Friday, July 11, 2014


Recently, Stuart Friebert, a poet friend who had been introduced to me through Pinyon Publishing, sent me copies of poetry translation collections in the Field Translation Series published by Oberlin College. He thought I might enjoy reading them and would be inspired to learn another language so I could translate the language of poetry from other countries. Of course, I'm too old for the latter adventure, but I enjoy reading some of Friebert's translations of German poets and am often surprised by a package of books published in the Field Translation Series that he sends to me.

The most recent surprise package contained a copy of Valuable Nail, Selected Poems by the German poet, Gunter Eich, translated by Stuart Friebert, David Walker, and David Young. Friebert's interest in Gunter Eich was piqued when he traveled to Europe on an H.H. Powers Grant to meet with a number of West German poets. He became so intrigued by the poet that he made second and third visits to study Eich's ideas about the "minimum," or, as translator David Young writes: "the claim staked to shreds and remnants, to the things we begin to notice and prize when our dignity and comfort are stripped away ...especially in [the] tendency to find mysterious signs and tokens in the natural world..." Thus, the title of the book, Valuable Nail, becomes plausible to readers when it appears as a commonplace object in the poem "Inventory" and denotes the symbol for Eich's life and thought.

In the introduction to Valuable Nail, David Young explains Eich's "glancing technique" where subjects brush past quickly as readers grasp issues that are at the edge of the vision and two or three words make up a small image that accounts for what Young calls "...a great chunk of terrible history..." Readers may dismiss many of the poems as trivial, but the simplicity of the imagery is comparable to the simplicity of more accessible (and not so dense) poets like our Robert Frost or Robert Francis, New Englanders who know how to create arresting visions using lyrical brevity. Readers recognize this simplicity in Eich's poem, "Days with Jays:"  
"The jay does not throw me
its blue feather.
The acorns of his shrieks
grind in the early dawn.
A bitter flour, food
for the whole day.
All day, behind red leaves,
with a hard break
he hacks the night
out of branches, seeds, nuts,
a cloth that he pulls over me.
His flight is like a heartbeat.
But where does he sleep
and what is his sleep like?
The feather lies by my shoe
unseen in the darkness."

Gunter Eich was a soldier and prisoner of war during World War II. Following the war, he found that the German language had been distorted by propaganda and lies, and he felt the need to revive his native tongue through poetry. Images of the war appear in a poem entitled "Too Late For Modesty," in which he achieves the "glancing technique" for which he became famous: 
"We took the house
and covered the windows,
had enough supplies in the cellar,
coal and oil,
hid death in ampules
between the folds in our skin.
Through the crack in the door we see the world:
a rooster with its head cut off,
running through the yard.
It's crushed our hopes.
We hang our bedsheets on the balconies
and surrender."

The poem that resonated the strongest with me was one entitled "Insight," a graceful and simplistic example of Eich's effort to renew the German language. It is also a cogent representation of Eich's interest in Chinese poetry: 
"...As I opened the kitchen cupboard
I found the truth
in labeled canisters.
The rice grains
are resting up from the centuries.
Beyond the window
the wind continues on its way."  

In such concise lines, we see how small images give the reader a glimpse of this "chunk of history" to which Young alluded in the introduction to Valuable Nail.

Although Stuart Friebert won't succeed in luring me into the world of translating poetry, he has certainly inspired my interest in the genre and the poets featured in the Field Translation Series, and I appreciate the introduction to these translations published by Oberlin College where Friebert taught German for years. He also founded and directed Oberlin's Creative Writing Program and co-founded Field Magazine, the Field Translation Series, and Oberlin College Press. Pinyon Publishing recently published a collection of poems by Friebert entitled Floating Heart.

I might add that Friebert is a faithful correspondent, and I enjoy his humor and audacity. This week, I opened a package from him and found a card imprinted with a bright yellow cactus that his sister had photographed—lovely artistry that tells me Friebert is a member of a gifted family—generous with "glad surprises." *

*a phase attributed to Thomas Aquinas
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