Paradigm shift
This house
Labour of love

Author: Tom Schulz
Translator: Henry Holland

Paradigm shift

the human has two legs
with which he can row

the human has two arms
with which he can tread loudly

the human has two eyes
with which he can kiss you and me and the ground

two lips, one upper, one lower
with which he can sow radishes

the human has two mouths
with which he can go right, and left, and jug jug, jug jug

the human has two breasts
with which he can shoo off cold air

two noses, nostrils four
with which he can make love

ten toes, twelve fingers, if they counted right
two nipples, with which he can catch butterflies



This house

was friendly for generations … the stairs
had wings up which a ship sailed always, while down
was carried on the wind, past our closing eye

I loved the smell of the halls, the flight of the spores
a fungi’s innerness, alive for itself,
cantatas filling a barracks, chambers full of music
A weak pulse beat through your afternoon nap, under the plaster
(a group of gallflies travelled with me
to Bethlehem at tea time …)

The five p.m. bell called the ravens back daily to their places
and things occurred which nobody heard … the lobby wall-sign, the
Paternoster uttered, a shadow falling always from south to north
to me out sieving snow, finding a box between garden and trash-
mooring, which snow melted in, near to the moth-balled
near to the heart, where the stylus came down, fitting
the rusty hand already, which groped for a sagging breast

… and still the leaves give milk and the trees tremble
and still I secrete, grow blisters, am taken in by myself
yet find nothing but ladybirds, who know nothing
of tides, spaces, return … a friendly house of the dead
with rattling boxes and unposted letters

… I liked the smell of the sick lilac, the brown leaf
the quiet which did not die away, a quiet
over the earth, Watch out! Floods from the roof

this house certainly had no unlimited wheelchair access
under marauding dust beams bent in the attic

generations, whose washing froze in the yard, in the corners
with all those sinister harvestmen, full of dust, parent-child contracts
signed, illegibly

a lightning conductor, earth wire leading to soakaways
the birds’ bridges rushed, the sentimental channels run off
unblocked … the house to which guests came

Five were invited
Ten have come

The guests, who each got given a wardrobe, knocked at each other’s
come on out, to celebrate Friday and Monday, and the Feast of the
Spiders …

Hordes of the bearded rowed from the islands into my room, unyielding
as sackcloth … All dealt in water pistols, and showed off
their moles … I was glad when they disappeared
in the small hours, or when one of the chimney-sweeps
grabbed them by the lapels!

The tenants will wax so much in the fall that they will be put under glass


The house, a grouted closing wound

No one knew about any of the sky’s blues –
a baby was held out the window. Breathe, little nipper

What it needs: planks, a few nails, the saw, and then
two feet first … when I went out in winter into the yard, I bore
the ash-pail to the bird-flu until
the moon’s spots fell at my slippered feet …

Who was the house, who carried a touch of snow from all the sleeping
up onto its roof?

This house was not a theodiciean no.

for Jan Wagner


Labour of love

When we do what we want to do, nothing bothers you. The louse
walks gladly over the liver. Contrary to the one-way street.
Turn right with lactic acid. Once I was an artist. Drank red wine,
ate cake with vanilla ice-cream. Waited for the fairy-tale grandma.
For the bears. Heard just crying under the wallpaper. A whimpering and
a pawing. We put it under the earth. And sailed into the harbour.
Sea without seas. Estate without estates. We drove into the mine.
The blinded-up shafts, the haul trucks and the pit dogs. All blinded by
methanol and hunger. I was still a child. We buried the guinea-
pig in the garden. When we do what we want to do, other
blessings will stir. The rain will delouse our head. Something
will be born to each of us. Homely born. And the two jug-ears
will sail out to sea, and onto cleft lips will be stuck
the four-leaved clover. Once I was a job-centre clown. Crept,
never noticed, between wall and wallpaper. Saw a mob of
graduates and iron-benders. Wrote: at the job-centre, a mob of graduates
and iron-benders. Nobody clapped or laughed. A woman dug over a
meadow and got up off her haunches. Picked up a lead attached to a dog
laden with jam-packed health-food shop bags, three, made of sustainable
cotton. Who trains the dog? What are the kids called? He should sit
down. Lie says the woman. Pacify the earth and permit the seas
to shine. Once we should all be poor. Fall in love with the object which
no one owns any more. Fall in love with yourself. Each with themselves, the
other. Once I was a cuckoo. Shot out the clock and the world was
mine all the time. Sea of all seas. State of all states. Like one and none
no longer belong to us. When we do, what we want to do. Appropriate this.
Us, the owners, traders, transit salesmen. When we do what we want to
do, the trees will become precisely as red and green and blue as that
thrown-off dress. Under which we’re naked, and confide in the half burnt
grass in which we lie. The sweet grass, which grows and sings.



