Skip Rhudy

aviation, travel, books

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.

View all my reviews