Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grünbein, translated by Michael Hofmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.
Reviewed by Francis Raven
Anyone who is interested in transatlantic poetics, European poetics, poetics after communism, poetics after regime change, etc., should buy this book. It is arranged chronologically and extends from his first book, Grauzone Morgens (1988), through the zoological poems of Falten Und Fallen (1994), through Den Teuren Toten (1994) a series of 'reports on the death of insignificant people,' written in the form of ancient epitaphs and finishing with Nach Den Satiren (1999). From his publisher, we learn that Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962, and “is the most significant and successful poet to emerge from the former East Germany, a place where, he wrote, 'the best refuge was a closed mouth.'” We also learn that Grünbein has received many awards, including Germany's most prestigious literature prize, the Georg Büchner Prize (1995). All of this sets the stage for a certain type of political reading. Although the major societal clash is now between liberal democracy and a certain type of fascist-fundamentalism, Grünbein's poetry reminds the reader of the barely buried clash of the Cold War. The author rewards the reader with poetry that is more ambivalent than purely political poetry requires. Most of the pieces here are everyday poems inflected by the political.
Grünbein's world is a grey world in which we do regular things. For example, in “A Single Tin,” Grünbein writes about a tin of sardines that has drifted up among the “flotsam & jetsam / so far inland” that it “keeps / whatever this morning promises / by way of beauty.” Things float to shore, as into our lives, some of them are awful, they jumble together and yet there is something beautiful coming in on the tide. In Grünbein's work, bits and pieces of culture float together to form poems. This is the everyday world and it is deadly serious business, yet it is also possible that it is impertinent or irrelevant. One of the questions these poems ask is What is not impertinent?
These questions are also related to the questions of garbage: How do things come together? Or the Aristotelian, what is substance and what is merely accident? What parts of our identities can we dispense with? Garbage is another recurring theme, as is seen in “Untitled”: “I said I had enjoyed / wandering over the garbage / heaps with you. But you / were wearing those crazy / shoes: canary yellow, and / we were in a hurry as / a particularly cool drizzle / started to fall.” The idea of flotsam and jetsam (or of fragments coming together) reemerges when Grünbein attends to the act of writing poetry itself. In “MonoLogical Poem # 1” he asks, “what is the whole surreal jokeshop / of terrors compared to the / infinitely chance little / tricks of a poem.”
Yet life is often dull and boring during times of soldiers: “Impregnated by the foul / breath of a soldier, / whose outing had / gone wrong, she stood / in the last carriage feeling / seasick and you had to wonder / frankly how she would / ever get out of there.” These are times of soldiers, but not times of war. In this respect, Grünbein's poems are essentially European. They are poems of memory, but not of aggression. And as was seen in Europe's response to America's war in Iraq, they would prefer diplomacy to bombs. The standard line is that because Europeans remember the ravages of war they will not allow them to occur ever again except under the direst circumstances. This memory creates a morality centered on ambivalence and skepticism.
Philosophically, grayness and ambivalence permeate the book. In “Almost a Song” Grünbein writes, “Stands to reason / almost any poem / is going to make you puke / with boredom / like an ill-fitting / speech bubble: / one line's / as good as another / on this graygray color chart.” Later in that same poem he concludes, “Otherwise / it's probably just about OK.” And this is the landscape these poems inhabit: just about OK. In fact, this is perhaps the landscape of much of the world right now. It is not a time for holocaust poets. It is a time for moving along with history. And indeed on display in these poems is the morality of moving on with history. Moving on from history is not in man's design. If we move on we carry things, and Grünbein carries a certain feeling about Europe and East Germany.
A profile in Poetry International remarks that “Grünbein urgently requested to be left out of the Flemish magazine Deus ex Machina which was planning a special on literature from the former D.D.R. a few years ago. In an interview with Der Spiegel he commented briefly and angrily: 'I was lost to the D.D.R. the moment I was born.'” Ambivalence about the D.D.R. persists throughout the poems until East Germany is placed into poetic opposition with Europe.
Or, as Grünbein writes in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie),” “What a country, where a word on something topical / Provokes more than the unsayable / Remaining unsaid.” The hidden history of the D.D.R. is visible in its absence from speech. In another section of “Portrait”, Grünbein writes, “In the West, so they said, the dog precedes / His master. / In the East, he trails him--at a distance. / As for me, I was my own dog, / Equidistant from East and West, in the suicide strip.” The article in Poetry International also notes that “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Durs Grünbein became one of the first writers of the reunified Germany. His personal life clearly reflects this: he lives with wife and daughter in East Berlin, but works in a rented room in the West.” He is a skeptical unified man living his life with these tensions.
In an analysis of Grünbein's zoological parable “To an Okapi in the Munich Zoo,” Renat Bekbolatov writes, “The poet clearly displayed the formation of the new identities and new stereotypes . . . he uses the identity of a wild animal as a metaphor for the east Germans . . . The poem's main theme is that the east Germans had to adopt a new identity, however it wasn't pleasant to them; they had no choice. They came from one cage to another. The poem is a skeptical remark on the unification of the Germany, because the author understands that the German Wall meant more than just a physical wall; his view is that the Wall, being a border, created two different identities for people of East and West Germanys.” This skepticism concerning reunification (and thus, the rationalist's project) emerges through the book. If unification is not possible, flotsam and jetsam will have to do.