The Doctrine of Photography

Translated by Karen Leeder

The city where I grew up
was not a western city,
nor an eastern city.
It lay north of Bohemia, south
of Greenland, below sandstone Switzerland
in a river valley, green with fields.
It was the dump in the middle, the rump
of an exquisite gesture in stone — 
a suite in Hotel “Old Europe.”

Stuck under layers of wallpaper,
newspapers from a world gone by:
reports of Zeppelin flights,
League of Nations conferences,
“Miscellaneous,” alongside adverts
for brassieres and ironing boards.
But the view to the river
was blocked with gray barracks.
And the southern wing,
and the northern wing,
broken like the Baroque Palace,
furnishings given for junk.
All of it somehow stranded:
the steamers and churches, the domes.
And not much life in the bar.

But then I found it one day
down on the banks, under rusty nails,
heaps of nuts and bolts
from machines long since dismantled,
factories expropriated, torn-down,
I found it amongst the bones,
unearthed by scavenging dogs,
ribs and vertebrae, splinters
of human and beast, so it seemed — 
the key to the city.
And found a kind of peace.
And knew where I was,
and where I came from — 

until I saw the photographs,
not the ones at home in the album,
but for sale on the street market stall.
Archive pictures, postcards
of street scenes, city views
from between the wars, moments
from a life gone by,
some still with the stamp
“original print, by hand.”

Past the housefronts, all still intact,
over the bridges, the broad terraces,
along the Königsufer, the banks
of the Elbe, people walking, all dead now,
but the youngest in their prams.
Mothers in dark coats and hats
were chained for all time
to this or that man with a briefcase.
On a traffic island, a boy
in lederhosen who would never age,
staring from the poster
for “Riquet Cocoa Chocolate.”
“Alsberg Ladies Wear, Wilsdruffer Straße:
the new bathing costume from Alsberg.”
And the beauty in silk stockings,
getting out of the tram, no. 11,
picked out by chance, and her too,
fixed in that spot forever.
All of them passersby in time — 
the girl at the flower stall on Altmarkt,
the one by the striped awnings
on Prager Straße. At the station
the clock forever at half past ten.

A morning that lasts for eternity — 
mostly in spring, in summer,
in a city that was not eastern,
nor western. Scarcely a photo
that ever showed it in deep snow.
The sign for Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten
stood by the entrance to the subway.
Soon an r was missing, an n, then an a.
Power cuts, petrol grew scarce,
people took to bikes again after Stalingrad.
Not long now and almost all of it
will be erased, a phantasmagoria
like the desert palace of Kubla Khan.
And your gaze leaped back and forth
looking for the place it all began.

Was it the high tide? The moment
that saw the sparkling twenties in.
People peering over the railings
at Brühl’s Terrace, dismayed
at the rising of the Elbe.
Like mourners at a wake
all clothed in black. An entire
people clothed in black, back then.
Though the worst was behind them:
four years of war in Europe, carnage.
All of them losers, people suddenly
with time on their hands, time to
gather in dark clumps. Only a girl
in a sailor suit, laughing and spitting
over the railing into the swollen,
mud-brown river, cold as the grave.

Or maybe the storm in the thirties,
that wrecks the funfair booths
at the Vogelwiese fairground.
Visitors watch the chaos in despair.
Ghost train guests. Roll up and
test your strength, the man in the
straw hat grumbles, with a rakish eye
for the lady in the long white dress.
A storm has caught the swingboats,
toppled circus tents, whirled the
whole magnificent house of cards
into ruins like the glass of a kaleidoscope.

It was always the anxiety,
the thin howl of instability, of fear,
that brokered the everyday
and steered the course of politics — 
a force that crept invisibly into
every house and hurried every life along.
Hopes stirred by the dream of
social stability that never came
to pass in the squares and streets
where election posters in garish red
and black promised the moon and the stars.

