Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems Paperback – Jan 24 2006
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“Ashes for Breakfast is a brilliantly layered book [that] never becomes repetitive thanks to its almost organic sensibility . . . Grünbein's poems read as if the forces of history pressing in on the present drove them into this world.” ―Melanie Rehak, The New York Times Book Review
“Intelligently translated . . . Despite the portentous and ubiquitous death knells sounded by many cultural critics, poetry is doing just fine, and for anyone in need of evidence, the work of Durs Grünbein should suffice . . . Grünbein is a vital new voice in the world of poetry . . . Like Joseph Brodsky, to whom he is often compared, he is a serious and focused poet whose work has a depth that deserves our attention. If given the chance, this momentous volume will offer many pleasures.” ―David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle
“Grünbein is a truly cosmopolitan poet . . . [He is] creating poetry which, however subtly, participates in and facilitates Germany's sustained attempts of reconfiguring and redefining itself in post-Cold War Europe.” ―Michael Eskin, The Times Literary Supplement
“[Grünbein's] poems have a nonchalant grace, and shine against their setting of Stalinoid concrete, drabness and dreck. What makes them especially appealing are their volatile shifts of perspective, a sardonic wit and the way they seem to limn out a whole series of potential directions . . . The unhoused quality of these poems has found as permanent and well-constructed a home in English as anyone . . . could wish.” ―James McKendrick, The Times Literary Supplement
“Younger by five to ten years than most of the poets once gathered loosely around the former Prenzlauer Berg 'scene' in East Berlin, Durs Grünbein . . . has emerged as one of the most visible, prolific, and intellectually serious poets of that generation. Unlike some of his peers, who seem to have become disoriented by reunification--e.g., Uwe Kolbe and Bert Papenfuß-Gorek--Grünbein has consistently worked to develop his own idiom and poetic identity.” ―Neil H. Donahue, World Literature Today
“Durs Grünbein is one of the most intelligent poets writing in German today. His subject is nothing less than 'this life, so useless, so rich.' It is wonderful to have his selected poems in Michael Hofmann's note-perfect translation.” ―John Ashbery
“Grünbein is a highly original poet, an heir to the riches of German and European Modernism. What's striking in this poetry is a hard, almost cynical tone which turns out to be just a lid on a jar containing many substances.” ―Adam Zagajewski
“Born in Dresden in 1962, when the city was under East Germany's Communist rule, Grünbein has established himself as the leading poetic voice of unified Germany after the fall of the Wall in 1990. A gifted poet and clever scavenger of various literary traditions, he picks through the linguistic debris of European culture to mold his findings into well-metered and often deeply captivating verse. Packed into this selection, which has been culled from collections published between 1988 and 1999, are electrifying insights into Germany's effort to understand its role in the world today. Grünbein's predominantly unrhymed, formal poems run on the alternating currents of present-day Germany's giddiness at having no greater responsibilities than any other nation and the country's equally overwhelming grief at having so horribly squandered its potential for prominence. With wit and psychological acumen, Grünbein's poems at their best transform the specificity of this peculiarly German dilemma into a general, human concern . . . Hofmann . . . locates suitable equivalents to Grünbein's virtuoso act of laying down multiple verbal tracks in the briefest lines to startling effect.” ―Library Journal
About the Author
Durs Grünbein is the author of eight previous volumes of poetry. His work has been awarded many major German literary prizes, including the highest, the Georg-Büchner-Preis, and the 2004 Friedrich-Nietzsche-Preis. He has lived in Berlin since 1985.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
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Grünbein's landscapes are forbidding, empty, and confining; places stained or haunted by traces of the dead; cages or coffins one isn't sure one wants to leave, or can. Written inside and outside the Berlin Wall, his poems move from the restrictions of a repressive state to the vast endless, pointless entertainments of capitalism. Though Hofmann and Grünbein share an affection for Joseph Brodsky, it is perhaps Gottfried Benn one hears most. If Grünbein lacks Benn's callousness--the doctor pulling gold teeth from corpses to finance his whoring--there is the sense that humanity's best days are over. Like Benn, Grünbein finds nothing transcendental in the world's depravities, but he forces himself to see them. In the sequence "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog," Grünbein writes,
Being a dog is this and that, taking instructions from garbage heaps,
A knuckle sandwich for dinner, mud orgasms.
