Skip Rhudy

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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:

https://ecpbooks.com/wolfgang-hilbig-…

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 ( https://tinyurl.com/berlinwallfacts). 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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On August 20th ECP Books concluded a contract with S. Fischer Verlag to publish Wolfgang Hilbig’s first volume of poetry in English. The title of the volume: abwesenheit

In German that means 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); of course his case was also worked by the Stasi.

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

Here’s my English language cover of the title poem. It stands as a preview of what will be in the published book. This poem was written in 1968 after the Soviets had crushed The Prague Spring and utterly shattered it 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


The sound alone was frightful, the clamor of the voices which came in waves matched the swaying of the barricades. The voices got louder and louder, the barricade swayed further and further, and then someone yelled that the barricade was falling. It fell, crashed to the ground, was stomped under the feet of hundreds.

People — whose people — storming forward; a mob, a surging, writhing mass. Packed tight like civil war soldiers. These wore no uniform. These had jackets and backpacks and colorful hats, cell phones, gloves and scarves. Some took selfies, some fired pepper spray, some swung baseball bats, some hurled fire extinguishers.

I was next to a policeman trapped in a glass door screaming in pain and pleading for help; but that morphed into me standing near some serious, well-prepared civilians wearing military-style battle gear speaking into tactical radios. People stormed the rotunda. Threats and demands: Where Pence? Where the lawmakers? Where the speaker of the house? A gallows was erected out front. A handgun wavered at the crowd through a broken window. Ashli Babbitt was shot dead.

Those scenes, they had been real scenes, but jumbled in the nightmare; as I woke I was looking out the window of an airliner above all that mattered today: The Pacific Ocean. The dull uncomfortable numb of rushing through the air at nearly the speed of sound at forty thousand feet. The sea, so far below that its fifteen foot swell was reduced to pattern shadow. Dozing then until the sun rose, distant slice on the horizon. The window is cold, some child screams, a lady one seat behind drones on and on about her aunt Marge. My wife snoozing. The plane keeps coarse.

We landed in Honolulu. Got the rental car. Bitched at each other a little — too early to check in — so went to Pearl Harbor. I walked the interior of a world war two diesel submarine. Marveled that there was so much space to move around. Bow torpedo room, control room, kitchen and mess, engine room, stern torpedo room. One toilet, ninety men.

Later we drove down the Kam highway and the moment we crested the island divide I saw it: The North Shore. We descended past what used to be pineapple plantations, excitement rising. We stopped in Haleiwa at a small surf shop to pick up a board I’d reserved. Back on the road through the town, I was seeing things known from magazines printed decades ago. My wife at the wheel, the traffic infuriatingly slow, I was seeing every blade of grass and palm frond and tropical Hawaiian plant; windows down we smelled the plumeria, exhaust fumes, restaurant dumpster stench, moldering wood, until at last the car turned into the Keiki Beach Bungalows driveway. We checked in, went back to the car. My wife got in but I did not. She looked puzzled as I slid the board out the back door window instead of getting in.

“Hey, aren’t you going to that Foodland store with me?”

“I’m sorry.” I said. “This moment has been forty years in the making. I’m going surfing. Like now. Like right now.”

I did not wait for her to say anything but turned and jogged up the sandy path, anticipation welling, and through a shock of bush encroaching, suddenly there: White sand, bright blue water, waves breaking. Pupu’kea Beach. I stood, letting thrall wash over me, I felt it move through me like a mainline injection of pure adrenaline. Small six foot waves were closing out, whitewater thud over curving blue water. Splash of wave against rocks to the left, beautiful empty waves to the right — I ran down the beach with my board toward Log Cabins, no one out, maybe a couple of people further on at Rockpiles. The waves were breaking a mere 30 yards from shore. I saw the rain from the thin lip blown backward by the weak offshore wind. Better waves on a tiny day here on the North Shore than I had ever seen on the Gulf. Ever. They were perfect head high blue wedges pitching silver ceilinged barrels.

I dashed for the water, forgetting all about what kept disturbing me during the flight, the memory of those people fomenting insurrection; suddenly unbelievable when I saw Alex Stamford. I had jumped up, pointed at the screen, shouted. No way. It was not possible. But there he was, wielding flagpole. That, his zenith.

