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This poem is taken from PN Review 161, Volume 31 Number 3, January - February 2005.

Six German women poets Eavan Boland


When I was a child two German girls came to help my mother in the house. It was just after the war. The small towns of Germany were in the grip of winter, hunger and disgrace. These girls, who were sisters, hardly more than teenagers, had left that aftermath behind and come to the shelter of a country which had been neutral. There was rationing in Ireland. But there was also butter and meat. Clothing was plentiful. It was an easier place to be.

I was too young to remember their actual arrival. They came into my consciousness with my first words, my first memories. I remember the kitchen, the damp clothes, the snap of the fire, the smell of peat. I remember one of them opening a door that led into the darkness of a back lane. I can hear their voices as they folded clothes and put away plates. I can hear my own voice as I said back the numbers they tried to teach me - eine zwei drei vier fünf. Over and over again. Or the quick phrases I learned because they said the reality of their lives. Ich bin beschäftigt. I am busy.

Above all, I remember that when my parents left the room, and there was no need to learn or be polite, they spoke to each other in rapid, headlong sentences: shutting out with relief the Irish twilight, the small child and all the evidence of what was not home.

For many years they were a background memory. Gradually, that changed. They became at once clearer and more mysterious: intaglios, cut deeper in my consciousness than I had realised. Even their voices began to return. What was it I had heard? Gossip and anecdote? Or was I hearing distant towns, in their harsh moment of reckoning - and wider tragedies of nationhood and inhumanity - creeping through their words like fog under a windowsill?

The truth is I couldn't know: not then, not now. But some of the yearning and curiosity I still feel about them is in this selection. It is the outcome of years of retrospect and regret: of knowing I had not asked them the questions I later wanted to ask. When I first saw them they were teenagers, sisters. Both are now dead.

But later it seemed that the door one of them opened was legendary, not real: that it led from our ordinary, tea-time kitchen into the very heart of a broken Europe. And the conduit, the path was language. A language I could not understand but which spoke to me all the same.

It still speaks to me - that language I cannot understand but need to hear. And that, I think, covers some of the paradox of translation. Some of the poems in this selection were being written, or had been written, at the very moment those sisters were talking. In some of these lines their loneliness, their necessary absence is explained far more clearly than they or I could then have managed.


There are nine poets in the book from which this selection is taken. Their dates of birth range from the mid nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth. All are German-speaking. Their places of origin are from as far north as Bukowina and as far south as Carinthia. Their places of exile range from Sweden to South America.

All wrote in the presence or aftermath of a war which cut deeply into their lives. Of course, they lived different lives and experienced the war variously. It also needs to be remembered that the poems here are only a fraction, albeit an important fraction, of the work written by these poets.

These are poems, then, written in the shadow of a war. But there is more to it than that. They are poems written by those whom war injures and excludes in a particular way: in other words, women. Nevertheless, the question may persist: why women, why war? If these look like restrictive categories for translation, there is a reason:

The problem about human catastrophe is that can be remembered all too well. But it is much harder to re-imagine it. What brings it from the domain of fact to the realm of feeling is often just a detail. A cup, a shoe, an open window, a village roof with missing slates. Once we see it, we recognise it. That could have been me, we suddenly think. I could have been there . That moment of private truth, simply because it cuts history down to size, has a rare value.

It seems to me there is something compelling and revealing in the way the world of the public poet encounters the hidden life of the woman in these poems. As it does so, both change. The individual experience of the first makes the collective experience of the second available in a new and poignant way. The result is a dark, moving interplay of determinism and elegy.


That in itself, however, requires a word of warning. These are not war poems as such. Women are not usually war poets. They are not primary agents of conflict; they do not sign or violate treaties. They are rarely at the front line.

Nevertheless, their perceptions of the aftermath of war may be especially keen. Just as the soldier at the front may write the most engaged war poems, so women - always a less powerful unit of society - may document the the lurch from enormous power to its loss, which Germany suffered in just a few decades, in a particularly acute way.

And so, the women poets in this book seem to shift the entire category of war poetry into after-war poetry. That they also seem to write here with remarkably similar tones and themes should be no surprise. As Lisel Mueller says in her superb book of translations of Marie Luise Kaschnitz: 'There was no way for these writers and those of the next generation to write except in the context of that catastrophe and the evil which led to it.'

In fact these are rarely poems of public reference. I have deliberately chosen poems that display the broadest vocabulary of loss - a breadth that seems to me in keeping with the richness and surprise of this work. The private vulnerability - the crashing in of a beloved world of perceptions, an almost secret world of importances - is often the deepest truth of historical tragedy.

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