Posts – Skip Rhudy

Skip Rhudy

aviation, travel, books

You’d have to go out in the Gulf and sometimes tie up to a platform and wait until further instructions came in. Many of the platforms were (and are) caps on existing wells. They have no crew. The captain backs the boat in close to one of the legs that has ladder rungs welded onto it. The legs are big, about 3 or 4 feet in diameter, and covered with giant barnacles, oysters, and very slippery seaweed. If the swell knocks you into the leg you’re going to be bleeding.

Once the boat is close, if you’re the deckhand you take a fat rope that is attached on one end to a giant cleat on the back of the boat, then loop the free end around your shoulder. You dive into the water, swim to the leg, and then wait for the right moment of ocean swell to try and grab the ladder. Lunging at just the right moment, you grab a ladder rung and climb up quick before the next swell comes and knocks you off again. The captain has to keep the boat close but not let the rope get sucked into the screws (yanking you into the whirling propellers). He tries to avoid letting the boat crash into the rig. He tries to keep the boat from crushing you while you are climbing up to tie the rope onto the platform railing. Usually that’s about 10 to 15 feet up. You tie a knot (say a double half hitch) around a railing and then wave at the captain, who backs up the boat until it’s basically right under the platform. Then you have to leap down onto the back deck, which is bouncing up and down with the swell. The thought of being crushed and then shredded is definitely on your mind:

Video of two friends and I skating on a makeshift skateboard ramp in the parking lot of Boxcar Billy’s and Pat Magee’s Surf Shop. The surf museum says it’s 1976, Boxcar Billy’s is there, it had to be at least 1979 (it was a new bar and attracted a lot of people’s attention and business). The surf museum credits my friend (and current editor of the Port Aransas South Jetty) Dan Parker for filming. I’m wearing red Birdwells or OPs. Ray Castell is in jeans. Calvin Steiwig makes an attempt or two.

An important developmental scene in Under the Gulf Coast Sun happens in Boxcar Billy’s and its parking lot.

This skating is alluded to near the denouement of the novel.

When I lived in Waco mid-2010s I got a skateboard out and spun 360s until I got dizzy. My wife yelled at me: “Put on a helmet, you idiot!” I rolled my eyes but did, then skated through the neighborhood. A car full of kids blasted past and saw me from behind — long pants, long sleeves, helmet. “You look like you’re 40 years old!” one of them screamed.

Abwesenheit: Gedichte by Wolfgang Hilbig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The poems in abwesenheit (translated: absence) range from what appear to be straight forward denunciations of the socialist police state Wolfgang Hilbig was living in when he wrote them (1965 to 1977), to very lyrical metaphors with image densities approaching that of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. Absence, as a theme, turns out to be a broader metaphor than the reader might at first suspect; in fact, it is a concept that is explored in other early works by Hilbig, like The Females.

The title of the collection derives from a poem written in 1969, just after the Soviet Union crushed the democratic “uprising” in Czechoslovakia known as The Prague Spring. For a peek into the theme of the collection of poems (to be published Summer 2022 by ECP Books), here is a link to an English version of the title poem:…

What we have in that poem is a lament about ‘absence’ — but what kind of absence is Hilbig meaning?

One meaning that stood out to me when I first read this poem is the simplest: Being absent from the wider world. When Hilbig wrote these poems East German policy was literally to shoot people down who tried to flee their country to the West. The poet asks:

how long still will our absence be tolerated

Hilbig’s poems forgo most punctuation and plays with syntax which intensifies the imagery his words provoke and underscore the underlying core theme of the entire volume (which I interpret as identity in crisis). Identity is being undermined by the manipulation and stipulation of language by a wide-ranging and powerful state apparatus, the mean works of which the poem absence equates with destruction:

all things to the last are destroyed our hands
shattered to the last our words shattered: come on
go away stay here — a language shattered to the last

Something more is going on here; it’s not just guards and machine gun towers. It is

a destruction as has never been before

In this poem Hilbig is referring to a sinister psychological destruction resulting from an assault on language and culture – as well as physical imprisonment and worse.

