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This article is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

Resting Places: The Writing-Life of Friederike Mayröcker Jena Schmitt
Requiem for Ernst Jandl, translated by Roslyn Theobald (Seagull Books, 2018) £14.50

Scardanelli, translated by Jonathan Larson (The Song Cave, 2018) £13.70

études, translated by Donna Stonecipher (Seagull Books, 2020) £18.99

From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall or 1 Schumann-Madness, translated by Jonathan Larson (OOMPH! Press,
2019) £10

There are many photographs of the Austrian writer Friederike Mayröcker seated at a desk, piles of papers and books tilting this way and that like Towers of Babel. Bookshelves are filled to the brim, spines faced out, spines faced in, boxes and bins, bags and tins, more papers, some rolled up like papyrus scrolls, a writing system of overlapping notes and pictures held together with clothespins and dangling from shelves and walls, containers of pencils and pens, a long-armed lamp, a black telephone – every conceivable surface covered, Mayröcker in the middle of it all.

And there are other Mayröckers – hunched over a typewriter; reading a newspaper at Café Sperl; her face reflected in a mirror or picture frame (Friederike Mayröcker, 1998, by the photographer Nikolaus Korab); with her partner, the poet Ernst Jandl – lounging in the sunshine in 1953; at a reading in 1974; receiving an award (1969); bundled up against the cold and kissing in 1996; sitting in an office, 1969, or living room, 1984, more books, more paper, more pictures, more notes against the dappled silver wallpaper, a woodstove to warm them in the corner. And my favourite, seated at an ornate sofa (1994), Mayröcker with a crown askew on her head, Jandl wearing a clown’s nose.

Mayröcker lives in pictures. ‘I see everything in pictures, my complete past, memories are pictures’, she says in an interview. ‘I transform pictures into language by climbing into the picture. I walk into it until it becomes language’.

Friederike Mayröcker died on 4 June 2021, at the age of ninety-six. Since 1946, when she was twenty-two years old and her first poems appeared in Plan (a journal that merged modernism with the avant-garde, only years before considered degenerate art by the Nazis), Mayröcker wrote more than one hundred books of poetry, prose, librettos, plays, radio plays, children’s books that often feature her own illustrations, and hybrid in-between texts. Her debut volume of prose, Larifari: Ein konfuses Buch [Airy-fairy: A Confused Book], was published in 1956; her first volume of poetry, metaphorisch [metaphorical], in 1964, consisted of eight long poems in rot #18, a pamphlet-like series published by Dr. E. Walther and Max Bense in Stuttgart.

Two years later, in 1966, Tod durch Musen [Death through Muses] appeared. Then there’s Minimonsters Traumlexikon: Texte in Prosa (1968) [Minimonster’s Dream Dictionary: Texts in Prose], which shows Mayröcker’s penchant for playfulness and sound, the resonant hammer effect of repetition, the steady building up, the swift dismantling, the surface of words pulled out from under. Even if German is an unfamiliar language it is easy to go with:
Nördlich von Inverness – a house is a garden – ver-
folgte die Splittergruppe
schwellende Bahndämme, die Blüte der Bonaventura, die Blüte des Aalauges,
die Neigung der Predigt («…wie Spreu spottete unser…»).
What is prose becomes poetry, what is poetry becomes prose – lines Mayröcker crosses often and easily in her writing. The English phrase a house is a garden amidst the German; house and garden firmly rooted etymologically in the heavily stressed German words haus and garten; the use of French guillemets; the quote itself a fragment of something read or said, adds to the collage-like feel.

‘I went from a purely experimental writing to a kind of narrational writing, though in interviews I have always declined to label my writing as storytelling’, she says in a 1983 interview with the writer and philosopher Siegfried J. Schmidt. ‘I don’t want to write stories in any usual sense, but I want to approach a totally unconventional, unorthodox narrational writing, if one can call it that’.