Yet unsure, I had rewound the clip. Freeze-framed the moment of truth.

Yes. His face enraged, now swinging his flagpole gleefully, pulling back to strike, his salt and pepper goatee, his wild eyes. On the pole was a Thin Blue Line flag. It symbolized support for the police, but Alex was beating them with it.

My feet thumped onto water packed sand at the edge and then splashed into a last bit of wave foam — all those negative thoughts fading. In a moment I was waist deep, warm water billowing my Birdwell surf shorts, I shoved the board forward over the surface and swung up onto it in one smooth movement. As though I had been surfing everyday for the last four years when in fact I hadn’t surfed once. Then paddling to beat the approaching set, just scraping over what seemed a massive six foot wave. To me massive — Hawaiians didn’t bother. Once over the top my board slapped down hard on the back side of the wave, and droplets of offshore spray rained on my back. Me stoked and not breathing normal. The waves coming, no one else out. I stopped paddling. It was instinct; years of training not lost, and a set came immediately. The second wave. My wave. It was perfect. It formed a wedge and I was in the perfect spot. I spun the board around and felt the surge lift me upwards, angling down — just two strokes. I snapped to my feet and dropped, saw the bottom, every coral head and rock, a rush, a blur of threatening motion and hard turn at the bottom. My wake must have sprayed high and I trimmed for speed — then like a lightning bolt blitzing my brain I felt the coming barrel — quick tuck. The thin-lipped water eye formed in front of me arcing over and down. I crunched tight on my rented board, screeching, the wave forming that view I had looked at uncountable times on the pages of Surfer and Surfing magazines — except this time it was real and I bounced wild on the foam ball and heard the cacophonous waterfall roar and a second later spit out to the shoulder. I stood up suddenly, loose and tall. Then snapping a full round house cutback — but I didn’t make it. I went down gloriously indifferent to my kook-out. Blue Hawaiian water shot up into my head through my nostrils, and tumbling, trying to keep off the coral bottom, open eyes, white and blue, then popping up. The loud fizz of bubbles. Burst of breath into my lungs. Screeching again: I had made it. I’d been barreled. I had made it to the landmark of my very dreams. This journey was just beginning.

As the wave washed past the board, the pull on the leash relaxed. Quickly I reeled it back hand over hand, taking mouthfuls of water and spitting them out.

I pulled myself up on the board, started paddling. It was a race to avoid the next set but I only needed to skirt the shoulder which was so incredibly easy. I remembered for a moment the image on the video, Alex’ mouth cocked wide, the pole swung back to strike — the missing front teeth certifying his identity. He’d never gotten them fixed. Then I was waiting in my own personal North Shore lineup all by myself. The sun shining. Waves coming. Thrilled. Living. Loving. Grinning. So very very grinning.

I had all of my teeth. Arms out, head thrown back and hooting, I showed them to the sun.


Several hours of drift surfing had turned our arms into rubber and exhausted us. We’d parked at what we called “Pipeline”, where an underground oil pipe to an offshore rig was buried. It was hoped that the waves at Pipeline would jack up more before breaking and get hollow. We’d come out of the water and had to walk about a half a mile in the heavy onshore wind, because that’s how far from Pipeline we’d gone with the current; our boards were being blown around, which was aggravating because we were so tired, but by the time we got back to Stamford’s Chevy Luv pickup at least we were dry. We threw the boards in the back and he nabbed his keys from the secret spot on the top of his front tire, and he got in except for leaving his feet outside. He leaned over and opened my door and I sat my ass in the passenger seat, and then we performed the foot washing ritual: Stamford hated sand and he had figured out a trick to wash the sand off his feet before pulling them in, barefoot, to drive us home. Each time before paddling out he always filled a gallon milk jug with saltwater and left it sitting in the driver’s side footwell. That was plenty to get sand off, even when most of the water seemed to miss its mark.

He passed me the gallon jug when he was done and I washed away the sand, capped the jug and put it between my clean, wet feet.

“I need a reefer”, he said.

“Fuck that”, I said. I opened the cooler in the middle of the bench seat and took a beer out. “Have all the reefer you want. I needs some protein.”

