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This poem is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.

Poems (translated by Richard Dove) Ernst Meister

A Note on the Translations

ERNST MEISTER's fame was formally acknowledged by the award of Germany's chief literary prize, the Georg-Büchner-Preis, a matter of hours before his death, at sixty-seven, in June 1979. He lived, all his life, in the small Westphalian town of Hagen, first as an uneasy associate in his father's factory, since 1960 exclusively by writing. Although the author of plays and stories, he is first and foremost a poet, publishing fifteen collections after Ausstellung was acclaimed as 'Kandinsky-poetry' in 1932. The early work is marked by a surrealist freedom of association-the brute king Ultiman has 'a hyacinth in his buttonhole/and a telephone in his hair,/and in his nostrils Chinese lanterns made of copper'. There are no such prestidigitations in the later poetry, but the same creative attitude to language comes out in his compulsive neologisms (in 'Dead Sea' 'clearing of evening-light' combines Lichtung with Abendlicht and 'calm of the sky'-Himmelsstille-is constructed by analogy with Windstille, the normal word for calm) and even his most realistic scenes are heightened by what seems like heavy-lidded hallucination. In a longer perspective, Meister stands very squarely in a German hymnic tradition that goes back to Klopstock-as can be seen from the shards of hymnic diction ('Odem' not 'Atem') and occasional 'heroic' postposed epithets, from the harmonia austera of the syntax, from his religiosity (that the angel in 'Out beyond roofs, beyond cocks' is a corpse, that the fire of aspiration is frozen by the coldness of a later age, is only a sign that he is post-Nietzschean), above all from the elevated, elegiac tone that involves what Hölderlin once called 'a proud denial of all that is accidental'.

The first five poems that follow were published between 1954 and 1960 and are characteristic of the more temperate middle style. An image or conceit or chiffre is employed not as an end in itself but as a means to 'steer' towards 'knowledge', as he put it in an interview. Meister is indeed that contradictio in adjecto a philosophical poet, insisting that Dichten and Denken ('poetry' and 'philosophy') are identical activities and inquiring only into the eternal questions, preeminently into death: 'There would be no reason for poetry unless we existed in the shadow of death' he wrote in 1971. The 'ego' the universe needs to become aware of itself 'exists in a clearing, in the crack in time between two eternities' and it is because there is blackness on either side that images of instable sparkling brightness are so frenetically frequent. The final poem is representative of the minimalist style he sought in the late sixties and seventies. Reality is ruthlessly reduced until there are only runes to record his violated idealism:

He who knows
is the grave-digger,
knowledge the

grave. The
height of impotence
is underground.

But Meister is not a pessimist: 'On no account do I want to play the fanatical no-man' he has said in connection with the above. His perceptions are never, for all his claims to the contrary, codified (and congealed) into anything as unprovisional as a philosophy of pessimism. The energy of his protesting questions and exclamations, his tender preoccupation with the fleeting beauty of things, is itself a kind of intenser, inverted, assent to existence. 'And what/does this sun/want of us' opens his last book but one, In the Crack in Time (1976). Its final defiant paradox recalls EI Greco's resolution not to leave his darkened room in case the daylight disturbed his inner vision and reinforces the image of the 'Hermetic from Hagen' which his late audiences carried away with them: the image of a man whose sight was-symbolically-so poor that he needed a magnifying glass to decipher his own poems, of a poet true to the daunting task that Celan outlined in his celebrated Meridion speech.

Southern Day

On the lagoon's
sparkling gravel

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