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the idea of a sm. exercise persisted: études by Friederike Mayröcker

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.

 

 

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Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

Beverly Bie Brahic is not only a talented poet, but she is also a gifted translator.  Her latest work, a series of Baudelaire’s poems selected and translated for this edition entitled Invitation to the Voyage, was chosen from the wide array of the French poet’s oeuvre.  Brahic describes her experience choosing, organizing and translating  of Baudelaire’s work in the introduction to this volume: “When I began to translate Baudelaire, it was as an exercise in reading, visceral, as translation always is. The sensuous poems—dreams of escape to an impossible, often tropical, elsewhere, visions of voluptuousness—drew me first for their descriptive and perceptual richness. But the sensual Baudelaire needs the bitter, compassionate, desolate Baudelaire…”

“I adore you like the starry night sky…” is a favorite from the collection and best illustrates Baudelaire’s tension between the passionate and the bitter:

I adore you like the starry night sky,
O vase of sorrows, taciturn beauty,
And love you all the more as you flee me,
As you appear, oh how ironically,
Rich jewel of my dreams, to increase the waste
Between my arms and the immense blue space.

I rise to the attack, mount the assault,
Like a choir of maggots after a vault,
And cherish, beast cruel and implacable,
Even the coldness that makes you more beautiful.

The beautiful coldness, the taciturn beauty—Baudelaire’s jarring descriptions are still perfect in Brahic’s translation.

My favorite in the collection is a poem entitled “The Cat” not only because of the juxtaposition of the sensual and the bitter but because of the unexpected twist in the poem. The title is almost deceptive:

Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart;
Keep your claws sheathed,
And let me sink into your eyes that dart
Sparks of metal and agate mixed.

When my fingers can stroke at their leisure
Your head and your elastic
Back, and my hand gets drunk on the pleasure
Of your body electric,

It is my wife I conjure up. Her gaze,
Amiable beast, like yours,
Deep and cold as a spear, penetrates me,

And from her toes to her ebony hair,
A dangerous perfume, a subtle air,
Swims around her brown body.

And the most wonderful thing about the collection is that the prose poems and short essays are paired with the appropriate poems thematically. In “Invitation to the Voyage” he writes,

You now the fevers that assail us in our cold wretchedness, our nostalgia for the country we don’t know, the anguish of curiosity? There’s a land that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest, where the imagination has constructed and decorated a western China, where life is soft and sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. We must go there to live, we must go there to die!

Yes this is where we must go to breathe, dream and while away the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has composed an Invitation to the Waltz; who will compose an Invitation to the Voyage, that we may offer it to the woman we love, the sister-elect?

Whether one is familiar with Baudelaire or not this is a lovely volume to have sitting on one’s shelves.  The poems also come with the original French facing the translation and since this published by Seagull Books the cover is a work of art.

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To Love is to Watch Over: Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

Anne Hidden, Quignard’s protagonist in Villa Amalia,  is a musician and composer who has made a name for herself by condensing, paring down, and reinventing scores of music.  He writes about her process:

What she did was incredibly stark.

She read the score first, far from the piano, then put it back down. She went and sat at the keyboard and—suddenly—delivered the whole thing in the form of a rapid, whirling resume. She didn’t interpret the music. She re-improvised what she had read or what she had chosen to retain of it, de-ornamenting, de-harmonizing, searching anxiously for the lost theme, seeking out the essence of the theme with minimal harmony.”

Quignard’s description of his artist is a metaphor for his own writing. One would expect from this author’s novellas, A Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings, sparse storylines;  but Villa Amalia also requires, even demands, an astute reader, who must seek out the essence of his themes amidst a minimal plot that is beautifully poetic.

Ann Hidden discovers that her boyfriend of sixteen years is seeing another woman, so she decides to jettison and erase anything that has to do with their relationship: she sells the house in Paris they were living in, gets rid of all her furniture, including her three prize pianos, and even throws away her clothes.  We are given small hints in the text that, like her father before her, she deals with grief or loss by running away.  There are few details about Ann’s life and long relationship with Thomas anywhere in the story; as she is fleeing Paris for Italy after the sale of her house, there is a brief, universal description of lovers , one of Quignard’s typical passages, that says nothing yet everything at the same time:

Those who aren’t worthy of us aren’t faithful to us.

This is what she was telling herself in the dream she was having.

It wasn’t their commitment at our sides that led to their fear or laziness, their carelessness or slackness, their regression or silliness.

Sitting in our armchairs, stretched out in our bathtubs or lying in our beds, we see absent, numb people for whom we no longer exist.

We don’t betray them by abandoning them.

Their inertia or their complaining abandoned us before we though of separating from them.

Ann settles on the island of Ischia where she falls in love with a doctor, his young daughter, and a villa by the sea.  But even at this point in Ann’s story, Quignard intervenes to remind us of his style:   “I could fill the months that followed with details.  They were busy, amorous, constructive.  But I shall skip over this.  And more.  And yet more.”

