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This review is taken from PN Review 160, Volume 31 Number 2, November - December 2004.

MARKS OF SMALLNESS ERNST MEISTER, Between Nothing and Nothing, translated by Jean Boase-Beier, with an introduction by John Hartley Williams (Arc) £8.95
TADEUS PFEIFER, The Basalt Womb: Selected Poems, translated by Pamela Hardyment and Vishnu Khare (Jay Landesman) £8.95

Ernst Meister was born in 1911 in Hagen, Westphalia, rather a backwater of Germany, and stayed there, except for some time in the army and as a prisoner of war, until his death in 1979. He published his first collection of poems in 1932 - poems that the arriving Nazis must surely have thought degenerate; then no more till 1953. It was said of him that he opposed Hitler by silence; and though he certainly cannot be blamed for what people said of him, still it would be nice to know what he thought about the atrocious times he lived through. John Hartley Williams cites two or three poems (not among those translated by Jean Boase-Beier) which may have some social relevance; but concedes that the years 1933-45 are reflected `only metaphysically' in Meister's poems. I think we can ask more of poetry than that.

And it is not just a matter of politics and whether the poet noticed them or not. In Jean Boase-Beier's selection there is very little indication that Ernst Meister was ever anywhere in particular, during his time on earth. There is a mention of the Seine; and one poem has the title `In Sète', which, as we may or may not know, is where Paul Valéry, a poet Meister admired, is buried. There are a few more hints of particular human existence in Richard Dove's much fuller selection (Carcanet, 1996); still, none very compelling.

Ernst Meister was slow to be recognised, but then received two or three important prizes, the last being the Büchner Prize. Georg Büchner, a realist and an exiled revolutionary, perhaps turned in his grave; but Meister, told of the honour just before his death, was apparently intending, in his acceptance speech, to indicate the alliance - in the struggle for a better humanity? - of `pure poetry' such as his, and the concrete, earthly, riskily engaged writing of Büchner. Yes, possibly. Nicholas Born said in praise of the poems of Ernst Meister that `they have almost nothing to do with the signalling function of social speech, they are withdrawn from the wide domain of ordinary usage'. I think we need a closer poetry than that.

Translating such poetry into English is a brave endeavour. It is good to have a bilingual edition (Richard Dove's was not), though a reader with German, glancing from left to right and back again may still be none the wiser:

caught by the hair
by lilies,
their hands of fire,

as though what will come
is someone has to speak, mouth
to black open one
of heaven -

as though it will come out
to walk in the field
in the middle

of one's own body
and to find
earthly speech.

Or both.

I don't deny the intriguing and elusive beauty of many of these poems and I salute the translator's rendering of them into an English that engenders kindred effects; but in the end they seem to me essentially hermetic, by which I don't mean impossibly difficult (though some are) but rather shut off against the inrush and abundance of real human life. Some seem bent on making a reality out of the words themselves - John Hartley Williams rather approves of this - and some play cleverly on their author's own name. I think that a mark of smallness, of a tight linguistic spiralling down. As Meister says, we exist briefly between `two nothings'. He does not do enough, in my view, to strengthen, help and amuse us in the time between.

Tadeus Pfeifer, born in Germany in 1949, living now in Switzerland, has travelled - through India in particular - and his poems are the documents of his travels. For example:

Breakfast in an Indian Hotel

A scorpion runs
across the carpet of the dining room
under the heel
of a waiter.

Pfeifer operates mostly at the opposite extreme to Meister: reportage. There is little in his verse of what Keats said poetry should surprise by: `fine excess'. Instead, sometimes, he inflates and allegorises the raw material (in `Udayagiri, for example). But really, the matter is all important. Pfeifer's translators have an easier job than Ernst Meister's. The matter shows through and will interest, more or less, as matter. Many poems are in a rather loose free verse and they lose little in the passage across; in a sense, they have little to lose. A greater test is presented by the few poems in stricter shape: the regular metres and the rhymes of `Bois-Râteau', for example. Here, I have to say, the translators do badly. Choosing not to rhyme or scan, they were bound, in my view, to seek some compensatory discipline in their English. They sought, or found, none, and the result is a very undistinguished language, quite without tension:

I fall asleep. And Melusine
tells me how it was in those times.
We climb hand in hand to the ruin
of Salbart Castle.

Elsewhere - in `Seven Years' and `Varanasi', for example - there are serious basic errors of translation. The facing text shows them up. There are also numerous typographical lapses; so that overall a reader may feel the undertaking has not been rigorous enough.

Arc call their series Visible Poets because it is their policy to keep the foreign original visible in English. They value that foreignness. But it is never the real foreignness of a foreign language that shows through a translation - if it did, it would be unpleasing. The foreignness that is desirable, because it works, is actually that of all poetic language. Poems are always `foreign' in relation to their own country's vernacular. The foreignness the translator aims at, and that Jean Boase-Beier through her difficult author often achieves, is akin to that of all verse in English when it works.

This review is taken from PN Review 160, Volume 31 Number 2, November - December 2004.

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