Drafted into the Luftwaffe at the age of eighteen, Mayröcker taught English in Viennese schools after the Second World War, retiring from teaching in 1969 to focus on writing. She met her companion and partner, the poet Ernst Jandl, in 1954. They collaborated on projects such as radio plays, the ‘stereophonic’ Fünf Mann Menschen [Five Man Men, sometimes called Five Man People or Five Man Humanity, 1969], for which they won the Hörspielpreis der Kriegsblinden in 1969, one of a long list of awards they won together and separately.

They were members of the experimental postwar Wiener Gruppe, though Mayröcker appears to have been one of the very few women in the group. Her poetry soon veered away from the confines of the concrete and Sprech-gedichte [sound poems] they were primarily focused on. Instead, she wanders, dashing this way and that, her poetry circling a variety of concerns and aesthetics, desires and interests, what language sounds like and looks like, what it says, but also what it avoids saying in the saying, what it emotes:
a mirror image, let’s say
word-effusion, -discharge, let’s say,
lambent wind, discharge
from the bushes and clouds, let’s say,
scree in my sleep-chest
(rose-bower, cool still)

(from ‘camera obscura or hotel room 24 in P’, translated by Richard Dove)
Her poetry is like a bird caught in a house, bashing up against the windows and walls in an attempt to get out:

in the not yet green grass isolated the first liverworts
a patch of heat in my back a loquacious brace of parents
a failure of spring to arrive so it seems, an eavesdropping scene
I really didn’t know what to do

(from ‘a stranger a moor’s head’, translated by Richard Dove)
In these poems and others in Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946–2006 (2007), the war isn’t directly written about, though the effects are all around, the poems filled with fragments, thoughts falling away, a clambering to get up and out of the destruction. There is the ‘blazing forest’ and the ‘lonesomely creatures’, the ‘leaves adrift’ and ‘a bridge made of dust’, the ‘padlocked gates’ and the ‘failed escapes’, the ‘trodden gentian-oblivion’ and ‘the stone tender pillow for the dead’, the ‘forgotten windows’ and the ‘crumbling chimneys’, the ‘burial vault’ and the ‘famine-ravaged country’, the phrase ‘nothing consoles me any longer’ repeated three times in a thirteen-line poem of the same name. Other times the tone becomes satirical, as dissident poetry tends to do (‘o hero of the Soviet Union / animal come to a sticky end / palm-donkey blue jewel / exhausted exposed…’, this from ‘political song’). Her poems are filled with uneasiness, a fear of saying too much or not enough.

At times Mayröcker’s poems are reminiscent of the German ceramic artist Gertraud Möhwald, whose sculptures of the human figure are filled with fissures, holes, cracked glazes, broken shards (plates, cups, toilets, sinks), scrap paper, wire, brick. From the poem ‘the Age of Obsession’:
in bunches the blue cornflowers / in a cut-out
a scrap of neck cut-out from a subtle white tissue
from a subtle white eye-cleft the saint’s likeness is looking at me…

(translated by Richard Dove)

Mayröcker lived in Vienna, a place she often wrote about, meandered momentarily away from, always returned to. Far from static and silent, the city is part of her poems, a living, breathing, many-faced, multi-feelinged entity. While walking down the street, sitting in a café, from the windows of her fifth-floor apartment, Mayröcker noted the edge of a forest, a tobacco shop, cemetery walls, imperial eagles, portraits on red brick, rusting lilacs, a poppy’s ‘fireworks of tears’, an avenue of trees, a ‘misshapen lady in her green / coat’ holding a cauliflower like a child’s head, sodden wicker chairs on a terrace. And in ‘in praise of the fragment’:
across the street
at two facing windows
a woman and a man call out
the state of the world to one another /
on the sliding roofs of containers for old glass
the sign with an arrow in three languages
hier öffnen open ouvert /

(translated by Richard Dove)
These multilingual reflections are an important part of Mayröcker’s writing, unavoidable, necessary, the world slipping in and out, fleeting, wavering, otherworldly, as reflections tend to be, distorted, ever-changing.