A perfect illustration of the East German state’s attack on language is what they dreamed up to call the wall they started constructing in August 1961. New evidence from Soviet archives clears up any questions about its purpose, which was to stem an unsupportable out-migration from communist East Germany to the West ( What did the East German autocrats call it? The Anti-Fascist Wall.

When I lived in West Germany during the mid- to late-1980s it was the required term in all East German newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV broadcasts (and used by pro-communist West German student groups). The brazen lie was jarring even when it did not affect me directly. In fact it angered me. But while I was at liberty to unpack it and argue for what it was, millions of East Germans could not bluntly say: “It’s a prison fence.”

Hilbig’s first poetry collection lyricizes this bizarre and damaging society and its destructive side-effects. Alcoholism, alienation from others and one’s own self, mistrust of everyone, hatred of the other, hatred of one’s own self, spiritual yearning, the joy of music, the touch and taste of a lover, or wandering crazed and drunken and ruined through the empty midnight streets.

On two occasions I found myself visiting communist East Germany. Once in August of 1985, and then again on a train trip returning from Prague in 1988. I wound up sharing a compartment with what seemed to be a passed out drunk. Suddenly he awoke and surprised me: “We socialists will destroy you Americans,” he exclaimed without prompt. He hadn’t spoken to me the entire trip then suddenly blurted out a Nikita Khrushchev style cliche’. Later I thought he might have been Stasi. Even Christa Wolf had worked for the Stasi, so why not that guy? Thus, paranoia.

The German Democratic Republic left an indelible impression: Wide avenues empty, absent either car traffic or busses, absent any people on sidewalks, absent shoppers or strollers, absent any street musicians or artists of any kind. Absent levity. Whatever it was socialism was supposed to enable individuals to achieve they certainly didn’t seem to take advantage of it in the public spaces of East Germany. In a small pub off a side street from Alexander Platz, I sat with a friend surrounded by East Germans who took furtive looks at us. Two soldiers sat directly across from us at a small table. It looked like a conscript and an officer. The conscript frowned at us and made a gesture with his hand: He rather dramatically closed his fist to crush whatever it was he imagined was in it. Maybe our throats — maybe our skulls.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s poems speak to those memories.

How could such a place have come to pass? Karl Marx once stated clearly what he believed was necessary for the liberation of all people:

“The free development of each person is the basic requirement for the free development of all.”

The source of that quote comes, with deep irony, from the Communist Manifesto.

no one sees how filled with darkness we are
how withdrawn in our ourselves we are
in our darkness

Surely Marx would be horrified.

Wolfgang Hilbig passed from this world in June 2007. His work lives on and continues to get wider exposure in English and other languages. His writing, in particular the poems in the book absence, are more than a lament: They are warning.

It is not just a warning about governments oppressing people.

At a time when the meaning of language is under constant assault by partisans on both the left and the right, when misinformation, disinformation, and 1984-esque radical redefinition of language for political ends has become common place and unquestioned by those listening to the bull horn of social media, Wolfgang Hilbig’s absence could not be more pertinent and dire.

It is, in fact, a portrait of what we could become.

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Wolfgang Hilbig’s first collected volume of poetry, published by S. Fischer, was titled abwesenheit — in English absence.

Hilbig grew up in East Germany, where writing and individual expression of any kind was subject to review and control by state functionaries. Michael Opitz, of one of Wolfgang Hilbig’s biographers, went digging through East German Stasi (State Security Services) files and discovered a series of letters between Hilbig and the censorship offices.

Hilbig had bravely written to them: “I will not submit to censorship.”

Opitz has made his findings available in the German literary magazine Neue Rundschau (Volume 132, No. 2, 2021). The issue is entirely devoted to Hilbig, and it is filled with correspondence between the writer and state bureaucrats enforcing “appropriate messaging” (to use an insidious term becoming all to common in the United States).

All the poems in the book were written in the time period 1965 to 1977 before he was ushered out of East Germany to the West. Opitz uncovered clear evidence that not only did the East German state attempt to suppress his writing by refusing to publish him, but they also tried to prevent his writing from “escaping to the West” to publishers like S. Fischer. The deliberations went all the way to the Central Committee of the The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (the only political party in East Germany); his case was also worked by the Stasi.

