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This poem is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.

Poems Oskar Loerke
Translated by Richard Dove

Born in 1884, Loerke was ten years younger than Stramm and three years older than Hoddis and Heym: expressionism was, as it were, his birthright, and Peter Rühmkorf rightly includes five earlier poems in his anthology 131 expressionistische Gedichte (Berlin, 1976). But Loerke's poems are modern in a deeper sense: he was writing about Baal several years before Brecht; his albatrosses and unlovely cities with their 'black snow' recall Baudelaire; the self as a 'black cry' (Die Wurzeln/The roots) seems to owe a great deal to Munch, if not to Rimbaud, whose 'Je est un autre' is a problem with which he persistently wrestled (one early response, in the poem Strom/River, reads 'Du is Ich'/'You is 1'); and, though it ends with the classical call of the Bacchants, Das Bett des Mühseligen/The bed of the sorely afflicted almost appears to foreshadow Beckett. What is more, one repeatedly stumbles across stanzas which sound uncannily like Benn - who was, after all, his closest poetic contemporary in chronological terms. But although both started from similar premises (God is dead, the age is late), Loerke did not take Benn's high heroic road. Where the latter elaborated a post-political, post-historical 'static' stance, he allowed himself to get mired in history, likening bare winter trees in Berlin, in a poem published in 1934, to 'the brooms of the unemployed' and referring to the Nazis, even in 1932, as 'Germany's grave-diggers'. Where Benn put himself (in a Nietzschean sense) beyond meaning, Loerke was ever seeking to open new avenues of meaning. There is something ingenuous, and therefore unconvincing, about the unio mystica in the early poem Erfiillung/Fulfilment; but the darker his world became in the wake of the Great War and, above all, during the 'hell' of the Third Reich, the more moving - or even helpful - his expedients. The poem which imagines a worn statuette of the Egyptian god of death coming paradoxically alive in a vital landscape may seem like mere whistling in the dark, but one cannot dismiss his cult of cosmic empathy, and cosmic compassion, quite so lightly (the late poem Ohne falsche Zeugen/Without false witnesses suggests how Benn's moi haissable can be put in its place: when some wood creaks at night, the isolated narrator remarks that 'An ancient forest's moving through the house' and proceeds to identify so strongly with the 'solitude' of the forest in question that he wonders who can possibly be pulling the chair up to the table). What one can say without fear of contradiction is that Loerke was weak (or strong) enough to keep coming round to 'And yet…' (Um Johanni/Near Midsummer Day): it is as hard to imagine him entitling a poem Hier ist kein Trost/No consolation here, as Benn did in 1913, as it is to imagine Benn sending texts into a world of base delusion ('Leben - niederer Wahn!') under titles like Güte /Kindness. This may well be the reason that Loerke's work has failed to fire the reading public in the Age of Anxiety. He did, on the other hand, manage to inspire quite a number of distinguished fellow-poets (what Hesse wrote in 1956, fifteen years after his friend's death, is not so very hyperbolic: 'The greatest lyrical talent beside Trakl and Benn, he was, down the decades, a secret king of modern avant-garde poetry, a much-imitated pioneer, a model for - and a father to - the best of his own and the next generation').

Nirvana (Nirwana) [1911]

This vale seems made of beaten gold;
There is no breeze, the trees here look
Like men off-balance, drink-beguiled,
Near lakes of adamant light.

The vale fades into golden smoke,
Then into golden dreaming,
Then into golden seeming,
Then into golden night…

Fulfilment (Erfüllung) [1911]

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