‘When I get up, my first view is into this window. I feel haunted by it…’, she says in the documentary film Das Schreiben und das Schweigen [Writing and Silence]. ‘All these window poems, I stand there literally by the window and write down by hand everything I see’, she continues. ‘And then the associations come when I’m sitting at the typewriter. That’s how it works: writing down reality’.

From her poem ‘The window opposite, etcetera...’:
green blotches red blotches lettuce radishes roses
and small ghost-plants in the aureole, tattered brown turban
window-rags aquaria and prison-bars and other ruins...

(from Gesammelte Gedichte: 1939–2003 [Collected Poems])
There is always the swiftest switch from the outside to the inside, time and space overlapping, the Umwelt or ‘world around’ her colliding with a rich inner landscape.

In photographic stills of Mayröcker’s day-to-day in Das Schreiben und das Schweigen, the découpage continues: a note reads Phase von Depression, EJ 16.8.88, and under it other notes – des Auge des Mondes and hier ALLES TABU; a figurine of a gilded bird clipped to rough drafts scribbled with changes, circled phrases, handwritten asides; the kitchen window she could see from her own window – a dirty dish rag draped over the windowsill, a red watering can, a plant in a terracotta pot, a gauzy curtain pulled open. In one photo she is a child holding her mother’s hand; in another she is an adult bundled up in a fur hat and jacket against a snowy Viennese winter.

‘In the past I thought reality equals non-poetic, or little-poetic’, she explains. ‘And now I realize that reality is full of poetry’.

Of Mayröcker, the Swiss art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist writes in the January–February 2019 issue of Frieze:
She writes non-stop: taking down things she overhears or that people tell her. These notes go into a vessel or a basket, out of which she fishes fragments of text and composes them like collages. These montages never constitute a story but a kind of mimetic writing.
Both Schmidt and Obrist noted that Mayröcker continued within the non-narrative tradition of English-language modernists such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Yet Mayröcker draws more intensely from the specific intimate details of her life, moving restlessly with the start of one thought, then darting off, moving into another, circling back at a certain point, or not. Images and ideas, themes and observations, pitch and tone, references and connections weave in and out of the decades, build on each other, disappear, only to reappear years later. Never redundantly but excitingly new. In ‘night-throated mignonette-mail journey’,
she writes:
stealthy April no already start of July
farmsteads in thick fog
the meadows damp and full of gloom
wiping across the half-open window suddenly
the ancient cemetery of this place…

(translated by Richard Dove)
Her friends and fellow artists, whether Elke Erb, Adolf Muschg, A., Leo N., Erna, B., Mario, Gladis, Thomas Kling, Giuseppe Zigaina, Maria Lassnig or Linde Waber, find their way into her writing. They are referred to, quoted, a physical detail here, a snippet of conversation there, and they also appear as dedications at the beginning, more often at the end of poems. They are the subjects of her art and she theirs. In Waber’s paintings, for instance, Mayröcker often figures, with baskets and bins of notes, a parquet floor, a red stool, a desk, shirts and blazers hanging ghostlike against a sloped wall in
the distance.

Hölderlin, Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon are favourite references, as is classical music – Bach, Schubert, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Maria Callas, Robert and Clara Schumann, Mozart’s Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, and his Requiem.

Many other poems refer to Jandl. In ‘death and love song’. she writes:
come I’ll lead you I’ll guide you I’ll take you with me
to the lark-song to the shadowy eye of Siena
to the mown tulip-wood to the sagging catacombs
to the hoisted blue of our sky to the laborious nights