I cracked the beer and pulled the tab and peeled it off. Back then the tabs had to be completely removed. I was conscientious and didn’t throw it out the window because it was sharp as a razor and who knew if I’d step on it later. A frosty carbonate fog wafted out of the open hole. I lifted the can and slammed it down, gulping big, as much as I could take before it started giving me ice-cream headache.

“That’s not protein, you moron,” said Stamford, indifferently starting the truck’s engine. “It’s diluted dog piss.”

“Why do you have to hate on my beer, man?”

“No one should drink Schlitz,” he said.

Stamford backed away from the water and then turned north on the beach, which was otherwise deserted. He was already thinking about where he could get some reefer. He liked beer and reefer, but I couldn’t stand that combo because whenever I drank beer and then smoked reefer I would become completely obliterated. I had done truly idiotic things at parties and in other situations, like making out in a car, when I was so trashed on weed and beer that I accidentally bit the bottom lip of the girl I was making out with. She shouted in pain and pushed me away. No matter how many ways I professed sorrow the jig was up for that night. The next week at school people asked her what had happened to her lip, and she said she’d been hit by a softball.

“Kassy’s coming down next week,” Stamford said.

Partway through my next gulp, I nearly spat the beer out.

“What?”

“You heard, dumbfuck,” he said. “Kassy Hartford, Midland High School Cheerleader and Chief Goddess of All the ever-lovin’ Goddesses that have graced this very fine earth.”

“You mean you think she’s hot?” I asked, annoyed by his faux elegance.

None of us had ever met a girl as irreverent, as fun, and as blatantly smart as Kassy. She would be a senior this year, the likely valedictorian of Midland High School. She had written me a letter telling me that she was being actively recruited to study aerospace engineering at big name East and West Coast universities — with a full ride. She liked to talk NASA and moon landings with me. Her dad had introduced her to the chief retro-fire control officer for the Apollo missions, who lived up in Burnet and was a friend from his days living in Houston in the Sixties. Her dad was paying for flight lessons and she was close to taking her private pilot checkride. Stuff like that made me love her unconditionally. But how smart and fun she was didn’t matter to most people. She was so intensely good looking that she was constantly stared at, bombarded by suitors of all kinds, from the no-chancers all the way up to the people who worked at the surf shop and had their shit so wired that everyone wanted to be just like them. But Kassy put even those exalted ones off balance; she loved to go into the shop and buy clothes with the less-blessed middling types. She would totally ignore their flirtations and comments and talk almost exclusively to me.

“How does this bikini look?” she’d ask, doubting her own appearance in the mirror.

That kind of question coming from her led to stunned silence. I couldn’t honestly articulate outloud how she looked. In this regard everyone wanted to hang out with Kassy. And everyone wanted to do a lot more than just hang out. All of us, including plenty of women, wanted to lie with her and perform wild acts of pornographic heroics.

Stamford seemed to be lost in thought as we drove down the beach for miles. No need rushing down the Island Road after our surf session. We had nothing else to do so there was no hurry. Finally we reached what was then the outer reaches of Port Aransas: The Beach Lodge. It was bar and hotel by night, and a rat-tastic restaurant during the day. Usually a couple of Harleys were parked outside and a rust-bucket car or two. We both stared at the weathered cedar A-frame building as we idled past.

“Nothing happening there,” Stamford muttered. Then he fell silent again, accelerating a bit.

When we at last reached Avenue G he turned west onto the asphalt and headed toward Gulf Beach Cottages to drop me off.

“You know what?” he asked, dreamily, glancing over at me.

“What?”

He paused for effect and smirked at me.

“I’m going to nail Kassy.”

Stamford was simply an ass. He always had been. He was even an ugly ass to boot. But his ugly-ass was incredibly successful when it came to the female tourists. Not only had he repeatedly got the best looking girls that came down to the beach every summer but he also managed to play all kinds of bizarre intrigue with them, maneuvering friend against friend and sister against sister, girlfriend against boyfriend, grown women against their belief in God. Once he managed to get all four girls staying in one condo apartment: One each day, four days straight. To top that off, in that same summer two weeks later he somehow pulled off having sex with a girl and the next day her mom. We didn’t want to believe it at first but when the girl came the next year only her dad was with her. She took Stamford on again in a rematch.