Translator’s note on “Labour of Love”

I decided to translate this poem because of the layers of pleasures Tom builds up in the prose poem form which dominate his latest collection. After taking in the opening aphorism, the reader of “Labour of Love” is confronted with four, single-clause sentences, which appear at first to be non-sequiturs. What has the louse to do with the lactic acid? What have either to do with the artist? Which brings us to a bigger problem of translating poetry between German and English: how much irresolution can you transmit, irresolution caused in part by the very different cultural context in which German is written? Should you intervene to restore some aesthetic unity? The jug-ears sailing disembodied out to sea, and the four-leaved clover being stuck onto cleft-lips are two of the poem’s most compelling images, and here it’s helpful to remember that German lexis concerning disability is easily three decades behind the English-speaking world: Tom chooses the term “Hasenscharten”, which would translate more directly as harelip. A particular problem in translating this poem was the first line. Tom goes for a picaresque saying, “drückt uns nicht der Schuh”. No colourful English phrase seemed to work here. So I concentrated instead on transmitting the consonance and the assonance of Tom’s line, with the repeated “w” sounds in my first and second lines, and the “do”, “to” and “you” as stressed syllables in my first. The original poem’s lines alternate between six and seven metrical feet, with no end rhyme but with lots of assonance, and with variations on phrases already introduced. I definitely wanted those long lines, and with them sufficient freedom to take advantage of what English idioms can suggest, to reconfigure Tom’s images in a quite different language.

From, Lichtveränderung © Hanser 2015

A Bearer of Suffering. Not a Victim.

Author: Bodo Kirchhoff
Translator: Henry Holland


 Bodo Kirchhoff published this autobiographical essay in 2012, in the middle of a long-lasting wave of German media attention focussed on institutionalised sexual abuse of children. The collection of essays from which this translation is drawn is titled Legends about My Body (Legenden um den eigenen Körper). The media concentrated especially on the Odenwald boarding school, where the number of children abused in the 1970s and 1980s may total 130 or more. Kirchhoff’s standpoint, dealing with his experience at another German boarding school, is unique in all published German language writing on this subject.

Every narrative about sexual preferences is crippled by the narrators’ loneliness, standing on the side-lines of language, surrounded by a mass chattering about sexuality, isolated with their own words and images, amid a flood wave of words and of porn. The other, who shaped us sexually, holds his tongue, and we, in attempting speech, are forced into verbal hallucinations. No one can grant us the certainty that we are telling the truth, but you can listen to us attentively, in the same way you listen to foreigners speaking their own language; and the more familiar words we slip in, to move quicker from the side-lines to the centre, the greater the danger of an untrue understanding. A common language of sexuality, beyond the chatter and the flood of images, requires a common affirmation—yes, I desire, and am worthy of desire—and a longing to understand and to be understood which borders on pain. Otherwise the details of early experiences remain purely to haunt individuals like the Furies, making the individual appear a victim, someone who only conjures up pity in their communities.

I was abused—the first words of the article in the Spiegel, from March 2010, a dialogue which I’m going to continue here. And after that opening phrase, written in the prevailing tone of the debate on the subject which was then at its peak, the article continued: a word (abuse) that isn’t much use, that doesn’t help much, that only demonstrates the whole misery of speechlessness. And nevertheless it was saying something: that I was actually a part of the debate, inside the syntagma, and no longer linguistically isolated, the word ‘abuse’ connoting membership in a certain group, rather than a specific drama made up of sexual details. But it is only this—this early drama between two participants—which matters.

I was one of these two participants, the weaker one unquestionably, someone who bore over many years the manifold suffering resulting from an emotional and sexual assault. A victim of abuse in other words. Later I passed on this double misdoing—which only counts as a crime when committed on those too young to consent—to others, not through blatant violence, but rather by getting people to bind themselves to me, even though I knew I was incapable of reciprocating this attachment for more than a day at a time. And during that same period, through the whole of the seventies, I was writing already, and getting into psychoanalysis. I wanted to be different, or to put it another way, I wanted to understand what was foreign to me—nothing unusual back then. Seen in this light, the whole contemporary debate about abuse—which can see perpetrators only as monsters, and suspects anyone attempting to trace their motives of complicity—is a step backwards, away from sexual enlightenment. The idea of enlightenment in this debate limits itself to shedding light on who the offender was: it’s police jargon, the language of The Killing.

