Angina Days – Selected Poems
Translated and Introduced
by Michael Hofmann
Princeton University Press – £16.95
In relation to Meyer’s encyclopedia, the German poet, Gunter Eich, once wrote: ‘’the weightiest book in my father’s possession. The world was full of colour and complication.’’ Upon reflection, one can only marvel at how frighteningly vivid and prophetic his words were. Still are. Especially for a German poet writing between the wars, where in hindsight, the world may have a lacked a little colour, but was certainly brimming with complication. More complication than it knew what to do with, at least until such time that an Austrian lunatic with a penchant for hate and murder, ensured complication was the least of our worries.
The above quoted words (among numerous others) makes one think, for the world is still ‘’full of colour and complication.’’ Perhaps more so now, than when Eich originally penned them almost a hundred years ago, which really ought not be surprising; as poets by nature, are far more visionary and gut-wrenchingly honest than most. Well more than (most) politicians, that’s for sure.
And if nothing else, Angina Days – Selected Poems bequeaths an alarming array of Gunter Eich’s honesty and vision.
From the ‘Inventory’ of Remote Smallholdings (1948) – still one of the most widely read poems in the German language – to the ‘Rearguard’ of Ad Acta (1964) to the ‘Handel’ of Uncollected Poems and Poems from Radio Plays, there’s a regal consistency of deftness and simplicity amid these poems; so much so, that it’s surprisingly difficult to remain within the grit-like realism of the here and now. A quality, which, if you think about it, can only be a good thing:
He loved luxury and ate like a pig.
But the servant who brought him his chocolate in bed
found him in floods of tears.
Mortality proposed itself to him in the form of music.
‘Handel’ may consist of a mere four lines, but the thirty-four words they contain, evoke humour, humility, a sanguine sadness, as well as courage. Quintessential courage might I add, as it naturally seeps through the telling. What’s more, there’s ultimate courage in the choice of words involved in the telling – as Michael Hofmann, who translated these poems, writes in his Introduction: ‘’[…] words have a quality of relict or disject, a certain melancholy residue of boisterousness, that imply perhaps a more systematic and thoroughgoing vocabulary and a more powerful grammatical current to wash them ashore, words that have a quality of having been beached. Here, I realize, is for me a source of the quiet and immense and eerie power of Eich: words are like stray, chance, isolated survivals after some catastrophe, of unpredictable utility and beauty, most likely misapplied and unhelpful in any given context, like the ‘’sodden ruches’’ of a waitress’s blouse. Eich was, after all, a great admirer and appreciator of Beckett’s.’’
Angina Days traverses many a varied rendition of ‘’unpredictable utility and beauty.’’ In so doing, it captures the many sides of Gunter Eich’s poetry and personality, as well as unleashes an imaginary, literary force – of which far more ought to be and does deserve to be known.