God we hated him.

But we didn’t hate him because he had done things that society found so reproachable, or because what he did was so morally and ethically wrong — we hated him because he consistently had more sex than all of the rest of us combined. That was unacceptable. Yet there was nothing we could do about it. I had one friend who took every chance he could to tell girls not to trust him, that he was just out to get laid, that he had had sex with countless women, maybe one girl one night and her best friend the next. His goal in life was to get laid at any price. But every time my friend tried that approach it backfired as it seemed to make the girls wonder just what kind of magic Stamford had. It sure as hell wasn’t looks.

Stamford pulled up into the driveway of my parents motel and I hopped out and grabbed my surfboard. Before he drove off though I stood at his window and staked my claim:

“Not this time Stamford. She’s mine. You’ll see. All y’all fucks are gonna see. You’ll be calling me Doctor Love before Kassy goes back to Midland.”

Stamford spat at my feet.

“You’re on,” he said.

Then he cranked up some AC/DC and slowly drove off, pumping his fist in the air.

In those days the pier was still made of creosote soaked black wood timbers, thicker than railroad ties, the waves on big days reaching up just under the planking; the power of the largest waves you could feel shaking the whole structure as they surged past the pilings, squirting salt spray up through the slits and soaking you.

We were scared paddling out in the greenish brown violence of six to eight foot waves, the suds foaming after sets and impossible to get solid thrust in when paddling because of the bubbles. The crash of the surf in our ears was so loud that we shouted ourselves hoarse and never really did understand what the guy ten feet away was saying.

It was easy to not pay attention anyway because all that mattered was trying to catch the better wave and not getting trapped inside after you did catch the better wave. All the hooting turned to laughter as you were pummeled one wave after the next until you gave up and let yourself get washed in to the second bar where you waited for a lull. Later on, after the first wooden pier was destroyed by hurricane Allen, you could surf very close to the ruins and when the new pier was built then the rules about not paddling next to the pier were rescinded which pissed off the fisherman. They would curse you and try to hit you with the lead weights on their lines as you paddled by. No one ever seemed to crash into the pilings when the first pier was there and then later, when the cement pier was put in and seemed more threatening the bravest would still surf through the pilings to prove their valor.

Sometimes under the old pier bait house we would see some of the older kids or the ones who were only pretend surfers smoking weed. We knew who they were and they us; they did paddle out sometimes but their technique was ruined by lack of practice and they had no stamina because their lungs were weak from smoking.

The best girls were the ones that seemed out of reach; they hung out with the guys smoking weed under the bait house and wore very little clothing but a few girls and a few women were real surfers. It was a thrill for us when one of the liberated women went surfing topless. But it was not sexual to them. It didn’t seem sexual to the grown men either but it was to us teenagers and we tried hard to think of something good to say to the surfer girls but never succeeded.

In the summer the wind blew onshore so hard that the gulf turned into a brown washing machine of sloshing water. We would sit in our cars and look at the surf, and read Surfer and Surfing and wish that our waves too were as hollow as the waves in Hawaii but our waves were never hollow like those on the North Shore. And the water was not blue but brown and in December blooms of cabbage head jellyfish would fill the water and when you caught a wave the fin would strike them and it was like hitting chunks of ham hock floating in the water. It was strange and beautiful to look into the deep green and clear winter water when the waves were usually smooth and came at us in long, clean, well separated lines.

Sometimes we used the cabbage head as weapons. One asshole or the other would grab one and throw it at someone who had their back turned looking for incoming waves. The cabbage head didn’t sting too much but would make a hilarious SPLOTCH sound when it hit someone. Then that guy would get pissed and pretty soon the cabbage heads, which really were the size of cabbage you buy at the store, would start flying around. One side of the ball was strangely feathered and that part would sting a little sometimes. If one hit you in the face you were fucked but only one guy ever got hit in the face and he was from Corpus.

All of that would stop instantly as a clean set would roll in and every one scrambled to try and find a good spot to take off from. Each wave peaked in a different place but sometimes you were in the right spot at the right time and then you would accelerate like lightning and at the base of the wave dig a hard bottom turn and go right back up the wave as vertically as possible for an off-the-lip, and then climb and drop all the way along the glassy cold line, trying hard for off-the-lips and one-eighty cutbacks; no one had heard of airs or floaters in those times, and even the great Hawaiian surfer Buttons had not yet been filmed doing three-sixties.