You see, I don’t just want to know what happened to me, but also why and how it has influenced me up to the present day; outer details are, at most, the spectacular part of the whole, that which the law can capture, and not in any way the truth, which is what I still live with. Or to put it another way: whoever points a finger at an offender should also take a look inside their own psyche.

I was twelve, a pretty boarding school boy, and my housemaster, teacher and choirmaster—a Winnetou really, Indian chief of my reading fantasies, years before the books got filmed—was in his early thirties, a guy with long, dark hair (in 1960!), who smoked Roth-Händle, could play the piano, and drove a Volkswagen Cabrio. No question about it, the pretty boy was in love with him. And one night, a warm night in June if I remember correctly, he came to collect me—I had complained about a headache at choir practice that evening—out of one of the beds in a five-bed room while the others slept, to take the pain away, as he put it, in a one-bedroom flat at the end of the corridor. With pulse beating in head and heart I followed him there, where he peeled me out of my spotted pyjamas—the meaningless details in the drama are the ones you remember—took my head in his hands and kissed me; his tongue tasted smoky, something that still turns me on today. I had never been kissed that way before, passionately, and returned the kiss, not wanting to be impolite, but perhaps also out of a need to do so, freshly awoken in this June night. On top of which I believed it was a special way of treating headaches, only used on myself, working with a kind of opposing impulse, which he then added to. And then all of a sudden he was stroking my childlike thing, in the first moment nothing but shock, in the second, panic-ridden moment too; what the third moment was like I would no longer vouch for. The childlike thing of the many names took on a new shape between his fingers, which were yellow at the nails from smoking. It grew hard and pulsated, as if my headache had slid down into it, glowing with growth against my will. And so I glowed with shame, yes, even apologised, and Winnetou whispered something into my mouth: All is piggery for the pig, all is purity for the pure—his only words on this the first of many nights, or the only ones I want to remember even today, after almost a lifetime. And also the same words which shone through in my poetics lecture eighteen years ago, without a public debate on the subject to back them up, the single perspective which mattered to me entirely absent. Winnetou’s words were clear in that lecture already, even though they were downplayed, and presented as a scene.

Because it didn’t stop at the kissing and the stroking, my Red Indian wanted more, wanted that I should bear, long after the event, the stigma of desire that he was stamping on me. So he took on the hardness in a mercilessly gentle fashion, and that boy, barely twelve years old, had his first orgasm—years away still from knowing this enticing, mantra-like word. I didn’t know what was happening down there, pure mental as you’d say nowadays, a smouldering riddle between my legs, a sullying buzz. The childlike thing had suddenly become a cock—I was a speechless child with a cock. And the man—who’d turned me into that, growing more daring every time, and making me who I am into the process—was a bloody good choirmaster: the music from back then, by Schütz, Bach and Sibelius, still knocks me for six. A top-notch choir chieftain and a damned boy-nibbler; but, to use one of his maxims, sine ira et studio, he was just one of the damned, condemned to an unliveable kind of love. Unliveable, because the lives of half-grown kids are screwed up by it. Screwed up being the ugly, and operative, word.

I was still half a child, and became, overnight, a premature half-man, suddenly sexualised, someone who has prematurely paid the price for being cast into the world as a sexual being, who desires and sparks desire in others, attracts more love than he feels comfortable with, loves beyond his own horizon, and loses the ground beneath his feet. Normal stuff really, the literature of love is full of it. Just at that age it isn’t normal, and neither is it normal in our frenetic, individualistic internet world. As the debate about the whole complex subject has illustrated, with its tacit arrangement to minimise the two great positive risks of our existence, sexuality and love, along with the greatest negative risks—poverty, ill-health and violence.

No other existential danger has been so repressed by the internet as love—and defending love as an existential risk strikes me as the most worthwhile thing I can do as a writer, through narrating a long novel. We desire and are worthy of desire, and since time immemorial boundaries have been established to deal with the transgressions intrinsic to this fact, taboos constructed in the consciousness to remind us that good will cannot stand its ground against bad longings without a general law. Sexual assaults against minors are strictly prohibited in almost every society. For this we can be glad. The regulation of sexuality through marriage, on the other hand, is still widespread, which is rather a reason to be unhappy; and behind the dogma of the Catholic Church and the ultra-religious, whether in the USA or in Iran, lies a contempt for the feminine, just as contempt for all humans is the real spring from which every form of prudishness flows. This is more than an unhappy situation—this is a calamity.