(translated by Richard Dove)
The next poem begins with the question ‘Don’t I consume you?’, while in ‘What’s your name for me?’ she admits:
perhaps I’m embracing myself
when I’m embracing you
perhaps I’ve split myself in two :
By the third section of Raving Language, ‘The Age of Obsession (1990–2000)’, the first poem is entitled ‘for Ernst Jandl’ and chronicles an illness – ‘I’m hanging on the drip now, he says, / will telephone you when the infusion’s over, he says, / you’ll only see green sheets and masked / figures, the surgeon says…’ And then later in ‘auxiliary romanticism, etc.’:
and see you in advance bidding farewell
and me who’s breaking down in my ocular deluge
your train’s not leaving till tomorrow yet
I can already feel our pulses grieving

When Jandl died in 2000, Mayröcker went to work almost immediately, processing the loss of the person she called her HAND AND HEART PARTNER, her LOVE PARTNER, in a way she had always done, through writing. (‘When your soul is bleeding, says Elke Erb, how can you not find words, says Elke Erb…’) Requiem für Ernst Jandl was published in 2001, with the English translation appearing seventeen years later, in 2018.

Mayröcker’s Requiem has a symphonic quality, not only because she refers to a requiem, to Mozart, Puccini and Bach, but because the poems themselves are long and meandering, grievingly up and down, filled with movements, short, fleeting reminiscences, untethered realities, mournful cries. One can hear the polyphony, the chorus of voices and melodies moving in and around:
… but there is nothing like him!, I say,
the secret words, our secret words, I say.
Beginning in complete ENDLESSNESS, Elke
Erb says, you will have to begin in complete
and utter endlessness, you are an

(translated by Roslyn Theobald)
Stylistic techniques such as erratic and inventive punctuation ( . . instead of … and / between words), switches in verb tenses and pronouns, shorthand phrases, italics and capitalizations change tone and tempo at the slightest turn. The italics tend to be soft and sibilant, sometimes a word or two, a whispering phrase, a windswept line – a Sunday of the sort you find in a mirror; and no longer linger here; his austere cranium, his whispering
genius; il pleut il pleut; uccelli uccellini
– while the capitalizations are louder, sharper notes, more insistent – INDIFFERENT, IMPORT, DIE AWAY, NO NO! GLADIS PHONED FROM THE DESERT. One can hear the distress in her voice, trying to make sense of inconsolable loss.

There is DARTING, UNWATERED, WRETCHEDNESS, DIGNITY and THEROPYLAE; there is MERCY’S OBLIVION and HELLO! HELLO! A desperate salutation, a one-sided madness, an indelible need to be heard and seen. Using the number 1 instead of one has a quick, hammer-like effect – 1 blackbird, 1 donkey, 2 cuts, 1 gash, 1 intimate relationship, 1 thousand miles, 1 poster, not 1 single rosebush – and proves there is no time to waste.

The way Mayröcker communicates fascinates, she is honest and unabashed, contemporary and original-sounding, at times conjuring up so many memories the memories spill over, at times it is as though she is trying to reach Jandl himself. In a way, she is making space for him, resting places, waiting, listening, looking out for his return, his rightful place beside her. At one point she asks without question marks:
What happens to language during difficult times? Sometimes it is shoved down so far no one can reach it, sometimes the silence is so great it is as vast and empty as a Waiting for Godot landscape (‘Deformation has taken place, Samuel Beckett, / hard and dangerous, we are not only more / weary because of yesterday, we are different…’). And sometimes the words cannot be contained, they rush out, flood everything in its wake: ‘I am torrential / that I am so torrential as this river and simply / letting myself sail away, letting myself drift, with / the currents…’

Published in 2018 by The Cave Song, the poems in Scardanelli are linked by lines from Hölderlin’s poems, especially ‘Wenn aus dem Himmel…’ [‘When from the sky…’], and they begin with two older poems, written by Mayröcker in 1989 and 2005, with the rest of the poems dated from January to August 2008, and running chronologically. Scardanelli begins with the poem ‘Hölderlin tower, on the Neckar river, in May’:
this pinch of Hölderlin
in the bright-red Hölderlin-room /
in the corridor standing
my gaze drifts to the red flowers in the glass
edged with fallen
nothing else /
the room empty only the vase of flowers
two old chairs –
I open 1 window
in the garden you say the trees
are still the same ones they were then