That covers a bit of the background to abwesenheit — poems written from a police state.

Here’s my English language cover of the title poem. It was written in 1968 after the Soviets had crushed The Prague Spring and had taken over the Czechoslovakian administration by August 21, 1968 (ten days before Hilbig’s twenty-eighth birthday):

Originally published as “Wolfgang Hilbig – Werke – Gedichte”
© 2008 S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main

Translation © 2021 Skip Rhudy

Thanks to Tim Stegall for writing some pretty awesome music articles, many of which show up on Alternative Press. It takes me hours to read articles like this. Hours. I read. I listen to a song. I listen to the song again. I think about how the song affected my life (or not). Here some protopunk, recorded in LA at Whitney Studios, 1972, produced by John Cale, released 1976:

the MODERN LOVERS “Pablo Picasso” 1972 – YouTube


Well some people try to pick up girls
And get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and
So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

Well the girls would turn the color
Of the avocado when he would drive
Down their street in his El Dorado
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole
Not like you

Well he was only 5’3″
But girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole
Not in New York

Oh well be not schmuck, be not obnoxious,
Be not bellbottom bummer or asshole
Remember the story of Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole
Alright this is it

Well some people try to pick up girls
And they get called an asshole
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and so
Pablo Picasso was never called…

Recently browsing the New Direction’s author list, I saw a title by Nathanial Tarn, The Hölderliniae.

There is deep image density in Hölderlin’s poetry, the meter unregulated, and no particular dedication to rhyme; his syntactic playfulness upsets expectation when reading. I quote Tarn:

It took a hundred years for Hölderlin to be recognized not only as a great, perhaps the greatest German poet but as the First Modern Poet to many cultures in the twentieth century and beyond.
— The Hölderliniae, Introduction p. 11

Mid-1980s translations by Sieburth and mid-1990s by Constantine are getting some attention. A former professor of mine, Christopher Middleton, put his considerable poetic talents to the task. Tarn notes that his own translations in his book are insignificant to Christopher Middleton’s. Looking specifically at Middleton’s version of Hyperions Schiksaalslied prompted me to attempt a different version. I provide a side-by-side:

How the mistakes and missteps of two men, one nearly 60 years old and the other 30, contributed to — or even caused — the English language debut of one of the most renowned and powerful German writers in recent history to be delayed by a quarter of a century:

In the fall of 1989 I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin working on a Master of Arts in Germanic Languages. That semester the German department sponsored an East German writer-in-residence named Uwe Kolbe. He was a noted poet writing works critical of the East German police state. I was looking for a German writer who hadn’t been translated into English and asked Uwe which German author came to mind who might be one of the most important authors currently living. Without a moment’s hesitation he said “Wolfgang Hilbig”. And then he pointed out in particular Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel Die Weiber.

I got a copy of the book from the German department library — and was stunned as I started to read it.

It was obvious that Wolfgang Hilbig was already a very important German writer. I decided without even finishing the book that I had found the subject of my Master’s thesis.

At that time Professor Leslie Willson had been publishing Dimension (a magazine focusing on translating poetry and prose from German into English). I asked him if there was any translation work I might do. Leslie was very friendly toward me and assigned me several translations for an upcoming issue of Dimension that focused on the German publisher Eremiten-Presse. I was thrilled and went to work on the translations; they were subsequently published in issue 18/3. Leslie also asked me to do some translations for the book Dimensions: Leslie Willson & Contemporary German Arts and Letters. I thought he would be just the right professor to mentor my translation of Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel.

A fellow student working on her PhD at that time perked up immediately when I told her I was thinking of asking him to oversee my thesis. “You need to watch out,” she said. Then she recited a number of hush-hush incidents involving male undergraduate students he had been involved with. I brushed that aside: Gay, lesbian, straight, trans — that was all cool — and it didn’t bother me in the slightest if Professor Willson was not straight.

In any case Professor Willson agreed to supervise my translation of Die Weiber. In my own copy of Hilbig’s book I wrote on the front page in pencil:

First draft finished
July 8th 1990

Near that date I was in Taos New Mexico teaching at a German immersion program that UT sponsored. Since I had no car at that time I had popped into my professor’s office and asked if I could catch a ride up there with him.