I experienced this contempt back then, in my Protestant boarding-school, through slaps, segregation and icy words. That’s how they knocked us down to size when we’d persuaded the hairdresser who came to our boarding-house once a month to leave the hair at our napes two centimetres longer than normal, by pressing a fifty pfennig piece into his hand. (He was called Anton Ironbite, how could you forget that?) And it was this little tail in the back of the neck that drew the contemptuous punishment down upon us, being grounded for example, while the others went on outings. No wonder, then, that a half-child, a little ripe fruit—a tasty morsel, as they say—fell into the arms of a man who wore his hair like a Red Indian, and chose him as an object of love, on whom he could orientate himself. And no wonder, when confronted with this other new ‘tail’ between his legs, not made by a hairdresser and not in the least metaphorical, that he was shocked but also clung to it: down below a real lad now, and his lips on the lips of his choirmaster Indian-chief to boot, whose kisses tasted of forbidden smoke—the whole thing one big drug.

In my memories this choirmaster and educator, who was also my music, religion and sports teacher, still looks like Winnetou; all my attempts to get hold of a photo of him have failed—your own memory was your hard-drive back then, before the era of lots of photos. Without anything to counterbalance it, I still see him as the star of the boarding school, with parents, pupils and colleagues thronging around him. But all he’d wanted was fine-limbed lads with kissable mouths, he was powerless against it; his violence was the violence of seduction, his aim was to melt together with the person prone before him. I learnt to kiss and to come from him, and both far too early. Just as child-soldiers learning to kill are being abused in the most serious possible way, the full connotations of ‘abuse’ being apposite to describe what happens to them, I too learnt blindly to make love, and practised what I had learnt, without being able to gauge what was happening. And all this in an entirely contrary environment, rigidly Protestant. From which my sister was later given the Consilium Abeundi—the dishonest phrase used for expulsion—just for being caught holding hands and drinking Coke by dimmed red lights; typical for that era, respectably dishonest. It’s long since this boarding school was anything like the one I passed through between 1959 and 1968, it has changed along with the whole of society, and will, as it happens, close down soon, due to lack of clientele. For enlightened parents, boarding schools have long since served their purpose. My wife and I would never have dreamt of absconding from the process of our kids growing up, though I’d admit that conditions have become more favourable for parenting.

[…] 6

When things were over between my Indian chief and me—yes, I need to talk about this part too—I was, as I’ve said, a speechless child with a cock. A piece of me which then proceeded to twitch, that piece which a man had taken in his mouth, until it was all too late. Ultimately, it’s about putting the boot on the other foot, or rather, taking it in the mouth, and articulating it, a process which still can shock, to this day. It’s not the ordinary words like victim, perpetrator and abuse which tell the truth, but rather those which are left unsaid, hovering between the lines, like cock-sucking, arse-fucking or shooting your load, the embarrassing words behind those which were once uttered quietly in the dark—friendship, purity, Eros, to name but three. Camouflage words which disguise their own obscenity, hegemonic language, deployed against the weaker party. From the perspective of this Other, this pedagogue bearing the insignia of education, his actions emerged out of a true desire, a louche one, I’ll grant you, yet entirely pervaded with love: that old story as told, once and for all, by Thomas Mann. Aschenbach, that most famous of all louche literati, a fictional figure and yet extremely real, knows that he’s being ‘pulled on a fool’s rope by his passion’, and his unhappy inventor goes one step further in his mind. According to Mann, the only wisdom we can garner from this is, ‘sympathy with the abyss; this narrative is the abyss’.

The boy who I became walked out of an abyss constructed from various sorts of grown-up sex games, grounded on mute love and mumbled desire; my Winnetou was no self-possessed chief and his mouth watered as much as Aschenbach’s did. Someone who desires, desires. He can’t do anything but set his sights on smooth boys’ bums, or a woman’s white hips, or the crucified Lord if he happens to be Saint Francis. Which turns every excuse, every display of remorse into a stage act; those who were once desired have to forgive themselves today. Our seducers were sexual freaks working in secret, and that is what they’ve passed on, their seed which we have caught. Abuse doesn’t lend the victim a noble touch, but turns them more into a joke figure, and most bearers of suffering do everything they can to cover up exactly this. You cannot see from the outside how much is defunct inside of someone, nor how big the linguistic hole is. Every one ultimately develops their own substitute language in order to cope with themselves and the world. It’s only those who are done with such manoeuvring who will name the perpetrators, but this strategy of ‘destroying the person who destroyed you’ doesn’t help. The only thing which helps is talking about it.

