Monday 17 November 2014

Aldeburgh: Rubble Flora, double nostalgia

After Aldeburgh, its tangle of events and impressions, the impossibility of going to everything, there are always threads to follow – and at least one obsession.  This year mine was the festival’s absent centre, [East] German poet Volker Braun who was unable to come, and in particular one poem of twelve end-stopped lines. ‘Property’ was written at and stands for a turning-point in history, after the fall of the Berlin Wall while Germany was moving towards reunification.  I’m going to type it out, for the pleasure of doing so.  I wouldn’t normally do that (copyright) but this poem, originally published widely in the German press in 1990, now appears to be the best sort of common property.  Hope someone will tell me if not.

Das Eigentum

Da bin ich noch: mein Land geht in den Westen.
Ich selber habe ihm den Tritt versetzt.
Es wirft sich weg und seine magre Zierde.
Dem Winter folgt der Sommer der Begierde.
Und ich kann bleiben wo der Pfeffer wächst.
Und unverständlich wird mein ganzer Text
Was ich niemals besaß wird mir entrissen.
Was ich nicht lebte, werd ich ewig missen.
Die Hoffnung lag im Weg wie eine Falle.
Mein Eigentum, jetzt habt ihrs auf der Kralle.
Wann sag ich wieder mein und meine alle. 

Here are the first few lines of Karen Leeder’s translation.  It captures the poem’s bitter stateliness. 

That’s me still here. My country’s going West.
I helped it out the door with all the rest.
What paltry charms it has it gives away.
After winter comes the summer of excess. 

The full translation is here.  And here is Braun himself, reading the poem.  The Aldeburgh Poetry Paper has an excellent piece by Leeder on Braun and the poem’s context.  As she points out, Braun did not want to prolong the “winter” of the GDR – “I helped it out the door”.  He wished for a third way between that and the excesses of the West, a democratic, independent country with socialist ideals.  A utopian spring perhaps.  “Property” means not only individual replacing collective ownership (including the theft that went on in former Warsaw Pact countries) but also a sense of identity and the very meaning and purpose of Braun’s own poetry – my whole text becomes incomprehensible, he says.  To succeed, poetry has to find and fill an empty space; a crucial role when political repression multiplies such spaces, but who needs it in times of excess? 

How many poems both say and stand for so much, in twelve lines?  More of Braun’s are here at Modern Poetry in Translation.

In a talk on bearing witness, which deserves a whole post to itself, Leeder said Braun had asked her to tone down her translations to the simplest language. 

Idea for next year, which I hadn’t thought of when I filled in the festival survey: if Volker Braun’s health still prevents him from coming (I’m assuming/hoping they’ll reinvite him), maybe the Poetry Trust could commission some recordings? 

There’s a new selected poems, Rubble Flora, out from Seagull Press, translated by Karen Leeder and David Constantine.  Unfortunately it’s only in English.  The best German volume to buy alongside it is Lustgarten, Preußen. I know that thanks to a downpour at Snape one night, which led to a brief conversation in an archway with Leeder and her fellow German specialist Ian Galbraith who stood in for Braun at the reading.

Galbraith also did a Close Reading of the poem Braun had chosen, ‘Tränen des Vaterlandes’ (Tears of the Fatherland) by Andreas Gryphius, who grew up during the Thirty Years’ War.  The poem is stuffed full of war horrors, including a river choked with corpses:

Dreimal sind schon sechs Jahr, als unser Ströme Flut
Von Leichen fast verstopft, sich langsam fort gedrungen.

Contemporary sources, said Galbraith, confirm that Gryphius was not exaggerating.
***   ***   ***

Kathleen Jamie gave a fabulously good reading – she has a clear, strong, confident voice to fill out and inhabit her spare and lyrical poems.  Some of these were from a new sequence reflecting the months up to the Scottish referendum. 

It was good to meet (just before the final bus) Dan O’Brien who read from last year’s Aldeburgh first collection prize winner, War Reporter.  Again, hearing the poet’s voice was a treat – how did he manage not to run out of breath reading these urgent, horrific and often long poems?  Of which there are two new ones in the new Rialto. 

Another reading that stood out: Karen McCarthy Woolf from her new book, An Aviary of Small Birds, very moving.  Other people really liked her talk on Poetry and Disobedience, which I missed – am hoping the Poetry Trust will podcast it and everything else on that festival theme which was hexed for me, I missed the lot.  For once, people said, the opening Saturday panel discussion lived up to its promise... and I was still in Aldeburgh, having a swim and eating porridge.  Festival blogger Anthony Wilson wrote about it here.

