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Ashes for Breakfast, a selection from five of German poet Durs Grünbein's books from 1988-2002, is Grünbein's English debut and the first major poetry translation by the German-born British poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann. In his preface, Hofmann confesses that he avoided poems that rhymed or were "too skillful, too euphoric, and too rhetorical," picking instead those poems which fit his "line" and corresponded to his own "idiosyncrasy and distinctiveness." Thus, if the facing German and English pages of Ashes for Breakfast does not give us all of Grünbein, it does let us listen to an on-going conversation between two estimable, brooding, brilliant poets and friends.
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.