortitude, and balance of outlook that goes with it, is not the same as accessibility when it is written to resist and refuse coercive ways of speaking and saying. It is not only the Stalinist regime that makes the Russian poets so “difficult”: Tsvetaeva wrote some of her best poetry from Paris, and Kirsch wrote both beneath and beyond the political pressures of the East.
So many of her poems are so good, without my knowing quite why that I would like to indulge in a Randall Jarrell style “ooh ahh” criticism, quoting and quoting more, and then pointing to what seems best in them, like, in “Hay Month,” the word “grouchy” or the turn from tender sadness to exasperation, fatigue, as well as overwhelming grief in “always in the same way.”
To at least make selection more manageable, I will draw attention to the formal principle of the poems, which is really a formal principle of many lyric poems, and so which shows how great a poet Kirsch is: the arc of movement, from a lift to a glide with swerves, to a determinate, purposeful, and usually unexpectedly just landing. Her poems include many birds, and the flight of the bird and flight of the poem is an obvious comparison to make; even her agglutination, the coagulated syntax and renunciation of punctuation, creating ambiguities of phrasing and compounding observations, suggests a rapid movement. But it is the finality of the endings, the sudden rests, that defines the poems as flights.
Here from an early collection, Rückenwind, the titular poem, “Tailwind” (“birl” is a Scottish word for “carouse”):
How he chases me, his cry
Carries me forward twenty-five
Tempests per second
All day, in the evening, and into the night
I come into the world I sing to him
Exultation and laughter: the fingers
Of the heavenly child on my shoulder.
And when I hear the voice
Of the most beautiful one
The headwind turns, I fly
And always to him
My throbbing heart how the house birls
From the following collection, Erdreich:
Heine went walking through the mountains
He loitered in houses, in squares
And took two weeks to cover a stretch
We would leave behind us in a day
Our travels lead from one country
Straight into the next we can’t let
Details hold us up.
Compelled by our inner engeines
To race on without delay we miss out
On expeditions into people’s hearts
The rubble tips labyrinths lovely fields
Remain unexplored and concealed
The waiters don’t need our paper
Their news comes from the TV
There are different types of cars one kind of people
Everything’s replaceable wherever we are.
And from a different collection, Katzenleben, “Daybreak” (Anfang des Tages):
The hothouse flowers are glowing
In the gloomy hall, behind the back of the house
The very fresh morning sun’s performing
March orgies for the old woman’s come
Through the winter adorning her crown
With Faith Love Hope she goads birds
To make a racket dragging stalks they dive
And soar and cats hover after them
The mole starts his lonesome craft
Old women go out into gardens and count
Flowers hector chickens fill in ditches
Are very happy above ground when they recall
The men who’ve already reached the limits
Of the village in coffins.
From a later collection still, here is “Oak Trees”:
When the inhabitants scattered the majority
Of feathered ones set off for other latitudes
And the foliage crisp after heavy frosts fell off
The heart of the wind harp forest could be seen:
Graceful spinal columns branches for every gesture
Contrasting rasping splintering beauty.
And finally, from her penultimate collection, “Bodenlos”:
Flap of the wing
My Neolithic Age is now ending
I believe. I toss the biface axe
Aside carelessly avail myself
Of slick bronze quills record
My own strange journey
Through life overflown by
Wonderful greying clouds
The wobbling heron
That now comes down
To finish the picture.
I’ve made an effort to quote poems from the start to the end of Kirsch’s career; what should be apparent is not just her range and variety of topics, from the familial and familiar to the political, from the local to the universal, all situated within her sense of history, ecological, national, and personal, but also, set against the similarities across poems, the development of technique. Though I cannot show it here, each collection is unified not only by a vantage point onto the world (an experience, a preoccupation, a target, a landscape), but by principles of form, movement, and grammar. Over the course of her career the trend is, as with many visual artists, to simplify, to eliminate detail, to work in stronger and less elaborate lines and shapes, and to isolate essential contrasts. In her final collection, Schwanenliebe (Swan Love), she takes the largest step in these directions:
In your eyes the poplar trees
Slaughtered by a stranger
Are still standing green.