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