One went here and the other
went there, and they hang,
fidget like leaves on a branch. Strange
how no one is happy anymore.
They all despair and say so openly,
as if it has been taken for granted
to no longer be sure of oneself.
The eyes watch and the ears listen
as usual, but the talent, the hope,
which is called genius, has been lost,
inside all of us lurks a kind of sorrow,
the lightness within us has become lifeless,
the difficult has become even more difficult.
It was different once. Today nobody is as
inconsolable as the happy ones used to be,
who worked hard to turn misfortune into fortune,
they fidget, tremble like leaves,
prisoners of their own indifference,
idly hanging on the branches.
No one has a single flaw anymore.
It is the flaws the flawless are missing.
Notes on this poem
Robert Walser (1878–1956) left school at fourteen and led a wandering and precarious existence while producing more than a thousand poems, stories, and essays, as well as seven novels, including The Tanners (1906), The Assistant (1908), and Jakob Von Gunten (1909). Walser is now commonly seen as one of the most prominent Swiss novelists and essayists of the twentieth century, and his oeuvre is inextricably linked to the modernist canon. He was admired by the likes of Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, and Walter Benjamin – and Susan Sontag deemed him ‘a major, truly wonderful, heart-breaking writer’. In 1933, Walser abandoned writing and entered a sanatorium, where he remained for the rest of his life. ‘I am not here to write’, he said, ‘but to be mad’.
The poem ‘Porcelain Figurine’ (written in late 1924/early 1925) was first published in the June 1925 issue of the Swiss periodical Wissen und Leben, while ‘No One Is Flawed’ (written in 1930) remained unpublished during Walser’s lifetime. Both poems stem from the difficult years – both financial and psychological – leading up to Walser’s eventual mental breakdown in Berne, where, during his daily walks through the city’s beautiful parks and endless shopping arcades, he focused his unique sensibilities on the minutiae of human existence and giving a voice to all that is small, overlooked, and abandoned.
Robert Walser’s collected poems, Robert Walser: The Poems, translated by Daniele Pantano, is forthcoming with Seagull Books in late 2022. These poems are translated from the German by Daniele Pantano, with friendly permission of Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main, the Robert Walser-Zentrum, and Seagull Books.