(translated by Jonathan Larson)
In his writings, Hölderlin emphasised the interrelatedness of genres and forms of artistic expression, and so Mayröcker has a natural confidante in Hölderlin, she talks about him, talks to him, perhaps at times Mayröcker even becomes Hölderlin, genres and genders crossing, overlapping. In one instance she says, ‘I want to / live hand in hand with Scardanelli, the lamb in my bed / the shabbiness of my meantime ecstatically unaware (in- / flamed)’. In another:
I am counted among the aging ones though I would prefer to con-
sort with the young (rose of their cheeks)

(Scardanelli; translated by Jonathan Larson)
Throughout Scardanelli, Hölderlin is sometimes Hölderlin, sometimes Scardanelli, sometimes Höld. He appears in various forms and personae as a kind of haunted figure, a spectre, a troubled soul pacing around the house at night, perhaps a series of haunted figures battling different versions of themselves, all the while whispering in Mayröcker’s ear, stomping on the floor, making the lights flicker.

Eight years after his death, Jandl also reappears as though he never left:
he invites me to eat it was already spring we were
1 to ourselves I sensed the fullness of his spirit he drank
1 glass of red wine and the more I looked long at him reached
for his hand the time passed not quite as rapidly as
today he was in the know I was secure…
Compared to Requiem, the tone here is gentler, less frantic, not so urgent. Capitalizations still appear, only less frequently – HOW I SPOKE TO YOU HOW NEAR DEATH TO ME, SPARROWS, OBJECTIVITIES, THE SEA, MYSELF, ARCADIA, LUMEN. The 1 continues, the italicized phrases are shorter fragments pulled from Hölderlin’s biographies, letters and poems, pieces of conversations, parts of thoughts. Her made-up words and shorthand, on the other hand, become more frequent and cue unexpected changes in stress and meter – ‘1st tulip-goblets’; ‘INRI 1 l.bird skull on our bed’; ‘yg.spruces’; ‘KNIOQUE (no, not the knot)’; ‘1 x I found’ – as poetic as they are text-message-worthy.

Letters and telephone conversations bridge the space between people: ‘over the phone Klaus Reichert cited BUBER: “Roar of God vaulting over the deeps”’. Reminiscences become reimaginings, reimaginings become reminiscences – Jandl, her friends, her mother on the Dorfstraße wearing ‘1 grey garment’. She revisits Sara and Roberto in Florence, talks about ‘the cloud-covered sky of / Venice’; Kandinsky’s ‘inner necessity’, his Exotic Birds painting, with its disorienting swirls of lines and colour (is that a bird’s eye, a feather, the sharpest of beaks?); the Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf, which looks like it could have been photographed yesterday, though it was painted in the early sixteenth century; James Joyce’s umbrella; Maria Callas’s adoring voice; Escher’s perspective-teetering drawings. Not to mention John Updike, Marguerite Duras, Brahms, Frank O’Hara, Billie Holiday, Penderecki, Jimi Hendrix, Velázquez and Petrarch. Her range is as international as it is polyvocal.

Mayröcker speaks of a loneliness that is Hölderlin’s loneliness that is Mayröcker’s loneliness, another ghostly transposition:
And ever
(never) have I concealed for 1 lifetime the pain the panic the
loneliness, in my winged apartments,
have looked all at once at the red
lily on the parquet
Within such loneliness is a far greater fear, which can be seen in the title of the poem ‘my hysteria is the craving to be loved is the fear of not being able to write anymore is the fear of having to die’. She continues to mourn for the lives she’s lost – Jandl, friends, her mother – but also for the last poem she will be able to write:
and caress and
kiss my last poem : the just written and completed very
last poem and as the tears roll over it that the lines
dissolve namely 1 chirping that no 1 else will hear etc…
‘be with me in my language craze’, writes Mayröcker, imagining her own death before her own death, her life ‘too short for the dream of my life’. Within the architecture of memory and the space of ideas, within the boundlessness of art and the ‘everyday of daily things’, there is still so much to say. In Mayröcker’s writing, ‘LINES = times’, there are still ‘yesterday’s scribbled-down notes’ and a ‘wind-scattered paper-thin day’ to get through.

