Reviewed by Jennifer Ludwig
Concrete poet Gerhard Rühm was one of the founding members of the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) in the 1950s and 1960s. The work presented here, dating from the early
'50s (Rühm was one of the early practitioners of concrete poetry) to the late '80s, is both a whirl of permutated words and images and a concise historical survey of the career of one of the most important poetic innovators of the twentieth century. i my feet: selected poems and constellations is volume seven of Dichten=, a series of contemporary German writing translated into English and put out by Burning Deck. Founded by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop in 1961, the press was avowedly established to break down the (false) boundary between beat and academic poetry. Pound's much-beloved catchphrase “dichten=condensare” reappears here as a description of the aims of concrete poetry, of which Waldrop says that “its most obvious feature is reduction . . . Both convention and sentences are replaced by spatial arrangements.”
Concrete poetry's revolt against what Waldrop calls the “transparency of the word” is in fine evidence in this volume, which includes works ranging from 1954's a heart in the left: cool poetry to 1989's VI. Albertus Magnus: A Reliquary History as Book of Hours, a bizarre chronical of linguistic decay that ends with a series of black pages broken by lone letters and graphics. This section section from Rühm's a heart in the left: cool poetry exemplifies both the appeal and the difficulty of this collection of “poems and constellations”:
i could also say other things
about other things
Rühm's is an expression of disembodiment that enables a degree of social engagement. Here, “I” is at least slightly bewildered and fascinated by “my feet,” those strange appendages that seem oddly detached from the self. If the body's connection to the mind is uncertain, though, if the body is somehow other, that othering allows “I” to look at “your feet” and recognize them, too, as equally other. Those two sets of feet “walking” become “our feet / walking”; this is perhaps not the greatest statement of human connectivity, but the strangeness of one's own body is here what enables a connection to the determinably unknowably “you.”
This is Rühm at his easiest: this section is as legible as any lyric, and reads as a meditation on the self and the self's relationship to both other people and language. Language is, of course, the mediator, the “feet” also poetic feet, and the space of the page as a place of kinship becomes troubled by the takeover of the feet. The last two lines of the section break that illusion of, or allusion towards, a more traditional poetics. If “i could also say other things / about other things,” there is a certain nonchalance to the import of the words. The words on the pages are here “other things” that seem often to take over from the poet and to place this and other poems in a space that questions the relationship between word as utterance, word as object, and word as sign.
Rühm is a big fan of word games. In this volume words jump, jumble, are arranged and rearranged, and generally allowed to flow in all of their excessiveness and continual reformation. The poet rarely seems to have the control he shows above, nor does he generally want such control. Rather, he is interested in the play between word and word and between word and page. Indeed, with a turn of the page, the tight verse form above moves into a litany-like verse seemingly perpetuated by language itself:
This volume is both profound and joking, deeply invested in the most fundamental questions of poetics and lightly brushing those questions off with a flick of the verbal whip. Yet translation is not the ideal form for (particularly) Ruhm's work. One finds oneself wishing this were a bilingual edition, if merely to sound out the German original. This is work that is so deeply invested in sound and pun that it seems to lose in translation, particularly since this particular rendering is less careful than one might want (the term “modem” appears in a poem from 1954). Indeed, since Rühm's works are unavailable in the United States, I would beg Waldrop and Waldrop to produce bilingual editions, so that even those who don't know German could sound their way through.
The pieces in this volume that are most successful are the ones that do not require translation, like the “word pictures” and the following poem, “the shortest route from constanz to constantinople”:
No German is needed to understand this verbally simple but theoretically complex poem, which plays on the fact that the Council of Konstanz (which ended the so-called Great Schism and reunited the Catholic church) and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks both occurred on May 29 (of 1415 and 1453, respectively). Here the careful carelessness of Rühm's verbal play speaks to a larger incapacity to find meaning in the vagaries of historical conflict and religious conquests, while equally wondering about the strange accident of dates. It's also funny as hell, in English or in German. This is where Rühm works best, when the flouting of linguistic rules speaks to larger aesthetic and historical issues, yet the poet's enraptured play with words and sense of (good) humor is not lost in the verbal shuffle.