That, however, every picture is just
a point of view, in which history dissolves
into familiar stories, each one running
its own course, seeming as if it might be
halted for a moment, but in truth irrevocable,
that was the doctrine of photography.
Your gaze leaped back and forth.

Five years later a spectacle of horror
breaks all attendance records: “The German
People’s Show: Fire Exhibit ‘Der roter Hahn.’”
The bird with flaming feathers
hops over the solemn city roofs.
A new talking point: civil air defense    ...    
in the arcades of the old town
an army takes up position to extinguish
the conflagration, an armada of blackened vans.
The climax is when, in the dark of night,
a training house is set ablaze.
Fountains of foam and light, hurray!
The destruction of the city street gives
a foretaste of the future.

A million Reichsmarks is what it costs
the state to lose a little town,
40,000 a single farmer’s house.
Long before the bombs, the firestorm
in which the city will perish, the skies are
lit with signs that advertise fire insurance.
The hoses lie on the asphalt
like fat boa constrictors,
rolled up by exhausted men
who have tamed the inferno.
Dresden, the press proudly declares,
has the most modern fire service in Europe.
And with that Death, the bitter little man
from the old German fairy tales,
rubs his hands with glee.
In “Die Mücke,” a café with dancing,
ladies and gentlemen fox-trot across
the floor, flushed at the show.

And then it all went well again.
Legal protection and rescue services:
the state myths of the moment.
Soon there is child benefit and animal
welfare for our household cats and dogs.
Write that in a letter home to the ones you love
and remember the new tariffs:
“Airmail saves you precious time.”

Was that grandmother standing
in the crowd by the entrance hall
at Blüherpark, in a people’s queue
at the edge of the road, behind
the brown-shirted stewards? That tiny woman,
with a handbag clutched to her chest,
could really be her from behind.
(Very soon she will be pregnant, just
a girl eighteen years of age.
And then once more, while her husband,
butcher by trade, is already a soldier
marching his way through Europe.)

Another spring. Imperial gardens on display:
for six months the magic of flowers
seems to ease the effects of the new
constraints, the new laws.
A hymn to existence, a sacred hymn
to the beauty of nature around us,
the newspapers swoon in the
grandiose style of the times.
More powerful than any Olympiad,
closer to a feminine aesthetic sense,
like Hitler’s hands, eunuch-white.

Departure of the concert steamer, the Leipzig:
on the bank at the embarkation point,
swastika flags flutter in the summer breeze.
An ice cream seller has opened his parlor
on the quay and waits for the
regiments of Hitler Youth to pass.
The city is the clearing. What could it know
of the aerial shots that would reveal
its wound, long before the thunderclap
that always comes after lightning? Often
a forest of raised arms stood there.

Then all of a sudden no one knew
what it was that brought the madness,
turned their heads for twelve long years.
Time had moved on. Dumb force
drenched everything in a primal light.
The pavements gleamed and thunderclouds
rolled down across the bridges,
with the clatter of refugees,
handcarts and armored tanks.

And then I knew that the cursed history
of this people, from the moment they
had taken on that fatal badge,
could only be recounted from below.
From the cellars, the gray corners
of air-raid shelters, with the sirens
screaming, the children in their
moments of final helplessness.

I was born in Weißer Hirsch — 
a wealthy quarter spared by the bombs.
And I exist, like these images exist,
that bear witness to a life gone by,
but say nothing of the dead. Mother
was in safety when the bombers came.
She recalls the blown-out windows,
white curtains streaming from them,
the scorching heat of the winter night.
A neighbor took the children in, sought
refuge in the cellar, that’s what saved them.
When the house was hit, the entrance
reduced to rubble, she took the children,
made for open country, to the meadows
by the Elbe, heading out of town.
That’s when the second wave rolled in
and unleashed the fire storm.

“Here we are in the Lößnitz valley for the cider,”
wrote an unknown correspondent.
The postcard shows a glorious summer’s day.

Translated from the German


All postcards and photographs are from the collection of the author.

Source: Poetry (December 2017)
More Poems by Durs Grünbein