Self-portrait with a Swarm of Bees, by Jan Wagner
Jan Wagner is a virtuoso German poet who has rightly been awarded some of Germany’s top literary prizes. His range of verse forms is wide - from free verse to sonnets, haiku, sapphics... - with often a deft replacement of full rhyme with punning half-rhymes and assonance. He has the gift of taking the mundane and using it as a stepping off point into meditations and philosophy and an occasional startled sense of beauty. There are poems about food that in a very few lines convey an essence I never realised before. Thus:
“... what though do I know
of onions but their frocks, the way they sting,
and layer by layer their retiring heart.”
Another poem about ground elder - that plant which can take over everything - mirrors that takeover by ending with three lines all of which end in the one syllable German word for ground elder, ‘giersch’, and with other words alliterating with a hard ‘g’. Everyday objects like lawn mowers and discarded old tyres find their place.
The book has the German text on the left with English renderings on facing pages. The renderings are good poems in their own right. The translator, Iain Galbraith, manages to find equivalents for Jan Wagner’s versification and schemes of rhyme and half-rhyme. Generally his translations stick quite closely to a literal translation of the German, though sometimes they are rather more free. The poem about ground elder, for example, is rendered as one about bindweed, with the final lines using assonance and alliteration instead of ending with the word for the plant:
“it twines up walls and roan, choking
windows and drain, trumpeting, binding, abiding,
till nothing breathes but bindweed, and nothing more is seen.”
If you like modern poetry, get this book. And, even if you don’t know German, make the effort to look at the German originals to get a feel for the original verse forms and sounds.
mfc, 11 Jun 2019