Every evening Winnetou stood beside the main taps of the shower room, dressed in a brown leather jacket with fur collar. He smoked one of his Roth-Händle, (those strong, filterless fags, with a ten pfennig piece slipped into the packet, which, later on, I was to smoke for years), and watched us washing, the angels, who were still naked above their sex, and the others, who already had a few hairs there. He made sure that angels and non-angels showered together, mingling in front of him. His amber coloured eyes were fixed on our shivers when he suddenly turned the water cold; he also chased me with a hard jet of water because I was one of his favourites. And one evening—a one-mark coin had slid out of my trouser pocket while getting changed after P.E., a lot of money at that time—he went with me down into the basement room, where the sports lessons took place in winter, to search for the silver coin. It was late already, the showering long since finished, but he locked the door from the inside, no doubt with a good explanation, and then bent me over the horse, which we had to run up to and jump over during the sports lessons, while hoping for his helping hand. And the twelve-year old, who I then still was, felt a mouth at my neck, his lips, big and rather blueish, blueish like lips when you’ve swum for too long, and I felt a falling hair, which tickled my ear—details like letters of an old and incomplete alphabet, written inerasably into the skin, without me being able to say definitely which word they spell out. Sex—and that is exclusively what that hour was about—is nothing logical, that starts with A and ends with O, but rather a flow, flowing between sheer love and sheer violence. And the real retrospective shock for the weaker party is the bedlam inside himself, the chaos in his memories: who was I during these embraces, what part of them is still hidden in me? I think of this hour in the sport’s room, the only light falling in through the basement window from some lamp or other outside, and view what happened as a kind of Fata Morgana, a precise flickering. And even my memory of what the foreign body parts felt like has something contradictory about it, a rough tenderness—an optical and sensory oxymoron, eluding all clear speech. Quite possible that the boy, who I was, was taken whole-heartedly, with loving violence; but also possible that it was just a brute craving, dressed up with tender tokens—the memories flicker too much to tell for sure, yet I can’t make this Fata Morgana disappear, because I can’t go towards it. I can only tell its story, and seek to resolve it in fiction, in a construct I’ve created as it were, to mirror reality. There can be no exact or reliable narration of that hour in the basement—it wasn’t good, what happened there, it was anything but good; but it is mine, the stuff which I am made of.

And this stuff is nothing wonderful, or great, or something which grants me wisdom, or something sacrosanct, yet therefore all the better protection against every sort of bravado and cant—you distrust everything that hints at boastfulness, including your own loose words, and you don’t need to trumpet out any poems about the state of our world, as a Nobel Prize winner felt the need to do recently, when the bad rhyme has already been written into you. You only need to find rhymes for this one rhyme, again and again, concentrate on being the pot and forget about the kettle, and tell your story: that’s how out of the speechless child an author grew, whose writing is closer to the feminine principle than anything masculine—which does not mean he writes in an unmanly way. Meaning people who can’t read it properly label him a macho. I also became a writer—or rather, will continue to strive after the aim of being a writer my whole life long—because, to get at the whole truth of that one hour for example, I need the whole fiction. Otherwise what was not good remains unsayable, as it is for almost everyone with a similar story.

From Legenden um den eigenen Körper  © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2012

The Fall of Heidelberg

Author: Michael Buselmeier
Translator: Henry Holland

Michael Buselmeier’s novella, first published 1981, is an explicitly autobiographical work, an intense, stream-of-consciousness procession through a day in the life of the first person narrator. This storyteller – a university lecturer in his late thirties, working in the German department of a south German university – is an ageing left-wing radical, a man forced by the passing of time into taking stock, yet still tenaciously non-conformist in his ruthless self-criticism, and intellectual independence. The outer defeat of the left-wing student movement, whose strength had peaked already by the early 1970s, is the historical frame of a book, and violent police repossessions of student-occupied property are a recurring theme throughout. Simultaneously the story is deeply personal, and one which refuses the sleep-inducing stereotype normally forced upon the German left. In the scene directly preceding the start of the excerpt below, a younger acquaintance is trying to persuade the narrator that the latest Roxy Music LP (circa 1979) is ‘hot shit’. Our narrator replies, cooly, that Richard Wagner is hotter.

