Ashes For Breakfast

by Durs Grnnbein
298 pages,
ISBN: 0374530130

Post Your Opinion
Carry the News to All Parts
by Asa Boxer

Ashes for Breakfast is a bilingual edition of collected poems spanning Durs Grnnbein's career from 1988 to 2002. Grnnbein grew up in former East Germany, and a portion of his poetic efforts are in the political mode, the sort of thing you might find in Neruda or Muhamed Al-Maghut. But Grnnbein courts other muses, and this selection has a welcome variety of tones and approaches. Of course, Michael Hofmann, the translator, deserves a great deal of credit; first, for departing from his preferred vocation as prose translator to introduce English speaking audiences to this excellent German poet, and second, for doing such a fine job of it. (Unfortunately, my knowledge of German is minimal, so when I say "a fine job" I mean that the poems are well wrought regardless of their faithfulness to the original.)
Translation can be an excellent measure of a poem's ability to communicate. When a piece of writing relies upon empty rhetorical formulations, merely exuberant sound patterns and lexical effects, double entendre, acrostics, and, in general, when it indulges in too much cleverness, the translator¨who has to account for every word and phrase¨must surely find his task impossible. Languages don't bend the same way; each allows form and idea to settle according to its own idiosyncrasies. Translation teaches us that ideas migrate better than form, that trope, metaphor, and narrative are more manageable than cadence, alliteration and rhyme. Ultimately, one is entranced by translations of Dante, for example, because his conceptual inventiveness is clear, curiously detailed, and emotionally engaging, and not because the terza rima is astonishing. From the standpoint of other languages, then, the formal element is an unrepeatable coincidence of phonemes; what survives the language barrier (and, often enough, history) are a poem's conceptual structures.
Inventiveness is the key to cross-cultural currency, and imaginative ingenuity is what makes so many of Durs Grnnbein's poems so compelling in translation. Like when he calls bathtubs, "Real sui- / cide machines on their // stumpy legs'; or when alluding to German History, he questions, "Was the dragonfly / A splinter from the propellers / Of the Great War?"; or when describing UFO country, USA, he explains, "Seen from the air, the city looks a scrambled text anyway / That only beings with polyhedron eyes could ever crack."
Another quality of Grnnbein's poetry is that his metaphors and analogies are contextually powered and can therefore resonate like little revelations that make one remark, How apt! When Grnnbein speaks of "nervous maggots / On the ticker tape" in the context of a poem about a dead mole, one understands that death's economy resembles our own. This idea goes on to be developed in the lines that follow: "From the stomach lining / Traders in colored jackets (or are they reporters) / Carry the news to all parts: carrion, carrion!"
Which brings me to my reservations about Grnnbein's writing. Sometimes it oversteps the lines of suggestion, lays bare the devices, and undermines one's suspension of disbelief. In the above case, the poem slides rapidly into nanve allegory and loses its insight: "Only a grasshopper, a hop and a skip away, / Scans the clouds and suns itself in the silence / Of a stoical philosopher." It's cute, but it causes the poem to abandon its focus on the mole to get drunk on its own conceit. Fortunately, Grnnbein generally avoids such pitfalls; and in most cases, his tropes know their places.
Overall, Ashes for Breakfast is a highly enjoyable, deeply insightful, and formidably creative book, deserving of . . . hmm, a Griffin Prize? Kudos, too, to Hofmann on a great selection and a wonderful translation. ˛

Asa Boxer's first book of poetry is due out from Signal Editions in 2007. He lives in Montreal.

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