études, meanwhile, is the first in a trilogy published in German in 2013 by Suhrkamp Verlag, and in English in 2020 by Seagull Books. (Next in the series is cahier, published in German in 2014, to be published by Seagull Books in 2024, translated by Donna Stonecipher; and fleurs, published in German in 2016 and yet to appear in English.)

Obrist says of the trilogy, ‘To her, poems are like watercolors, while prose is like a stone sculpture. She now creates collages of the two, which she terms

A hybrid between poetry and prose, études = studies (I’m getting the knack for Mayröcker’s efficient shorthand), a close observational space where she continues to explore ageing, mortality and grief, with almost daily entries beginning in 2010 and ending in 2011, every piece title-less, with dates at the bottom. Études are also short musical compositions, often vigorously complex pieces of music practiced again and again to perfect a particular skill, until they become automatic, inherent, life-breathing. And so Mayröcker’s interest in translating a kind of musical experience through word-sounds on the page continues, her own daily practice, as always, tireless. From the German edition of études:
… du mein Herz in einem nu, zweite Mahler
flehentlich damals wie dunkle Tropfen von Tann usw., deine Briefe so
schleiernd und guckend…
And from the English études:
… my heart in a trice, Mahler’s second
imploringly back then like dark drops from a fir tree
&c., your letters so veiling and peering…

(translated by Donna Stonecipher)
There is a light-darkness, a playful-seriousness, that emerges in études, dizzyingly disorienting but also dazzlingly luminescent, the poems packed with details and perceptions – notes on doctor visits, conversations with friends, everyday observances that twist and turn around each other. Memories move even more quickly and anachronistically – what is yesterday is forty years ago is today – from the Parisian café that smells like fish to the grounds of the Naschmarkt to the Danube woods to running into Gert Jonke in Josefstädter Straße to visiting Schiller’s House to finding a hotel room in London ‘to say goodbye’.

When Mayröcker writes, Obrist tells us, ‘it is as if she moves into a chemical state: she dissolves into a kind of trance’. One can tell by the seemingly endless references to artists, writers, composers and philosophers that this trance also pertains to the way Mayröcker read, took in and processed information, avidly and ravenously. The references are far-reaching and heavily loaded in their meaning, but because they appear and disappear quickly, the poems refuse to be weighed down. She mentions the Spanish painter and sculptor Antoni Tàpies; the Italian High-Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lott (Man with a Golden Paw, 1524); Jacques Derrida’s ‘protégée of a blue landscape’; Cy Twombly’s ‘ro- / ses on the windowsill little soul of the rosy dawn’; Francis Bacon (Jet of Water, Studies of the Human Body); Roland Barthes; Satie; Fellini; Francis Ponge; Adolf Wölfli’s elaborate labyrinth-like, music-note-filled paintings; Pascal’s The Pensées; and Frank Zappa.

NOSTALGIA, she says, continuing to play with typography to differentiate between levels of emphasis and emotional tones. IMMEDIATELY, SANK DOWN, TRANSIT, PRIMAVERA, HALIFAX, LOVELY, GLAS, TATTERED – in a way that might be exuberant, emphatic, frustrated, angry, giddy, elated or ecstatic. Other moments are more mischievous and forthright – ANUS, ‘fennel orgy’, ‘FLEUR / phlox and fetish, for Edith S.’ and ‘I’m 1 holy-communion-child you / asshole’.

MOUTHWATERING becomes mouthwatering, also mouthwatering, dramatic differences on the page. The underlined words and phrases in études draw attention to ideas, an act of remembering moments of importance, say, or tender, thoughtful accentuations. Significant because Mayröcker has taken the time to make them so, deliberating and emphasising for the reader.  

