Translator's Notes: “A Shadow on the Wall”
Gottfried Benn began as a skinny and larky medical student in a wing collar. The “Morgue” poem cycle of 1912 that made his name was “written in an hour, published in a week, and notorious ever after” (the most stylish authority on Benn being always Benn). The years then seemed to abbreviate and pad his stature, give him the hooded owls’ eyes—at once twinkling and cruel—the jowls, and overbearing cranium of an imperial melancholy; it would be no very great surprise if his name had been Heliogabalus, say. Notoriety was never far. In a splendidly saturnine note in his first collected works of 1921, he wrote:
Now these complete works, one volume, two hundred pages, thin stuff, one would be ashamed if one were still alive. No document worthy the name; I would be astonished if anyone were to read them; to me they are already very distant, I toss them behind me like Deucalion his stones; maybe human beings will emerge from the gargoyles; but whether they do or not, I shan’t love them.
I don’t know that I have ever seen anything less self-enamored, less parti pris from a poet on his or her own work!
In the event, something of what he so indifferently predicted did come to pass: “human beings” did emerge from the “gargoyles”—whether or not Benn loved them hardly matters. The poems of his last twenty years or so lost their ferocity, their shock, and their prankish, metallic manipulativeness; became softer, lived-in, improvised, gestured-at, shuffling or shambling. They still had the same principal two ingredients: corpses—or mortality—and flowers; the same groping at one notion or another of a “beautiful youth.” The “lavender asters” return in the form of new flower-complexes, as “lilacs.../narcissus color, and smelling strongly of death,” as poppies, as forsythias and lilacs again, this time with hope of roses. The beautiful or unbeautiful, loved or unloved cadavers have turned into Benn himself, anxiously remembering his salad days, his green youth—“Tracing” is drenched in the color; or holding on, into June (of the year of his death—he died on July 7); or in one of his last poems (the first one here, “Can Be No Sorrow”), thinking about the deaths of poets, put together from wood and tears and pain and spasm, the “sleep well” at once a close echo and a world away from the cynical early “rest easy.” The hardness of the early style is replaced by human tenderness, empathy, puzzlement, a kind of unfocused but unavoidable sadness. It is as though the poems themselves—and this strikes me as extremely rare in poetry, Eugenio Montale’s late, retrobottega poems another instance—are old; have undergone an aging process, cellular and organic, like flesh (the title, incidentally, of a 1917 volume of Benn’s); their resources—a mild, as it were stoical, plaintiveness, a burbling, flaccid syntax, an unsolicited melancholy, a heaping of negatives—are those of age; as though breathing and humming and carpet slippers and “Juno” cigarettes and murmuring and pain and a human smell have gone into them—not mere dime-a-dozen words.
Like most descriptions of poems, “getting” Benn is a sort of impossibility: frail structures carrying heaviness of heart; misanthropic, even solipsistic, but full of fellow-feeling; ethereal (“A Shadow on the Wall”), but always with some minimal roughage; they concede little in the way of paraphraseable content, but at the same time, in Seamus Heaney’s valuable words, they “do not waver/into language. Do not waver in it.” The poems are as they are, are as they want to be; the opposite of art, Benn always argued, is not nature, but pleasingness.
Somehow, quite without my realizing it, I seem to have spent half my life with Benn; in his centenary year, 1986, I reviewed the two-volume edition of his poems and Holthusen’s biography of him. He has influenced me, not only to translate him in the first place, but also while not translating him. Over the years, thanks in part to Benn, my own sentences have become more indeterminate, my language more musical, my diction more—no pun intended—florid. There is a sort of murmurous, mi-voix, halblaut quality in poems that I adore, and—languidly—strive for. I was all the time quietly being readied for a task I hardly dared suppose I would ever take on.—mh