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This review is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

Cover of Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees
Jamie OsbornFacing (down) the swarm JAN WAGNER Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, trans. Iain Galbraith (Arc Visible Poets) £9.89(Arc Visible Poets) £9.89

An address to the karst-dwelling olm, a lyrically edgy elegy for Evel Knievel, a grandfather embalmed in his own sheets and discovered a year later ‘shrivelled to a wasp, tiny / pharaoh of a long-gone summer’ – the poems of Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees teeter between the playful and the threatening. We encounter, in the poem ‘smithfield market’, ‘maps of gore’ on butchers’ coats, before

                    suddenly, vis-à-vis,
the severed head of a pig behind the glass.

Iain Galbraith, in his translator’s preface, writes of ‘facing a poem “on its own terms”’ (something reflected in the facing originals and translations printed here) and asks whether this might ‘really be facing it down’. In the stand-off, confronting again the pig’s head, we are aware of something aware withheld or suspended:

at second glance, searching its face, we see
contentedness, and something else, like bliss.

Galbraith also writes that without a certain cunning enjoyment in Wagner’s ‘aesthetic communion […] reality would remain elusive’. A communion-like pleasure in reality does preside in several of Wagner’s poems; but there is always some obscurity, even in the most comforting or familiar domestic scenes: a warm kitchen window ‘blind with steam’ from cooking, luminous quince jelly ‘stored for / harsher days, a cellar of days’. In the poem ‘giersch’ (ground elder) this moves into oppressiveness, as the plant takes over a garden,

                                      bis giersch
schier überall sprießt, im ganzen garten giersch
sich über giersch schiebt, ihn verschlingt nichts
          als giersch. ...

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