The Flip Flopping of Thought
The 2019 Poetry of the Year is adventurous and lively.
By Tobias Lehmkuhl
While the young may prefer to wander far and wide in search of happiness, older people look for it in front of their door: that is, while Carl-Christian Elze and Tom Schulz travel to Venice and around the world, Gerhard Falkner and Wulf Kirsten explore the Schorfheide near Berlin as well as the landscapes (of memory) of Thuringia and Saxony. And while the “young” here are already approaching fifty, they nevertheless belong to a very different generation of poets from Kirsten (born in 1934) and Falkner (born in 1951).
Gerhard Falkner has been on the cutting edge of German-speaking avant-garde poetry since the beginning of the eighties, and although his new volume of poetry “Schorfheide. Gedichte en plein air” (“Schorfheide. Poems en plein air,” Berlin Verlag) is dedicated to the alleged tranquility of Brandenburg’s pine forests, these forests are also, for him, “critical forests / in green smocks” that are full of quotes from philosophy and poetry. These ironic verses are assuredly matured, just like Wulf Kirsten’s poems in “erdanziehung” (“gravity,” S. Fischer Verlag), which create a kind of mellowed resume of seventy years of being a poet. The book is a poetic search for traces that cannot be found in the uprooted nature of the present as much as in the remembered and imagined natural world, a world of words as well, which has elements of the vowel-rich incantations of ancient Teutons: “How do I get to Schaddel, / where is Querbitzsch an der Schnauder?”
Focused more on the present is Tom Schulz’s rich “Reisewarnung für Länder Meere Eisberge” (“Travel Warning for Countries Seas Icebergs,” Hanser Berlin Verlag). Even more – Schulz seems to have his eye on the future:
“Resurrected out of the water. / In a couple dozen years, when the new reeds have grown / when our green hand brushes the razed, abandoned buildings / when a giant tongue licks the gravestones.”
Who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the feeling of vanitas in Venice? But Tom Schulz abstains from making the cheap gesture of futility; he remains a participating observer throughout, whether that be as a visitor in Venice, a guest in “ossuaries of São João," a companion of the “plantation workers in Tazacorte” and the “dog walker of Recoleta,” or on the Greek island Leros, where the poet Yannis Ritsos spent two years as a political prisoner:
“That the stones burst and no shadow falls / that the grass catches fire, that a wire is stretched / above the earth, that a goat, scrawny as the small / bones in your hand, is grazing, that the pain to be lasered away finally / ends…”
Carl-Christian Elze also spent time in Venice and brought an entire volume of poems back from the city on the lagoon: “langsames ermatten im labyrinth” (“slowing down in the labyrinth,” Verlagshaus Berlin). While clearly written during his stay at the Centro Tedesco di Studi Veneziani, the poems thankfully do not have the typical feel of being written during a residency. A flâneur in Venice, Elze writes without clichés and walks with an attentive gaze through the narrow labyrinthine streets. Nevertheless, he too is unable to resist the grand gesture of this “cursed city":
“no one can be saved / in this structure / neither doges nor popes / neither you nor your child / everything disappears / in a fit of beauty / nothing and everything succeeds.”
Also appearing in 2019 are a number of poetry books written by women who were born in the eighties. But the similarities between them end with the writers being young and not writing cycles about nature or travel in their current books. The body, body parts and physical experiences of foreignness play a major role in Carolin Callie’s book “schatullen & bredouillen” (“strongboxes & jams,” Schöffling Verlag) as well as in Ines Berwing’s debut of 27 poems “muster des stillen verkabelns” (“patern of silent wiring,” Hochroth Verlag):
“I’m being watched, I have to / behave. Can’t go in / my underwear to my / neighbor. Can’t sleep in / shoes, nodding on lashes, / bathing in drawers.”
In her second book, “Luna Luna” (Secession Verlag), which was also conceived as a radio play, Maren Kames demonstrates the increased proximity between poetic and dramatic texts as well as the importance of performativity in poetry today. Karin Fellner twists and turns language and thought with a fine instrument in “eins: zum andern” (“one: to the other,” Parasitenpresse). The poems seemingly dance on unstable ground but are always balanced enough in the end to float gently on the page:
“Clippers of thought flight in this and that direction, / you flip flop around on it and swell / with your sails.”
The emphasis in Dagmara Kraus’ poems is on the dancing, or even more, on the singing and multilingual flickering of the tongue. The first page of her book "Liedvoll, Deutschyzno" (“Full of Songs, Germanyzno,” kookbooks) even features a score. Her interest is not in philosophical contemplation or meditative absorption in nature. Clearly influenced by DADA and the European avant-gardes – in particular by the Eastern European traditions – Kraus instead approaches objects, the blending of languages and the overwriting of others’ texts with anarchic delight. Thus, her book "Aby Ohrkranf's Hunch Poems" (roughbooks) uses Frank O’Hara’s classic “Lunch Poems” (1964) as a sort of ski jump and takes the book’s epigraph “the mogul as a ski jump” from an early poem by Monika Rinck, who also published two collections of poems in 2019.
In “Alle Türen” (“All Doors,” kookbooks), Monika Rinck proves that she is related to the anarchic spirit of Kraus. But it isn’t DADA that serves as an inspiration for her delightfully wild and even messy and chaotic poems; instead, inspiration came from the operetta. In “Champagner für die Pferde” (“Champagne for the Horses,” S. Fischer Verlag), Rinck bestows reverence on Elke Erbe, and even this grande dame of contemporary poetry has released a new book of poems this year. Entitled “Gedichtverdacht” (“Suspicion of a poem,” roughbooks), this book shows once again why Elke Erb (born in 1938) is a role model for so many younger poets: the combination of thought, observation and feelings – as well as past and present – blend in a such a fluid and concise manner in her work. Her method of constantly “fetching” words and phrases from her old diaries and incorporating them into new books of poems has also resulted in three verses about travelling. Called “Journey to Poland,” the poem is dated back to 1975 but is anything but historical:
“You have to keep in mind: / Some never leave their childhood country, / others never see it again.”
Tobias Lehmkuhl (b. 1976) studied comparative literature and Hispanic studies in Bonn, Barcelona and Berlin, and since 2002, has been working as a freelance literature and music critic for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and Deutschlandfunk, among others. In 2017, he was awarded the Berlin Prize for Literary Criticism. His most recent publications include: “Die Odyssee: Ein Abenteuer” (2013) and “Nico: Biographie eines Rätsels” (2018).