When a tragedy occurs at the villa that deeply affects her, Ann flees yet again, this time back to France to live with an old childhood friend that has helped her through her breakup with Thomas.  The artists in Quignard’s fiction are like wounded animals who, when they are hurt, run and hide and try to nurse their wounds in solitude.  But what sets Ann apart from the other eccentric and emotionally distant artists in A Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings is that Anne, no matter how many times she is hurt, is still open to love.   Time and again she takes a risk and offers her heart to new people in her life.  At the end of the novel, Quignard writes:

In the eyes of children, to love is to watch over.  To watch over sleep, allay fears, give consolation where there are tears, care where there is illness, caress the skin, wash it, wipe it, clothe it.

To love the way one loves children is to save from death.

Not dying means feeding.

I will end with one final thought–that is really more like an unanswerable question— I keep having about Quingard’s fiction.  When I translate and interpret Ovid’s Pygmalion and Daedalus and Icarus myths with my fourth year Latin students, we debate about Ovid’s commentary on role of the artist.  Ovid depicts his artists as lonely men who use their talent, in unnatural ways, to improve their lives but also to flee from others.  Does an artist have to suffer to be creative?  Would these characters be as successful in their art without grief and loss?  What would Quignard say about his artists?

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On the Necessity of Doors: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

In Bergeners, Tomas Espedal describes his various travels which include sojourns at places like New York and Berlin.  At the center of the book is an extended description of his hometown, Bergen, Norway, which city, as a fifty-year-old man, he is drawn back to settle in.  I read the book in two evenings over the weekend and part of what draws me into Espedal’s writing is the way in which he varies his style; reading his books are like unpacking a treasure chest, one never knows what beautiful short story, poem, or anecdote one will find on the next page.

I’ve underlined, copied and marked up so many passages it would be impossible to share them all here.  But one feeling which stood out to me in his writing is his deep sense of loneliness, so my focus of this post will be on this idea.  When the book opens, Espedal is in New York with his girlfriend, Janne, who announces to him that she is leaving him.  Even though he was married before this relationship, this break-up seems to have disturbed his equanimity.  His interpretation of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne myth alludes to his state of mind and the loneliness he feels with the loss of this relationship:

Daphne runs and Apollo runs after her.  They run. We run.  You run and I run after you.  Apollo runs after Daphne.  They run through the forest, along the river, we run through the city, I run after you.  Almost grab your hair, that long hair which you lose.  You run without hair and increase speed, how fast you run, don’t you know who I am/  I’m Apollo, I’m running after you.  You’re running so fast, I increase speed.  Almost grab your arm, your hand which you lose.  You’re running and weeping.  I run, we run through the city, out of the city, over the bridge, over the river, I can hear your breathing becoming labored, it will run out, you’ll lose your breath.  You lose your hair, lose your arm.  You’re breathing so heavily, so deeply, you’re nothing but breath.

Espedal writes what appears to be a short story entitled “The Guest,” about a man who celebrates his birthday alone; but as is common in his writing, the lines between fiction and autobiography are blurred.  Is this how he imagines his life now that Janne is gone and his daughter has moved away?:

Today is his birthday. His fiftieth. He’s put on his best suit and is celebrating the occasion alone.

The black velvet suit is tailor-made. A white, newly ironed shirt. Silver cufflinks. He smokes a cigarette.

He has a good dinner. Drinks and expensive wine. The living room is adorned with flowers, white lilies, a present to himself.

The lines in the lilies’ leaves are like the veins beneath the skin of the hands holding the cutlery. He cuts his meat.

He takes a mouthful of wine. He looks at his hands, long and carefully, as if they are guests at the birthday celebration.

There is a very brief mention of his wife in the section entitled “On the Necessity of a Door.”  They move to Nicaraqua when she gets a job there and he is thrown off by the open floor plan of their new house that doesn’t have any doors: “An architectural idea: rooms flowing into one another, a short flight of steps up to the kitchen which was open to the living room, a hole in the wall leading to the bedroom, another hole to the guestroom and a longer staircase to a workroom on the first floor.”   He sets up this workroom as an office in which to write and one day when his wife is out of the house he hires a contractor to install a door.  The door is, he feels, a necessary for him but it is not well-received by his wife: “…I was sitting locked in my room working, I was writing.  I heard my wife enter the house, she walked around downstairs for a while, then came up to the first floor, and I heard her halt and give a sigh.  A deep sigh.  Had she foreseen and expected this door?  She took a step forward, put her hand on the door handle, turned it suddenly and tugged as hard as she could at the door.”  They divorced soon after.  Could the various doors he erects in his life be the cause, even now, of his loneliness?

The passage that affected me the most as far as his loneliness is concerned was that which concerned his daughter:

My daughter’s move was one of the hardest things I’ve had to bear.  I don’t know whether all parents feel the same way, maybe some are relieved that their child, the young adult, is on the move at last, has left the house, but for me it was a shock and I haven’t got over it yet.  Why a shock?  Wasn’t it expected?  Yes, it was expected, it’s natural that children leave home, it’s necessary, but when it happens, it feels so brutal.

This experience, combined with his girlfriend moving out at about the same time, is too much for him to bear.  He doesn’t find comfort in his quotidian activities and his routines make him feel even lonelier.  He asks, “How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house?  How can you deal with your own loneliness, what can you fill it with?  How can you live?”  And the only answer he comes up with is simply, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

 

 

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in the kitchen it is cold: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?

One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:

Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:

in the kitchen it is cold
winter has an awful hold
mother’s left her stove of course
and i shiver like a horse.

She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:

The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.

And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:

This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.

I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’s To Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.

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