Being a dog is whatever happens next, randomness
The mother of boredom and incomprehension.
The sequence "Variations on No Theme" finds the "skeptical, well read, irritated" Grünbein musing:
How many gestures are futile, and yet
Their inadequacy keeps them going.
To make menaces at a fly, to lower the head
In mute respect before the departed,
To sweeten your time in solitary by waving
Or greeting, can be diverting
Or decent. It's all absurd anyway,
Against the slothful clouds.
Though absurd, Grünbein is still fascinated by grim things, even dismembered dogs by railroad tracks:
The longer you look, the more
His skin merges with the dirt, the pools
Of gravel in among the emerald grass.
And then the stain also of this life
Is fully laundered away. ("In the Provinces I")
Or at other natural cruelties, like the raptor flying off with all but the rabbit's foot, still twitching in the grass:
That was all that was left of a rabbit
Once the shadow of a wing crossed its path,
After its zigzag dash had been cut off by a claw, its panting
Breath by a well-aimed beak. How comfortless
This death must have been, helplessly splayed
On the wintry earth, the last convulsions. ("In the Provinces II")
In Grünbein's Ovidian world, there is no justice mortals can comprehend, nor any significance, since that bird of prey, perched in the trees, "like a bribed witness . . . ha[s] no recollection of anything," and even "The grass, which had long since picked itself up, sees to it/That this was all there was to see, this rabbit's foot."
Grünbein isn't always so morbid, but he is best so. When his eye turns from memento mori to culture he becomes glib, as in "Trilce, César," about young, oppressed East Berliners who sit bored in libraries dreaming of New York City, and where once, in the restroom, Grünbein was "alarmed as an entire/swarm of blowflies at the//love of two men silently belaboring/one another/sweating and oblivious like strange/centaurlike creatures on an//overexposed photograph." Or, in the title sequence, where Grünbein rehearses his knowledge of the classics at the urinal, "at the moment of voiding," recalling such maxims as "All things flow," or "Know thyself," or "less Classical, remember to flush afterward." Or in "On False Movements," where all our everyday moments of bad luck--wasps in kids' mouths, crushed toes, fish bones in the throat--are part of a plan: "In the crush, the plainest news assails the passerby/like the sodden film poster with its blurred `The-o-di-cy.'" However, when he is not masking his "own shocking helplessness with black humor," as in "Vita Brevis," where he sounds exactly like one would expect an intelligent, cynical, East Berliner to sound recounting his life behind the Wall, Grünbein is capable of writing the kind of world-historical poetry we want from our former-Communist poets. The eleven part "Europe After the Last Rains" has some of his most mature, elegant, and epic moments. In sixth section, dedicated to his grandmother who was ingloriously killed in the fire-bombing of Dresden, Grünbein follows panicked citizens as three waves of bombs hit the city. He writes, "On one twentieth-century night, planes/Delivered a second stone age./The odd bomb shelter, like the tomb behind the stone,/Housed were man, wife, and child, all done to a crisp." And in the next section he almost laments the injustice that the atomic bombs were not dropped in Dresden, as initially planned: "How much more beautifully/The dazzling toadstool would have sprouted here,//Over the pale sandstone residence, as the logical pinnacle/Of so much Baroque." While some poets spend a lifetime bewailing that Daddy didn't love them enough, in Grünbein we find a poet who takes every huge horrific and destructive thing history can throw at him and whose only complaint is that a little better forethought could have made it all much more beautiful.
Here's the beginning of one section of "Ashes for Breakfast: Thirteen Fantasies" (p. 217):
And why, you ask yourself (why being the most childish of questions),
Why am I involved in this rat race on bartered ground,
Where these weaklings are kicking around a dead pigeon.
However Michael Hoffman's English versions are worth reading in their own right.