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Review: Before the Invention of Paradise, by Ludwig Steinherr

David Hart, Hard-Wired, Stride Magazine, December 2010

The poems in Before the Invention of Paradise< are from eight German collections between 1985 (when he was 23) and 2005. The originals are here on facing pages. Here are five openings:

Suddenly/ sodden/ with tepid drops

In the courtyard/ two fifteen year olds

Please take a look at/ this flintlock pistol

This privilege/ of being here

The white-tiled room/ is windowless

It seems less easy to date these (the book has eight sections of poems from ten books), but they are chronologically selected. This book's poems, too, are mostly short; here is a whole poem from near the middle:


This summer which
only consisted of your
absence -

I felt you everywhere
even in the fur
of a cat that had strayed far from home
even in the draught coming from
the metro shaft

All those endearments,
embraces between us -

I'll never be able
to make you feel them.

In so far as I can measure the German but not translate it, this equates, and although I can read the original superficially, I wonder how exactly it would sound. My sense of the translations is of a poetry of letter-writing, of everyday speech, of impressionist recall. Towards the end, the energy toughens and has to be contained, just: das Leben ist eine (wow! I think, he's on a roll), and I am brought down again by the translation, life is a, and perhaps there is more energy in the German, which becomes in English (all lower case),

life is a
rotten suspension bridge
across which drunk
you must push a piano
while from the other side

a furious gorilla
is lumbering towards you

and so on, step by step, no oomph. Yet wild in intent (and in the German so?). Or I'm the wrong reader. Maybe I am.

I've been wondering - or wondering yet again - what it is essentially poetry is, and is for, that is not voiced in any other way. Because of the impossibility of absolute translation, while yet how important it is that the attempt is made, perhaps key questions are most begged by it. In a curious way translation might take us closer to why poetry seems hard-wired in human life. Tell me true, tell me!