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Review: Before the Invention of Paradise, by Ludwig Steinherr

Ludwig Steinherr writes with almost oriental spareness and obliquity. The idea is everything, expressed simply, as if he invites us to take up a thought he has not yet followed into any certainty. Some poems read like koans:

This poem
I'm plagiarising
from Vivaldi -

Vivaldi in turn
strung together his notes
to mime the way some autumn leaves
had fallen -

Whom were the
leaves imitating?

This is an uplifting selection from ten collections over twenty years. Steinherr's calling as philosopher is noticeable throughout. He seeks clarification and meaning always, sees the simplicities within the complexity, shows us the obvious that we had missed. Nevertheless, Letter of Thanks to Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy puts philosophy as a survival trait somewhere short of bumbling optimism:

More clearly than Schopenhauer
you see:

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 -

[...]

Juxtaposition is Steinherr's way of opening the poem to our own thoughts and experience. A line of poetry and a morning / jangling / with hoar frost. Juliet's house and a young girl's cell-phone. Pain and a guitar string. Places opens at a chemist's linked to Trakl's drug addiction and eventual suicide, but ends:

I'll only be able to recall
the young girl
on the bicycle
who shot past me there
in the heavy downpour
singing at the top of her voice

There are terrors, silences and death, but Steinherr leads us beyond these to where a suggestion and the thoughts it triggers combine to take new meaning. He is impatient with the inadequacies of words - The emptiness at the heart of words, How can I shake off / this metaphor fever? - but appreciates their instinctive nature:

As though words

were able to see more
than we can

Their fur is bristling

They won't obey

They're growling at the door

But there is no-one
outside

Richard Dove's translations catch the spareness and the physical shape of Steinherr's poems perfectly. He has avoided adding oratorical or rhythmical ornament and keeps to a mostly literal translation that is deceptively easy to compare with the original. It is only in the detail of the bilingual text that the degree of self-control is realised. He sometimes nudges his English reader towards some subtlety of tone in the original that a strictly literal translation might lose, his means perhaps as small as the insertion or omission of an indefinite article. As with any translated text, there are places to disagree with his choices without challenging his fidelity to the meanings, tone and form of the original. Rarely, he may have lost something through an unusual and awkward elaboration, or with a line sequencing that reduces the impact of Steinherr's closing line, but this is quibbling. Dove's highly readable and faithful rendering serves Steinherr's fascinating selection well. In either language, we are led to reflect on what is said and unsaid.