A young guy about twenty with feverish eyes has taken a seat at our table, and slides his chair nearer us, subversively. Any idea where I can stow some stuff away for a bit? Yeah right, get real man. A study-group student of mine? If that lot still notice me at all, they see me as an arse-licking veteran, one of those know-it-all smart alecs always ready with a heroic yarn from the past, perfect for laming any current guerilla activity. Go tell that shite to the old dearies at the Greens, grandpa! — you might get them to listen to you in the garden in the mornings, while you’re watering your flowers together. We’re going to torch this whole place, the whole thing! He stares at me, gesticulating wildly, then gets up and goes towards the exit, without clearing away his dishes. So that’s what they look like: the liberators of humanity, the avant-garde. He probably babbles on so much about burning things cause he’s too chicken to actually do it. Supposedly once threw a Molotov cocktail against the wall of the loony-bin. Let off a little smoke, then fizzled out. He works away at his DIY bombs every day, bolted up in his room behind blackened windows. So watch it! Am I any different? A bit wiser, that’s all. No longer brave enough to die. Can I see my own uncensored wishes shining in his eyes? Act your age not your shoe size, wee boy, you wouldn’t be the first crazy who the pigs snapped up, just because you have to daydream out loud. And you also wouldn’t be the first, who, spun round by events, walks into our editorial office one day, a thin, wee guy with wispy, red beard, charity-shop clothes, and, sniffing around, asks casually where we’ve put the alternative papers, and if we’ve got The Revolutionary Fury, he’d like to have a read of that. Aye right, we throw that tat in the bin as soon as it gets here. Well keep a copy of The Fury back for me next time he says, leaving.
Johannes has disappeared into a record shop, and I’m back standing in the uni canteen courtyard, with the plastic bag full of newspapers in my hand. Straggly, rusty stains on the concrete bottom of the fountain, like menstrual blood slowly seeping into the bathtub. Two Sinalco bottles are bobbing upright in the water. While I’m studying the news-sheets plastered onto the wall, a man in a light summer suit takes up a pose next to me, also reading the wall news-sheets. He takes a step back, pulls a notebook out of his jacket pocket, and scribbles something down. Pale, greasy skin. This is Detective Chief Inspector Mobby Klick, from the Department of Internal Security. Arrested me at the town hall for breach of the peace and insulting a police officer. I’m not letting any old pig touch me, I screamed, ya bloody arse-wiper! That cost me 2000 deutschmark, plus a 200 mark fine cause I couldn’t resist reciting all possible collocations and etymological derivations of the word ‘arse’ in court, using The Complete Duden Dictionary of the German Language, Volume 1, p. 191. As I questioned Klick as a witness, asking whether he’d possibly heard me use another word instead of ‘arse-wiper’ — a word which, according to Duden, doesn’t even exist  — arse-fucker, or arse-licker, or up-into-the-arse-crawler, perhaps? — the judge screamed at me in a trembling voice: refrain from using faecal words in court! Then he got up off his arse and clapped a fine upon me, because of my ‘continued use of faecal terminology.’ Since the time he’d taken my fingerprints and mug-shots — number 565; portrait photos from all angles, 99 finger prints onto forms — Mobby Klick has always greeted me whenever we saw each other. I’ve read some of your poems, he said to me, confidentially. Since when did muck like that read poems? I recognised you in a documentary film about the German Lecturers Strike, hid away in a corner. A-ha. He looks at me proudly. A reader of my poems. The very thing that poets dream of. About my age. Numb-skulled and right-wing at school already, unable to observe his opponents without prejudice, so overly keen that he hasn’t got a clue about what he’s dealing with, and therefore harms the machine he’s meant to be serving more than he helps it. Dropped out of his law degree to opt for a career in the police. Got stuck half-way. I could tutor him in studying the left, qualify him in his spare time, but he can’t see his opportunity. He turned down my friendly offer to do a recorded interview with him in a stiff, almost shocked way. I’ve not got a gun on me today: grinning insecurely, he folds open his jacket, so that the inside pockets can be inspected. No harness either: he pats his hands over his jacket, and turns round so I can see his back; his white polyester shirt is sticking to his skin. So what if it is. I leave him with his side-kick, who’s always trailing behind us dressed up in a student costume, so they can read the wall news-sheets alone in peace.
My ritual route for the past ten years or more: through the canteen, past the Uphill Gardeners shop, past the political bookshop, then into the lecture-hall through the canteen, or into the Collegium Academicum to a study-group, or to meet somebody, walking along beside painted walls and staircases, over the creaking, cracked floor-boards underneath the roof. And now? The lecture-hall was closed two or three years ago after a fire, apparently no longer needed, even though it had become a kind of warm cubby-hole for many lost souls in the university machine over the past thirty years, including myself. Here, loners continued surviving, after dropping out of their degree courses, or while stretching out those degrees to infinite lengths. These seekers after truth and God sat on the same hard seats day after day — after having fought over the pair of soft leather armchairs underneath the window — and made minute notes with the one hand — behind the cover of the other — on the back of pamphlets; secret poets, hard cases, who tried to cover up their own, dead lives with voluminous perusal of international newspapers, getting steadily greyer in the stuffy air and canteen smells which seeped into their clothes, and warmed them. Most of these carefully dressed, old-fashioned talking gents wore oversleeves and white gloves even in summer, with which they leaved-through newspapers, encyclopaedias and atlases. Where did they drive you out to, my brothers, to the park-benches down by the water? You hobble along, your brief-cases full of books and papers you’ve read every word of, your way of tricking your landladies into thinking you’re still going places academically. Coming home in the evenings to your garrets, you can’t get the door open, it jams. Empty schnapps bottles underneath the iron bedstead, shoe boxes full of letters. Sliding, shakily out of this world, what happens inside your heads?
