How can one write poetry when language burns the tongue? For German-Jewish poets living in exile during the Holocaust, the banishment must have been double — not only from homeland, but language. For a poet like Paul Celan, words become as intractable as life itself. But through her careful translations, Ruth Ingram brings into English three exiled poets working within the German language through grief, disillusionment and guilt toward a kind of reconciliation. That is, these are survivor-poems that also represent poetry-as-survival.
The opening poem by Hilde Domin, a so-called “assimilated Jew” whose privileged life was upended by flight and exile, speaks chillingly to survivor guilt. “Build Me a House” begins, “The wind comes…” and describes it lifting old papers “like doves” and displacing us “like jellyfish” on shore. It is a gentle but inevitable force, against which she builds a pretty house. Finally, “the wind passes / like a hunter, / whose hunt is not / meant for us.”
Mascha Kaléko works through personae at an ironic distance. In “Autobiographical” she tells us, “I was a clever embryo, / I didn’t want to come into the world.” In “Meeting in the Park”, an old man encounters a pair of lovers in a “capsule of bliss”, and can only remark “poor things!” Age is a recurrent theme for Kaléko, as maturity brings its own existential difficulty. In “Future Music” not being young makes her “Glad but not cheerful.” Even though “war was my Kindergarden. My playmates / hunger and fear”, still she laments the modern condition — pollution, drugs, Napalm wars — ironically more. In the end she pleads, “Don’t tell anyone, my case is hopeless / for I suffer chronic longing / for things which don’t exist on earth.”
In “But I Say to You”, Hans Sahl praises the refugee, repeating ecstatically, “They were wonderful.” Despite not being “heroes” of the resistance, instead “often frightened and disheartened, / unwashed and covered in straw”, he insists “They were wonderful. / The moon over the barracks / was their moon alone” and asks, “Is survival an achievement / that one may call on? To do the most necessary in a moment of danger / an act worthy of fame?” Although “Some, who were not there / found it insufficient” he praises surviving and even thriving — learning languages, writing books and painting pictures (“good ones and bad ones”) — as worthy of our wonderment.
Indeed, this whole collection is wonderful — fileld with poignance, bitter irony and sweet, haunting beauty. It is a gift to have them in English, rendered into fine poetry no less, thanks to Ruth and her many supporters, and especially the poets themselves.