A poem finds its way

A poem is a little packet of words that makes its own way in the world and has its own story. Several years ago I was contacted by someone editing an anthology of poetry about Auschwitz, to be published in Poland, asking to include my poem Heidegger in the Forest.  The poem had been published in an obscure magazine in the nineties so I was extremely pleased and flattered to be asked. Several years elapsed with a couple of notes in between until I googled out that the collection had been published without my poem.

Learning this was slightly ironic because the poem is about conversations that do not happen. I also felt a bit of a chump as I had lost no opportunity to extensively brag and poppinjay around about this coup.

Fast forward to 2013, and on the back of having my poem randomly read out by the Bishop of Southampton on Liberation Day in Guernsey (see previous notebook entry) I made a new friend in Helen Moser, who translated Root and Branch for me. In talking about German culture I mentioned to Helen that I liked the philosopher Heidegger and by one of many coincidences it turns out that Helen lives close to the Heidegger Archive, which is next year celebrating 125 years of the great philosopher’s birth.

When I sent Helen Heidegger in the Forest, she showed it to the Director of the Archive, Dr Denker (which Helen tells me is a good joke in German as Denker means Thinker). Helen has now made a translation, and Dr Denker is intending to use it during the 125 year anniversary next year. So Heidegger in the Forest might find a happy home after all these years.

The conversation that should have happened was that between the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the poet Paul Celan when Celan came in search of Heidegger after the war. Heidegger is the modern philosopher I find most interesting, despite the fact that during the Nazi regime he became a party member and apparently a shameful denouncer of Jewish colleagues. Paul Celan, meanwhile, is one of my favourite poets, and a towering figure in 20th Century literature, with spare and woundingly wonderful poems about the emotional aftermath of the Holocaust.

Here is Helen’s translation, followed by my poem in English. I love seeing something I have written in another language, especially as German is the language Paul Celan wrote in. Seeing my poem about not speaking making it into another language is strangely satisfying.

Heidegger im Walde

Immer dieselben Fragen. Der Wald –
jenes erstaunliche Phänomen –
ist dabei, sich ins Gedächtnis zu rufen.
Doch warum sind die gelben Blüten des Schollkrauts
wie Sterne in die Hecken hineingeflochten?
Warum gibt es Frühling und keinen Frühling?

Und hier, stets allgegenwärtig,
ist jener Judendichter, der mich kennt;
der kam, um sich in mein Gästebuch einzutragen
mit der schwarzen Tinte des Unausgesprochenen;
der meine schamanische Sprache wie ein Symbol trägt,
festgenäht, dicht an seinem Stern.

Ich denke in einer Lichtung darüber nach:
Seine Familie war Futter für die Flammen,
doch das Feuer, das in seiner Trauer wohnt,
kann meinen zugefrorenen Mund nicht tauen.
Er hat meine einsame Spur verfolgt,
und ich? Ich besuchte einst seine Lesungen.

Dieses geistige Bild quält mich:
Der Dichter und seine auferstandene Mutter.
Ich sehe das Haar seiner Mutter, er küsst es,
er lässt es durch seine Finger fließen
als wären es Strähnen seines Volkes,
noch ungeschoren vom Haupt des Seins.

Warum gibt es Auschwitz und kein Auschwitz?
Gedanken wie Schlafende, die sich auf den Pritschen bewegen;
immer dieselben Fragen…

Was ist das – die Philosophie?
Was ist das – es gibt?

Deutsche Übersetzung: Helen R. Moser, 2013

Heidegger in the forest

Always the same questions. The forest –
that astonishing phenomenon –
is about to remember itself.
But why are these yellow celandine
woven into the hedgerows like stars?
why is there spring and not spring?

And here there is always this presence,
of that Juden poet who knows me;
who came to sign my visitors’ book
with the black ink of the unmentioned;
who bears my shamanic language
like a token sewn close to his star.

I consider this fact in a clearing:
his family were fed to the flames
but the fire that dwells in his sorrow
cannot unblock my frozen mouth.
He has dogged my solitary tracks,
and I? I went once to his readings.

This mental picture torments me:
the poet and his risen mother.
I see his mother’s hair, he kisses it
he lets it stream through his fingers
like it was the strands of his people
still unshorn from the head of Being.

Why is there Auschwitz and not Auschwitz?
thoughts like sleepers shifting on the shelves;
always the same questions…

Was ist das – die Philosophie?
Was ist das – es gibt?

About Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, plays, libretti, prose, journalism and so on. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
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One Response to A poem finds its way

  1. Antony Mair says:

    How exciting for you, Peter, and a great poem. I did wonder why Helen had used some words more than others – “hineingeflochten” for example rather than “eingewoben”; and “Pritschen” rather than “Bretten” – such questions make me want, for almost the first time in my life, to talk about this sort of detail with a translator. But she's got the tone of the poem well, and I'm not doubting her choices, just keen to understand them better!

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