The Colleigum Academicum, the CA, last self-governing student residence in town, also no longer exists. On 6th March 1978, at six in the morning, 1500 police officers in helmets stormed the old college building. The regional elite units among them used siege-ladders, axes and chainsaws, and forced 150 tired students out into the cold. They set straight to work smashing up the rooms, grabbing any booty they happened to come across. I stood in the police floodlights behind the crowd-control tape, let myself be photographed by smirking secret-service agents, and saw the furniture that we’d used for living and working on, desks, sofas, the lot, being tipped out the windows. Then they nailed up the windows with boards. The spirit of our times.
The CA had been the centre of our understanding of ourselves, our critique, our opposition. This was more than just cheap student accommodation, rooms for drama and music groups, cabaret, orchestra, academic groups, parties. At the time of the revolts real teach-ins took place here, discussions lasting the whole night through with Ernest Mandel and Peter Brückner, during which I started, slowly, to think politically. But the students who came after us defined themselves less and less through the university as an institution, or through critical academia, or taking an active political role. Which left the CA more and more isolated, just another subculture. After the collapse of the student movement, the CA — by this time already labelled a ‘left-wing fascist stronghold’ by the local press — became the first port of call, and place of refuge, for all the victims of society who could find no other place to live in a city thoroughly cleansed: tramps, whose hostel by the river the town council had bricked up, beaten-up women, runaway teenagers, junkies, gays — they all crawled down into the former Jesuit college, filling the long corridors with noise and song, and letting it all hang out. The earlier inhabitants felt overwhelmed and could not relate to the new visitors.
A poetry reading in the overfilled hall was the last event to take place at the CA. Unable to defend this place, a place where we could be ourselves in public, and where we could relate to a wider public, we sat on the floor on the evening before the clearance, smoking as if paralysed, smiling wearily about the last few agitators, who still kept on getting up on chairs, to call for militant resistance. Some people sang, some listened in on the police’s short-wave radio, others still walked hectically through the neglected rooms. Towards morning someone flew into the room shouting: the pigs are coming up from the south, I can feel the floors shaking. And we heard, as he spoke no more, how looters tore the shelves off the walls, while the police net around the building tightened, the police extending the siege-ladders from their vehicles. Together we cleared the space behind the doors and then stepped out, blinded, into the spotlights. Sieg Heil! — shouted someone, running over the cobbled courtyard through the iron gateway, which was half-blocked by a yellow Volkswagen, towards the line of police. As I looked back one last time, I saw policemen squinting down through the lit-up windows, tearing our banners from the walls.
The political bookshop beside the canteen is still going, an old garage with a wide, glass front at the end of the gateway, that’s covered with publisher’s posters, subversive pamphlets, wall news-sheets about our political prisoners’ living conditions — and with private calls for help. But I sometimes get the impression that the owner’s been running the shop for a long time now just out of habit, or out of economic necessity, rather than as a political strategy, or at least out of a love of books. The door’s wide open, the air-conditioning’s whirring, and the place is empty, as it normally is at this hour. Nobody greets me as I enter. The owner’s mother raises herself up from behind the counter and scurries along the shelves, order-slip in hand, not looking at me. I walk, as I do everyday, alongside the tables where the new publications are laid out, and open up a book or a paper here and there, without buying anything. I normally know whether I like a book or not after just a few lines. I’d have to read a lot of tedious stuff in order to have a voice, academically speaking. And how much stuff is there that I’ve not read, and never will do. That thought used to make me feel helpless, and so I slammed the books shut again, especially the theoretical ones, in a fit of disgust. What am I actually looking for here? The owner’s mother is back behind the counter again, and is leaving through a card index while peering at me distrustfully through her thick glasses over stacks of newspapers. She carries a book past me, and as I step to the side to make space for her, she looks at me with a knowing smile as if to say: so what have you nicked this time? Got a job to go to, scrounger? My son’s a bookseller, a poet, actually, and one of the best as it happens. Is he such a layabout, that he has to stand leaning on bookshelves so he doesn’t fall over in his laziness? Should I be at home at my desk, ‘wrestling with my angel’, I ask myself, uncertainly? Isn’t poetry as a profession suspect in the first place. I mean, God, each and every human has poetry in their body, but haven’t those who try and earn cash with that lost the plot, rather — aren’t they plying a dishonest trade? ‘Anyone who doesn’t earn their bread through the sweat of their brow should feel ashamed, at least to a certain extent’ — as Clemens Bretano, our bad conscience, put it. Some take that conscience into their parties and sects, others beat their breasts with furrowed brows. Our family problems, which leave us looking as poor as mice. Who, apart from intellectuals, cares about intellectuals’ bad consciences?