His response was drawn out and vaguely lewd: “Are you asking me for a ride?”

At that time the phrase I gave him / her a ride was a commonplace term meaning you’d had sex with someone. If you asked someone for a ride, well …

My decision to “ride” with Professor Willson up to Taos had consequences that I believe led to the English debut of Wolfgang Hilbig being delayed by two and a half decades; in fact Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations of the novels “I” and Sleep of the Righteous weren’t published until 2015.

My trip to Taos with Leslie Willson was awful.

Leslie began to realize that I was essentially a rough talking “pogue” from Port Aransas, Texas, with sensibilities he must have likened to that of a brute. Leslie was an old-school WWII veteran gentleman born in 1923. In his culture it was absolute taboo to talk openly about homosexuality or bisexuality, trans, cross-dressing — lesbianism. He constantly had a cigarette in his mouth. Smoke filled the car. His favorite radio show was Prairie Home Companion, a show which I disliked intensely and would turn off if it came on the radio in my own car. But this was his car, my ride.

Back then it was a 2 day trip to Taos from Austin if you drove slow enough. At the hotel lobby in Amarillo where we had stopped for the night he turned to me and demurely said “I hope you don’t mind sharing a room — it saves money.”

There are times when the word “no” is your friend, and that was one of those times. But I didn’t say it.

Things got frosty on day two as that previous night I had to very firmly decline an unmistakable offer to share his bed. In the car no words were spoken. I hadn’t slept at all. I turned away from him, stared out the window at the desert landscape sliding mutely past at 55 miles per hour. It took at least 3 full packs of cigarettes to reach Taos.

But soon after we arrived all that was forgotten — at least as far as I was concerned. I hit it off with Christoph Buch, who was there as writer-in-residence, and the summer camp German courses were a lot of fun to teach.

After the Taos summer program ended, I went by Leslie’s office back in Austin to get some feedback about my translation of Die Weiber. I was about to go to Berlin for a year-long exchange program. I was really excited and wanted to be able to improve the translation while I was in Germany.

He had nothing to say about that. Instead, he looked at me sternly.

“I’ve written you off,” he said.

Even a brute like myself could see that something bad was happening. I twisted what he said into some kind of glib reply, but he doubled down: “No, Skip, you don’t understand. I have written you off.”

He stared at me and said nothing more, so I left.

Leslie absolutely followed through on the matter of me being written off: I was in practice banned from contributing to his magazine Dimension. During my thesis defense in his office in the fall of 1991 he refused to even talk about Wolfgang Hilbig or Die Weiber, and instead focused the discussion on Günter Grass, who he was friends with. When I apologized that I had focused on Wolfgang Hilbig, Die Weiber, and translation theory and couldn’t comment much on Grass’ work, Leslie just stared at me. It was apparent that he hadn’t read my thesis, the translation of Die Weiber, nor Hilbig’s German original. It was equally apparent that an excerpt of Die Weiber would not be appearing in Dimension or that he would in any way try to promote my translation of Hilbig’s work to other publishers he knew.

After graduating I was angry and frustrated. Professor Willson had introduced me to academic sexual harassment fifteen years before the concept of Me Too was coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke. Professor Willson helped a lot of students on to fine careers … but not all of them. I couldn’t untangle his sexual advance and my rejection of it from the negative outcome of my thesis work. The first English translation of one of Wolfgang Hilbig’s important works should not have disappeared into the depths of a research library.

Over the years I got busy with many other things. Though I sometimes considered trying to find a publisher for my translation, every time I began ruminating about it, I thought how much influence Professor Willson had regarding German arts and letters. Fair or not, I future-tripped that he would put a humiliating stop to any such effort.

Since 1991 my version of Die Weiber has been locked away in the vaults at UT: Women

Wolfgang Hilbig died June 2, 2007.

Leslie Willson died December 28, 2007.

Isabel Fargo Cole’s version of Die Weiber was published by Two Lines Press, 2018: The Females.