More readings: New Poets Chrissy Williams and Kayo Chingonyi, both strong readers and very brainy writers.  I especially like her surrealism and his syntax.  (I was told recently that ‘surreal’ is sometimes used as a put-down for female poets.  It is emphatically not that here.)  Helena Nelson, last-minute stand-in for storm-bound Jen Hadfield, filling the hall with her presence.  Togara Muzanenhamo (born in Zambia, lives in Zimbabwe) reading from his new collection Gumiguru, a calendar for the farming year.  When I met him in London recently he said that from his farm’s study he has a view of fields and cows.    

Thomas Lux did a Close Reading of Hart Crane’s ‘The Air Plant’, written in wonderfully irregular yet perfect iambic pentameter.  It could have been written to illustrate Lux’s quote from Emerson:

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,— a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.

(This works for Volker Braun’s ‘Property’, too.)  A few of Lux’s metrical readings were debatable… afterwards people were going around saying to each other, “he thinks ‘balloon’ is a trochee!

Lux read with panache to close the festival.  At the end, two huge bouquets of white flowers with legs appeared on stage, to thank outgoing festival director Naomi Jaffa for 22 years of her life.  Of course we gave her a long and standing ovation.  The legs turned out to belong to the other members of the Aldeburgh triumvirate, Michael Laskey and Dean Parkin.  Naomi welcomed her successor, Ellen McAteer, who has written about the weekend on her own website.       

There’s plenty I haven’t written about: Brazilian poet Adelia Prado, Karen Leeder’s talk on the poet in old age, South African poet Beverly Rycroft discussing poetry and illness with Anthony Wilson, the wit of another South African, Finuala Dowling, Hannah Silva’s Schlock! – I think someone else is going to write about Schlock!, will post a link if so.  Now, one more thing.

***   ***   ***
Friday afternoon, ten days ago.  Michael Laskey was ending his launch with the last and title poem from his new collection, Weighing the Present, (smith|doorstop) in the Peter Pears gallery, one of the old Aldeburgh venues.  It’s off the High Street up an iron outside staircase, which somehow makes it seem as provisional as the wooden fish shacks on the beach.  Naomi Jaffa had told the crowd that festival founder Michael wouldn’t take full festival honours, so no Main Reading slot. 

Nostalgic for the present moment as well as the past, his poems unwind themselves around something simple in daily life – going for a bike ride, digging potatoes.  Mostly the nostalgia is pure tone.  It surfaces in ‘Together’, which is set in bed:

even then, so close to her all
but inaudible sigh of wellbeing,
I miss her, I grieve for her, ache
for the small of her back I’m actually
making much of, stroking – better
pull yourself together, mgl.

Those who know Michael can hear him in the U-turn of that last line and a bit. 

Anyway, he was almost at the end of the last poem when the fire alarm went off.  Loudly, to startled but gentle laughter.  Perhaps someone set it off on purpose, so that he would have to read the poem again.  It’s one of several in which the dead appear in dreams.      

For an instant he was alive
or I had died, though I knew
neither could be true and pressed on

to the post office past my friend
with the present that needed weighing,
more or less knowing nothing
was impossible, even heaven.

The alarm was silenced, ‘Weighing the Present’ re-read.  Will Michael write a poem about this non-incident?   

Afterwards there was time for a quick walk along the Martello tower path, to watch a just-past-full moon rise over the sea: tarnished but very bright, part-hidden by black clouds blowing up in dramatic shapes, moonlight reflecting on thinner cloud below and on wind-ruffled waves.   

Gales and the moon, on and off all week – I stayed up there.  Only the weekend mornings were swimmable.  No fish at the fish shacks.  And now I’m feeling nostalgic for it all.  Double or triple nostalgia?  So many layers…


  1. Dear Fiona

    Aldeburgh sounded exceptionally lively this year. Talking of German, we have just returned from St Remy where I left my wife in a cafe with strict instructions to buy her a Paris Match and a Gala. I couldn't find a Paris Match but I did find a Gala. When I handed it over I realised too late that I had inadvertently bought her the German edition. Also ich bin in der Hundehutte wieder! Luckily we have an East German friend living nearby we can pretend we bought it for.

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. Yes it was, Simon. Sorry to hear about the hound hut [sounds better than the dog house]. Hope the friend doesn't read English poetry blogs!

  2. Lieber Fiona

    Ich auch!

    Beste Wunsche von Simon

  3. Amen to all your responses to this year's Aldeburgh, Fiona, and many thanks.