From Der Untergang von Heidelberg by Michael Buselmeier, © Suhrkamp Verlag.
With friendly permission by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

Translation © Henry Holland

Pling – plang – little plate
Lyrical poets are mad
The rationalist’s lullaby

Author: Peter Rühmkopf
Translator: Henry Holland

Pling – plang – little plate

Pling – plang – little plate,
you’ll break first, then you’re wise
I am the son of Huckebein
and Leda, his good wife.

I am the coal, I am the coke,
the raven, silky black
I sure do love the man in the street
and on him turn my back.

Here the heaven knows no joy
and the joy is all unlit
and the light gets sieved through more than thrice
before they’ll publish it.

How can one single Vaterland
produce such bottomless gloom? –
I load my head with a picnic of thought
for worse yet times to come.

And show myself, or so you’ll think,
down on the paper, white:
as if a savvy, enlightened head
could thus become light.


Lyrical poets are mad

Acrobatics on the highest heights,
obscure and self-referential
dreaming up beings made solely from words
unreal and unessential

What moves us to it, why, what for,
do we leave the mat at all?
To scribble down a spurious, “Who’s who?”
in the time of a nose-dive fall.

What d’you see of below from the highest point?
The whole world lost at sea.
I say: writers of poems are certainly mad
and truth-seeking readers, will be.

I play my piano on the astral plane
four-footed, forty-toed, capable –
back down on the ground they no longer hope
that we’ll ever be made accountable.

Lorelei exposes her hair
beside the filthy Rhine . . .
I gracefully float in fear for my life
between friends, Heaney and Hein’.


The rationalist’s lullaby

At last the moon has risen,
and caught between hope and depression,
I’m unmoved by its face.
Ju-jitsu or do yoga?
I draw the inky toga –
evening’s curtain – and cocoon my space.

The stars ruck up together
– clear star-observing weather –
as if betting, each to each.
And I will sing, “contester –
above all play the jester!”;
before the Lord curtails my speech.

I’m happy to let the moon wait there.
D’you think she’ll help my mood there
or transform my whims into deeds?
I’ve got time unending,
so plenty spare for fending
off anyone who cares to join me. Take heed.

I would, if I could, remain,
bare-nosed and spouting flames,
from the withers of a horse.
Until I fall off with a thud
– out of Guenevere’s arms – into the mud.
I’ll say what I think. And propriety my arse.

Lord let me scorn your kingdom –
who’d season there my spring times?
who’d forest using my seed?
Who’d wheel my little bedstead
into a pre-heated care-shed
where I can fuck things up in peace?

Oh heaven, quite uncalled for –
if moon, kicked on with golden spurs
were to jump right over the earth?
Who the devil aroused the dog then?
Nurse your wrath you loved ones,
and poke the fires in what you say are hearths.

The guests have gone: leftovers
left lying, just don’t bother:
your cheapest jibes not voicing.
Tired of what you’ve seen often
let a pure yawn soften
the comfort of evening’s poison.

“Heinrich-Heine-Gedenk-Lied”, “Hochseil”, “Variation auf ‘Abendlied’ von Matthias Claudius” by Peter Rühmkorf
From: Gedichte, Werke 1 von Peter Rühmkorf, Bernd Rauschenbach, ed.
Copyright © 1959, 1962, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1989, 2000 by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbek bei Hamburg
Translation © Henry Holland