This was a beautiful time of single fin short boards and longboards with skegs and thick wetsuits, but nine months of the year you didn’t need a wetsuit. Sharks were never seen though occasionally a big Tiger would get reeled in at the end of the pier. The biggest taken back then was about was sixteen feet and weighed a thousand pounds.

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. Often they are new songs (to me). Some are pure poetry. In the vein of The Velvet Underground, their influence, I love this one. And songs like this make me take hours to read articles about songs like this. Listened to it at least four times before moving on to the next one, the next spawn of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Protopunk, recorded in LA at Whitney Studios, 1972, produced by John Cale, released 1976:

the MODERN LOVERS “Pablo Picasso” 1972 – YouTube

Lyrics

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

Alright
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. This attracted me immediately, since my early encounter with Friedrich Hölderlin when I was still in the earlier stages of learning German had been quite challenging. There is a special density to his poetry, his unregulated meter, and no particular dedication to rhyme; his syntactic playfulness upsets expectation when reading: You have to go back and read that line above again to understand its relation to the next line. Sometimes that causes you to reset your idea of what the line meant in the first place. 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. Back when I was spending more time translating in the late 1980s and early 1990s I began trying to represent his poetry in English. 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 those of Michael Hamburger, Christopher Middleton, Richard Sieburth, and David Constantine. I have yet to review Hamburger, Sieburth, or Constantine’s efforts; but have got Selected Poems and Letters by Middleton in hand. I studied under Christopher Middleton at UT, when I was translating Wolfgang Hilbig’s Die Weiber as part of my Masters thesis 1989 to 1991. Looking at Middleton’s version of Hyperions Schiksaalslied prompted me to attempt a different version. I provide a side-by-side. The greatest challenge is phrasing and accuracy of meaning combined with mimicking the very clear elegance of the original German. An exercise offered up in honor of a professor now departed, hopefully not angering his spirit:

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. Anyone who ever tried to scratch out a living in old Austin will recognize the odd jobs that the protagonist falters through one after the next as the kinds of things that might have earned them or their friends a buck but not a living — though a buck was sometimes enough in Austin in those times to make it through part of a day. I’ve read some other novels by Buk but nothing that came close to the power and humor of Factotum. He penned endless volumes of poems about drinking, smoking, sex, violence, distress, wandering and happiness. I stumbled across a book 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 which was the last copyright. 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. It’s offensive to me (not the writing). But that’s why I liked it and the poem remains powerful even as what is considered acceptable to write or say has moved some of this poem “out of scope” for the puritans. People will object to words or ideas. It’s the mutation of the acceptable but writings like this continue to frustrate those who know how things really should be.

BIG BASTARD WITH A SWORD


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
next!

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
all
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
heads.

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
on.

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
on.

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
haircut.

then
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.

One Punk Summer Amazon Link
Buy One Punk Summer on Amazon

I wrote One Punk Summer in Berlin. I was spending a year on an exchange program between the University of Texas and the Freie Universität Berlin. I arrived just days before reunification. Pieces of the communist police state’s skeleton were still to be seen: A ransacked Checkpoint Charlie that had been taken over by the homeless, long sections of wall and fencing, machine gun towers with huge spotlights standing tall. I climbed up in one of them and looked around; it was well-designed with a good view and a guard was unlikely to miss seeing anyone trying to cross no-man’s land. I had brought a Tandy 1100FD laptop with me (these days I prefer a classic Bic pen and a notebook). I plugged my toaster-sized voltage converter into my tiny dorm room’s single wall socket and it started buzzing; into that I plugged the laptop charger, booted up. I had a Sony Walkman and started a cassette tape rolling of collected random punks songs. Listening to the music I placed a bottle of Ouzo on the windowsill outside. Snow was falling. The punk was exciting and fast paced and completely discordant with the fat beautifully articulated snowflakes gently drifting against the night sky. That conflict and the power of the music got me in the spirit — and suddenly I was banging out the story to The Ramones, Fear, The Dicks, Hüsker Dü.