It’s too late for Leslie Willson to address what he did (or did not do); Wolfgang Hilbig never saw his novels appear in English; and I have learned that staying silent and giving up has a heavy price.

I do not require perfection from those who have accomplished great works. Leslie Willson did contribute great things to both the war effort against Nazi Germany and to the proliferation of German arts and letters in the English-speaking world. He was beloved by many German authors, and some became personal friends with him.

What good would it have done me to call him out? First off, he would have denied it, and second off the wagons would have circled around to protect him. So it was at that time, and perhaps still is today. I didn’t want to hurt Leslie Willson. I didn’t want to be the reason his career ended in scandal and shame (if that were even a remote possibility). I experienced him differently than the German authors did — even if some of them quietly knew what he was up to. I was not the only student to experience his advances.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s voice was too powerful to silence — even by a police state — mine was not. In the end I try to remember that Leslie Willson was a victim of the violently intolerant heterosexual culture that he grew up in. It compelled him to hide his utterly normal gay or bi-sexual self behind layers and layers of discretion and euphemism. He would often and incongruously bring up the book Death In Venice when I would go into his office. He was trying to tell me something I heard but did not want to acknowledge. I wanted to talk business. He wanted to talk love.

No person should have to endure that kind of pain.

The first thing I ever read by Buk (as he was called by his crazed fans) was his book Factotum. There are some scenes in Factotum that I alluded to in One Punk Summer. Also influential in OPS was the basic idea of the factotum: One who does any and all things to earn a buck. Not a living — a buck. I’ve read some other novels by Buk but nothing that came close to the power and humor of Factotum. But I stumbled across a book by Buk put out by a press calling itself The Cosmic Aeroplane. The book was titled poems written before jumping out of an 8 story window. It looks to have been printed in 1975. I don’t remember when I acquired it but it was about the time I was translating Wolfgang Hilbig’s Die Weiber into English, maybe 1989 to 1990. My copy is tatty and yellowed. One of the poems stood out from all the rest.


listen, I went to get a haircut, it was a perfectly good day
until they brought it to me, I mean I sat waiting my turn in the
chair and I found a magazine — the usual thing: women with their
breasts hanging out, etc., and then I turned the page and here
were some photos of orientals in the field, there was this big
bastard with the sword–the caption said he had a very good
swing, plenty of power and the picture showed him getting ready
with the sword, and you saw an oriental kneeling there with his
eyes closed, then–ZIP!–he was kneeling there without a head
and you could see the cleave of the neck clean, not yet even
spurting blood, the separation having been so astonishingly
swift, and more photos of beheadings, and then a photo of these
heads lolling in the weeds without bodies, and the sun shining on them.
and the heads looking still almost alive as if they hadn’t
accepted the death–and then the barber said

and I walked over to the chair and my head was still on
and his head said to my head,
how do you want it?
and I said, medium.

and he seemed like a nice sensible fellow
and it seemed nice to be near nice sensible fellows
and I wanted to ask him about the heads
but I thought it would upset him
or maybe even give him ideas
or he might say something that wouldn’t help at
so I kept quiet.

I listened to him cut my hair
and he began talking about his baby
and I tried to concentrate on his
baby, it seemed very sane and logical
but I still kept thinking about the

when he finished the cutting
he turned me in the chair so I could look into the
mirror. my head was still on.

fine, I told him, and I got out of the chair, paid, and
gave him a good tip.

I walked outside and a woman walked by and she had her
head on and all the people driving cars had their heads

I should have concentrated on the breasts, I thought,
it’s so much better, all that hanging out, or the big cans,
the magic and beautiful legs, sex was a fine thing
after all, but my day was spoiled, it would take a night’s sleep
anyway, to get rid of the heads. it was terrible to be a human
being: there was so much going

I saw my head in a plateglass window
I saw the reflection
and my head had a cigarette in it
my head looked tired and sad
it was a not smiling with its new

it disappeared
and I walked on
past the houses full of furniture and the cats and
dogs and people
and they were lucky and I threw the cigarette
into the curbing
saw it burning on the asphalt
red and white, tender spit of smoke,
and I decided that the sun
felt good.