Tuesday, April 25, 2017

FIRST AND LAST STORIES

A few years ago, I reviewed a book of poetry entitled Floating Heart by Stuart Friebert, a writer whose work has been published in numerous literary journals, including Pinyon Review, an independent press in Montrose, Colorado. Friebert responded to the review by sending me copies of several books featuring his translations of books by the German poet Karl Krolow, and we corresponded sporadically about the books that are included in a series entitled the Field Translation Series, founded by Friebert at Oberlin College in Ohio. This week, Friebert made another appearance on the publisher's list of Pinyon Review with First and Last Words: Memoir and Stories, a stellar collection of literature about German-Jewish characters and Friebert's sojourn in Germany as one of the first exchange students following WWII, as well as memorable short stories from Friebert's wry pen.

In the Prologue to this volume, Friebert at once captures the reader's interest with a commentary about how Nazi-German infected German classical language, citing Victor Klemperer's Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer notes the word "Umbruch," a beautiful poetic word before the Nazis perverted it, which had to do with "turning the earth over to plant anew but was diabolically redeployed to mean a glorification of being rooted in the soil of the Fatherland..." Although Friebert claims he never became a linguist, he fell under the spell of German poets, particularly Rilke, and was inspired to study German abroad by Professor Doberheim who was a refugee from Darmstadt where Friebert was sent as an exchange student. Friebert later studied with Martin Joos who advised him that the only salvation for Germany was if Jews returned (Friebert's heritage) ... "to the language, the literature, to the land as well. That in and of itself would be a miracle...whatever you do, read German, teach it if you can, and above all live it."

When Friebert crosses the ocean on the Queen Mary, he experiences a "rogue wave" that injures a priest who has become a companion to him and Ellie Klarner, a fellow student in the exchange program. The ship lands in Rotterdam to seek medical help, a place described by bitter crew members as a city where citizens had been shown no mercy by invading Germans. Friebert becomes more aware of Third Reich corruptions after he meets victims of WWII when he reaches his destination at the Technische Hochschule or the "TH" where he has been sent to study. After leaving Germany, he faces a career decision, pondering whether to help ferret out former Nazis, or to stabilize the new democratic Germany, or to apply for a Foreign Service job. Instead, he returns to his studies, completes his B.A. at Wisconsin State University, takes an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in German Language and Literature, and later teaches at Mt. Holyoke College and Harvard, settling at Oberlin College where he taught German, founded and directed Oberlin's Creative Writing Program, The Field Translation Series and Oberlin College Press — all unfolding as a unified career path, which he had pondered following his year abroad.

When Friebert sent me volumes of Karl Krolow's poetry, he offered his opinion about writing the kind of poetry that impassions readers — the notion that learning another language and translating the poetry of that language results in successful poetry in a writer's native language and voice. His fifteen volumes of poems and thirteen volumes of translations bear out this advice. First and Last Words is a living legacy that recounts the past without surrendering to an easy sentimentality, and is one of those timeless volumes that showcases a master of language and lends credence to an international audience.

Readers will enjoy three fulsome sections, including miscellaneous short stories and memoir stories, my favorites being a fish tale entitled "Some Lunkers," and "July 14-15/1998," a story about Friebert's father's death following rehab from a broken hip. In the story, Friebert discovers that his father had scrawled poems written by the poet Miroslav Holub in a prescription notebook. Friebert had sent his father translations of Miroslav's poems, and the poem that moved his father the most was "Autumn," regarding the end of life. "But next year/The larches will try/to make the land full of larches again/and larches will try/to make the land full of larks/And thrushes will try/to make all the trees sing,/and goldfinches will try/to make all grass golden/and burying beetles/with their creaky love will try/to make all the corpses/rise from the dead."

Friebert has created a tour de force volume, writing from a well of memories and nostalgic thought that will perturb some and delight others in a range of subjects and characters with sharp bits of philosophy couched between the lines: "The best science is often the simplest way through the maze of possibilities. The key, of course, as it often is in most of life's exigencies, is being able to formulate the decisive question at the outset of your investigations..."

Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403. Also on amazon.com.



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