Friederike Mayröcker is one of the most important and prolific comtemporary Austrian poets. Even now, well into her nineties, she is composing gorgeous, profound and experimental volumes of poetry like études which was just translated from the German by Donna Stonecipher and published by Seagull Books. Etudes are small musical compositions, of considerable difficulty, designed to provide practice material in order to master a specific musical skills Mayröcker ‘s composes 200 pages of prose poems, varying in length from a few sentences to a few pages, that feature her innovative experiments with language, punctuation and grammar. Her topics are nature, memory, writing and art. The poems are not given specific titles, but are usually dated and oftentimes dedicated to a friend. In one of the earlier poems she works out her use of as études exercise books:
exercise of the summer: zenith: with bare feet, magnolia tree, while working on this book the idea of a sm. exercise persisted: étude of a blossoming branch, of a little leaf in my hand, a Swiss pine LINE by the unprepossessing Francis Ponge &c., back then from the living-room window Mother’s head, she waved to be for a long time while I ran down the street turning back again and again to wave, she was already fragile but she smiled in this film &c.
The poet often finds herself wandering through the woods or her garden or opening her window and listening to the sounds of nature. In this one short excerpt she moves us from the image of a magnolia tree to a blossoming branch, to a leaf; her bucolic surroundings bring about other memories—in this instance the work of Francis Ponge (a French essayist and poet that developed a form of prose poem which explores the minutiae of everyday objects) and an early memory of her childhood and her mother.
Mayröcker isn’t merely composing études for herself–or her audience–but she recognizes études happening everywhere around her, especially in the natural world. This French word appears throughout the collection in many contexts:
sm. rain puddles I mean they look like white membranes namely little-petal exercises of the jasmine bush = ‘études.’
birdlet’s practice chirping in early evening (“étude”), practice in the evening before the thunderstorm, in darkened boughs…
your long life passes by you, crosses over you, while the moonshine’s pearls = gleams of tears “études” your memory’s exercises & etc.
night practice=étude: Rhode Island, ’71, in Rhode Island to bed that time America ’71, at his side, I say, exhausted in the CAHIER (Durer’s violet boquet over the bed &c.).
as I awoke, lying on m back with my hands balled into sm. fists and I adventure when we had long forgotten each other namely the ribs of each little leaf (“études”) namely we ADORED each other &c……
There is an underlying nostalgia for romance and love in Mayröcker’s poetry as well. Ernst Jandl was her long time companion and the poems in her collection Requiem for Ernst, written after his death, have that same tone of sentimental affection and longing. Ernst isn’t mentioned specifically in Etudes, but one of my favorite, romantic poems made me wonder if she were thinking of him. The rolling waves of the sea become a metaphor for a long relationship, now gone, which has left its “pressure marks” on her like the waves do on the sands:
you know endless infinity symbols in my
hand what does Ajax mean you know the sea ROLLS do you know
how the sea rolls up to your feet and over mountain
and valley your path and past the olive trees
wisteria woods bougainvillea you know the lianas
the lilies the waving cypresses and palm trees to the shores of
the sea you know you are alone (with pressure marks from love)
ach the dark clouds leaning on the window. Don’t see any moon
any stars, but the rod blossomed in the sand……for
our days are just 1 breath &c., for the water
rolling to your feet: bare feet dark blue the waves
roll up to you they take you in their arms so that
it is like 1 crying…..and I screwed up my courage &c.
(inconsolable branchlet you know, am dumbstruck)
Mayröcker’s use of the word “ach” is peculiar but in an intriguing and jarring way. Many of the poems in the collection have this word at least once. I’m assuming that the word is the same in the original text since “ach” is a German exclamation. In one of the earlier poems she explains it was the birds that first inspired her to use this word:
then light blue in the window, natures shifting: murkinesses: Handel’s “Berenice” e.g. bitter oranges namely chirping ACH like the young birdlet in the budding tress whose sawn-off brances in heaps in the wafting grass and purple tones on deepest girl…..
The poet continues to use it as an exclamation and, I think, as a jarring transition between images, thoughts and memories. I offer few examples from various poems throughout the collection:
After the death of the mother the deep feelings belonged more profoundly to her since the words SOUL and TEARS rose on her face ach shattered her eyes and mouth.
the cherries ach in our mouth am your adagio the pale hair and pale tears.
1 wan morning meanwhile, I had kept some of my ailments to myself but the doctor could read them in my eyes, he was very magical “and followed me into death” &c. ACH WHAT CUSTOMS.
imperative vegetable I mean from the past I dreamed of the past ach into the river that branched, 1 certain type of field-flower. Fleurs.
ach little heart ran riot with fear circa many years ago, deep-black blueberries, how they grow wild in the woods, or SNACKING on the wood-beauties namely infiltration of a love.
One of my favorite side effects of reading this collection is the new books and new artists that I’ve discovered. I read this collection slowly, over the course of the last few weeks while in lockdown–my attention span for reading hasn’t been great–but I’ve have found it very soothing to explore her poetry and various rabbit holes down which she sent me. Mayröcker mentions in one poem, “and everyone asks what are you reading these days &c” and she answers this time and again in just about every poem. Old favorites, Goethe, Schiller, Musil, and T.S. Eliot, and Handke are comforting to her. But she also reads widely from different languages (Jean Genet is a favorite French poet of hers) and different periods of time. For instance, I’ve discovered the poetry of the contemporary German poet Thomas Kling. I’ve also stopped to look at and ponder Cy Twombly’s Orpheus series and Durer’s Violet Bouquet. Mayröcker ‘s poems and Durer’s painting are both nice reminders of spring, renewal, and rebirth. I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe.