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This review is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Cover of These Numbered Days
Edmund PrestwichShining in a Great Cold
Peter Huchel, These Numbered Days, translated by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman) £10.95
If Peter Huchel is known to English readers it’s mainly through Michael Hamburger’s translations, begun in 1974 and gathered as The Garden of Theophrastus, published by Carcanet Press. That presents a selection of poems spanning Huchel’s career as a whole. These Numbered Days focuses on a single volume, 1972’s Gezählte Tage.

Not speaking German I can’t say how truly Crucefix’s versions reflect the feeling of the originals. I can say that they’re fine poems in their own right. Their power rests above all on their evocative but tight-lipped and elliptical imagery. Reticence and obliquity seem to have been forced on Huchel by the circumstances in which he wrote: his idealistic hopes for socialism in the German Democratic Republic were dashed by the stifling realities of ‘People’s Democracy’ and many years of struggle with the authorities culminated in nine years of effective house arrest. The suffering involved is reflected in recurrent evocations of wintry scenes, paralysis and entrapment, surveillance and threatened or actual violence. However, such frustration and defeat in life are sources of strength in his art.

The power of his imagery is easily shown. Many poems seem built out of several haiku-like micropoems, like the last three lines of ‘Answer’:
Spiders deploy
their rims and spokes,
the veils of dead brides.

Diverse associations and imaginative tonalities collide in just thirteen syllables. The spiders and webs are both literally observed and metaphorical, suggesting the operations of the STASI. ‘Deploy’ is militaristic and mechanical. ‘The veils of dead brides’gives ...

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