poem

Ulrike Almut Sandigwriting afterPoembyZbigniew Herbert

Poem
Discussion

Translated by Karen Leeder

 
I’m lying in no-man’s-land
in the raw solar light
of my research station
of a northern night
where a rickety tent
made of skin and hair
stands for me and nobody
else. the rain keeps on
seeping in, and my feet
cannot get warm since the day
my head strayed too far
from the children’s home
shoes. where I am from,
a woman like me might go
under without a passport
and turn up again
to die in a homeland
with passports to burn.
where I am now
there’s a shop selling
nothing, a trench for the
murdered, a municipal
swimming-pool where
I practice my freestyle
stark naked because
no one but me admires
my fine, filthy feet
and no one but me
jeers at my technique,
with the practised skill
of an Icelandic woman
salting her fish, of parting
the water before me

Reproduced here by permission of Ulrike Almut Sandig and published in ich bin ein Feld voller Raps verstecke die Rehe und leuchte wie dreizehn Ölgemälde übereinandergelegt, Schöffling & Co. Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2016.

 

Translated by Karen Leeder

I would like to draw your attention to one of the Polish poets in this first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation: his name is part of why I want to talk about him. Zbigniew Herbert’s first name is a common Polish name, his second name is German. That doesn’t make him less Polish. But it might serve as a glimpse into what it meant to be Polish in this troubled twentieth century: Poland was the cake on a tea table with two greedy psychopaths sitting at it, neither of them drawing attention to the fact that this cake might actually belong to somebody else but them.

Zbigniew Herbert was born in the multicultural and multilingual city Lwow which in 1944 became the Ukrainian Soviet city Lwiw. Being Polish, he was expelled and relocated to Proszowice, which is today part of the Lesser Poland Voivodship near Krakow. That‘s around 350 km away from Międzygórze, a village in the Southwest of Poland near the Czech border. My grandmother Luzia was born and raised there. She always used its Prussian name, though, Wölfelsgrund. After the Second World War it took her years of travelling until, together with her husband and her first three children, she relocated to a village in Saxony of Slavic origin: Gröditz. I remember her love for wordplay, her irony, her knowledge about trees and birds and her constant longing for the mountain landscape of her childhood. Among these few but excellent examples of Zbigniew Herbert’s wide range of works, in this issue I especially love the one with the modest title ‘Poem’. Reading the word ‘forest’ in it, I can’t help but thinking of the childhood forests in my grandmother Luzia‘s memory.

Since 2015 Germany has welcomed many thousand refugees who have risked their lives to reach the country where I was born. As you all know, there are still thousands and thousands of people outside the Macedonian border, in Greece and Turkey, waiting to learn of their uncertain fate. I am sure that they all must have a precise image of what it means to ‘drink dry water’. Comparing a refugee from Lwiw to Proszowice with a refugee from Miedzygorze to Gröditz is surely incorrect in historical and ethical terms, let alone a refugee from Damascus to Dresden. But all these life stories are linked by a profound and long-lasting change of language as their result. And this is what I understand from this poem by someone who was part of the cake on a tea table with two greedy psychopaths sitting at it: sooner or later we all might ‘leave the table and descend into the valley where there resounds new laughter by a dark forest’. I have no idea what kind of forest Herbert thought of exactly, but I am both frightened and thrilled by what might be in there. I just hope that our hands will not ‘fall away from poems’ before then.

My response poem is a small poem posthumously dedicated to the German poet Helga M. Novak. As far as I know she is the only German poet who was not just expelled from the GDR, but never got her German citizenship back later on. She spent twenty years of her life in the forests of Poland.