Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Angina Days by Gunter Eich, poetry

Gunter Eich was a German poet who lived 1907-1972 and who was known for the simplicity of his poems. Translator Michael Hofmann presents a unique picture of Eich in his introduction to Angina Days (a title in reference to his health in later years). In some cases, an introduction reveals too much and tries to interpret too much. Hofmann’s biography of Eich resists that and instead focuses on Eich’s personal life and allows the reader to contemplate and define the poetry on their own. He calls Eich’s poems “humble and lived-in and somehow practical” and this collection reflects that. While the poetry is not oversimplified, each reader can likely feel as if they can successfully understand the emotions portrayed.

Hofmann also says that in translating the works, ranging over Eich’s lifetime, he discovered in them “for me the source of the quiet and immense and eerie power of each: words are like stray, chance, isolated survivals after some catastrophe, of unpredictable utility and beauty.” As a side note, Eich’s poetry is compared to the art of Paul Klee, which I’ve provided to illustrate what some picture as the visual representation of Eich’s style (see lower right:  Klee's Rose Garden, 1920.)

Within the poetry itself, broken into sections of Eich’s life, there is an array of symbolism with a focus on plants, food, landscape, and travel. Some are romantic, as in Munich-Frankfurt Express where he describes a train trip to see his beloved and “my desire to grow old in the vicinity of your voice.” He can also reflect on WWII with grief in Memorial:
The moors we wanted to hike have been drained.
Their turf has warmed our evenings.
The wind is full of black dust.
It scours the names off the gravestones
and etches this day
into us.

In Dreams he combines the symbolism of travel on the earth with travel in the heart:

There are road signs,
and easily discernible river course,
lookout points in elevated positions,
maps where the lakes are in blue and the forests in green-
It’s easy to find one’s way around in the world.

But you, companion at my side, how hidden from me
is the landscape of your heart!
Feeling my way in the fog, I am often overcome with fear
of the thickets and the hidden precipice.
I know you don’t like your thoughts to be traced,
the echo of your words is intended to mislead-
Roads going nowhere,
pathless terrain, lapsed signage.

This collection is comprehensive and reveals how Eich's outlook changes from youth through illness as he ages, since the poems are spread across 1948-1972.  I found this a great exploration of German poetry.

Translation from German by Michael Hofman.
Special thanks to Katherine "Casey" LaVela at Princeton University Press for the Review Copy.

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