 ‘Diminutives, let’s say’, Mayröcker says, and the diminutives are plentiful, microcosmic words filled with efficient energy and affection: foehnlet, wreathlet, grasslets, tatterlets, birdlets, leaflets, branchlets, fir-limblet, riverlets, winglets, flowerlet-sex, breastlet, tonguelets. The sounds are sudden, intriguing, a flick of the tongue, something about to be licked.

Everywhere there are images of ageing and death – Mayröcker’s left eye tears, she spits blood, there are ‘skull night violets’, a reliquary, bird bones on the bed. In another poem the image is Cyclopean: ‘I have 2 lips / I have 1 eye’. Like Lassnig’s paintings of lurid misshapen figures or Möhwald’s fragmentary sculptures, the body is taken apart, reconstructed, a surgical list, the senses numbered. In cataloguing her life, studying and observing so closely (études, études, she exclaims throughout études), Mayröcker’s own body cannot help but morph along with the mélange of thoughts and ideas milling about her mind. Her body hunched over a typewriter, her face reflected in a window, her hand reaching into a bin of notes, her ear pressed against the telephone. THINKING OF YOU AND WRITING TO YOU, she says, her voice loud and clear, forcing her way through the silence.

Madness follows Mayröcker, or maybe Mayröcker follows madness, from Hölderlin to Robert Schumann in From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall or 1 Schumann-Madness, published by OOMPH! Press in 2019. Focusing on the nineteenth-century composer Schumann and his wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, lines from their biographies, letters and diary entries move in and around the lives of Jandl and Mayröcker in a recital-like effect sustained by soundplay and the instantaneous connections to be made between words, images and ideas. With the German on the left-hand side of the page, the reader’s eye can keep wandering back to Mayröcker’s soundings, other languages such as English and French scattered throughout, curious words such as Ringfinger, 4.Finger, tiptoeing, and phrases such as ‘my mountain flower’ and ‘»do it in the bath« Joyce/Derrida’.

Her love of classical music, art and the creative process wind helically throughout the play in From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall or 1 Schumann-Madness, which is bookended by two poems, ‘From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall Amid the Ivy’ and ‘From Embracing the Composer on the Open Sofa’. It begins with loss:
whether the wet laundry in my chamber and thinking of Silvie what
all she requited to me on that day when HE was buried she slept
beside me that night because I was afraid to remain
alone and the composition »to Silvia« by Franz Schubert
which haunted me because I had cried a lot and the winter
tapped against the glass namely the tapping time of year…

(translated by Jonathan Larson)
As is Mayröcker’s style, the ‘I’ is often uncertain, taking on new perspectives and vantages – it could be Mayröcker grieving, weaving autobiographical details into the poem, or Mayröcker imagining Clara’s grief by incorporating biographical elements, or both, a self-sustaining entanglement of the two. Verb tenses change without hesitation, pronouns switch seamlessly, you becomes me, she becomes he, for who needs such limitations and constraints on gender or genre (the play itself could be considered one long prose piece or sound poem).

There is an openness in From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall or 1 Schumann-Madness that is refreshing and playful, what is densely packed in études suddenly becomes expansive, lingeringly long and melodic, lightly moving up and down along the length of lines, with only a scattering of capped words – INLY, DRAGGED, CARED, GLOVE, NAMELY THE POUT, PALM SUNDAY, NUTWOOD – startling the reader back into awareness.

Throughout the play there is a sifting and sorting of the difficulties and pleasures of the artistic process (‘it’s a matter of drafting of drawing up realms of feeling, of drafting jots and scribbles, wild telephones, nightmares, elastic hinges…’). Robert obsessively took and maintained notes in his lifetime, and so there is a wealth of information about various ailments and doctor visits, some of which Mayröcker relays: ‘blessed back of the head, bedsores : necrosis from lying abed pressure sores, wistful song etc. maybe mud in the eyes’, ‘sputum and spoors of feeling’, ‘genital disease, urinary retention, “pain in the part”, sweat at night’, ‘phlegm of death’. A humorous bit about defecation:
I stayed on the edge squatting for a long time, 1 (my) minuscule hard excrement
on the tile floor of the privy like dung of nanny goats, beamed at by the hard
light of the privy…
Another about sex:
Ringed band of the penis stung, by daffodils, so says the composer, I’m a foot
fetishist, like Max Bense, make coitus-checkmarks in my diary, kiss the feet
of the pianist, with the furlet of every night, at times humming on the sofa…She likens sex to religious ecstasy to creative output – ‘devout ejaculations’ – or perhaps creative output to religious ecstasy to sex.

Mayröcker races around, covers all of the flower-ridden ground she needs in order to capture a life, or, rather, many lives – Clara’s many bouts with morning sickness, Robert’s worries about lung disease, a dead black cat, a dripping tap, a profusion of violets on a table or in front of a grave, many hellos over the telephone, ‘the naïve painter Henri Rousseau’, Ferdinand Schmatz’s verse, Ezra Pound’s ‘I float for days on end in music’, Beckett’s ‘»the air is full of our cries«’ and ‘Ulysses Gramophone’ – anachronistic mergings of different times and places to further distort and disorient. It is, after all, Mayröcker’s world, a place of many times, a time of many places. There are synaesthesia-like sensations (‘the scent of speech, Jacques Derrida – ’) and trompe l’oeil effects (‘painted-on nettles’, ‘the hand-painted YES’), enough to make one wonder what is real and what is not. And there is Santa Lucia, bearer of light in the darkness of winter, the patron saint of the blind, her eyes removed either by herself or by her persecutors, depending on the version of the story.

‘THE EYE’S APPEARING SHIELDS US thanks to the wonder-working pianist (Clara)’, Mayröcker acknowledges near the beginning of From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall or 1 Schumann-Madness, while the ending finds an ‘I’ scrubbing fabric menstrual pads and hanging them to dry in the attic, ‘perhaps something holy but something disagreeable too, which I wanted to hide’. For this is partly Clara’s story and partly Mayröcker’s. And through Mayröcker’s retelling it’s possible both can see ‘the shadow of the amaryllis on the tile floor of the UNDERWORLD’ before them, a figure resting on a sofa, a book by Dante, another by Ludovico Ariosto, a sister’s missing photograph, how language can act as a saw blade or a veil, a voice reaching out to another in
the dark.

For over seventy years Mayröcker amassed and recorded an exhaustingly rich and meaningful collection of cultural and personal references, moments and memories, influences and aesthetics, concerns and insights, meticulously sorting, connecting and assembling these fragments into her writing. Sometimes she is standing in the middle of it all, sometimes off to the side, sometimes hiding, sometimes someone else entirely, as reflected in the photograph of Mayröcker holding a drawing of a woman’s face over her own. This is another facet of Mayröcker’s body of work, drawings of dreams and sorrows, long-limbed figures and protective ghosts she calls ‘image poems’.

‘… there’s a certain photo’, Mayröcker writes in From Embracing the Sparrow-Wall or 1 Schumann-Madness, ‘it depicts a large family group, only 1 person of which is still living, and this person too who’s depicted at about 3 years old also stands at the grave’s edge…’

It could be Mayröcker standing at one of many edges (‘Although I’m always alien to myself, there are these rare naked moments when I believe I can see through myself…’ she says in Magische Blätter VI [Magic Leaves VI]), her ghostly gaze resting somewhere between here and there, a confluence of views all around her – buildings, bodies, objects, art, words, sounds, feelings, thoughts – everything seen and unseen, heard and unheard, every age imaginable. In her lifetime, Mayröcker memorialized, repeated, pierced, bracketed, transcribed, transposed, in order to bring back to life. Her oeuvre is as tireless as it is valuable, as striking as it is monumental, and now has become its own kind of longstanding requiem.

This article is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

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