Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Take the plate from the table
carry it through the chambers.
Don’t be confused by the dust,
the spider webs, the sawdust.
Not by the old
poison, by the bacon,
which smells in the mousetrap.
Kuno Raeber, a Swiss citizen who wrote in German, was a student of philosophy and literature as well as a Ph.D in History. He was also a poet, a novelist and an essayist who took up the issues traditionally claimed by these academic disciplines and used them to produce arresting word-art. The poems in Be Quiet share with other good poems the capacity to penetrate and move readers, but I think they can do even more. Raeber’s poems have the capacity to change readers. That’s a strong assertion but as you read Stuart Friebert’s close translations of Raeber’s work you will find the poems bear me out. Raeber’s intellectual and emotional depth is underscored by an artistic intensity, an eye for pairing detail and issue that marks both the talented artist and the honest scholar. His poems, rich in metaphor and allegory, have an uncanny ability to communicate, or at least to point at, what is just beyond direct description and rational knowledge.
In these poems Raeber not only describes the changing phases of human of life, he embraces them. For him the Hero’s journey is everyman’s journey but he thinks that in order to undertake it we must divest ourselves of many of our comfortable ideas. When writing about religion and war and death, he stops short of grand pronouncements, refusing tp tell you which is the cruelest month. The enemy of both protocol and sentimentality, he’s a thinking poet whose work argues that paradox is sometimes the only vessel for truth.
The book opens with “Down With it All,” in which Raeber assaults our customary surroundings, our known world. “Down with…/the/ spoons the forks the soup-/ pot and the plates down” he says, throwing everything over “the coffer-dam” until we must also get rid of ourselves: “…you and me/ together and down below/ the silence…” where we are confronted by “…the fish/ standing open-eyed, its/ eyes shining in the darkness/ taking us both in.” Gone is any cozy sense of well-being. Like Jonah, we are overboard, under water, and we feel as if everything in our former life is open now to question. We think that even if we are not alone, what is out there “taking us…in” may not be what we expected.
if only a gust of wind
tore the clouds apart
or the lightning cut
the swaths to pieces the lightning
one minute everything
significant shining one moment
everything in fog
I wonder often about translation, about what it really is, what can endure in a good faithful translation. What is due to differences between sentence structure, the average number of syllables in words and the import of each language’s customary capitalizations, not to mention the difficulties cultural references always produce in one who has not grown up in the poet’s culture? These differences, these obstacles you might say, underscore for me how much is saved in this series. Most of Friebert’s translations track both the wording and the line structure in Raeber’s originals. The language he has given us is sure and uncomplicated. In poem after poem we come right up against the issues and questions that surely preoccupied Raeber. It is impossible not to catch both the urgency of Raeber’s inquiries and the profound attitude shifts in this extraordinary poet facing the universe in what is decidedly a one-sided collision. (“The black paper, a wind carries it into a ditch along the sidewalk,/ into the dust…/Who can still/ grab it out of the ditch…/A wind’s/ got hold of it, dirty and torn now/ and carried, taken away.”)
What Raeber needed in a translator, and what he found in Friebert, is an accomplice, an eavesdropper and an articulator who can reflect both the poet’s ease and unease as he wades into deeper waters. Friebert, as both ally and inquisitor, has caught on to the fact that Raeber acts as servant to the timeless and universal. It does not matter if the poem’s setting is a barn, the ocean, or a room where a piano student practices. The grounding for each poem is the reader’s center and the time is always now. Reading the translations we still feel the tenacious hold of crucial questions that haunted Raeber as he focused on both our circumstances and our limitations. The manuscript’s ordering suggests that it is just as we approach answers or the understanding that there are no answers, that life swallows us up (“The last of the ballast thrown/ over and the gorges/ blue./ The dizziness./ The sun hot./ Hotter./ Snow-white.”)
In the void a word
like a white
tomb in the sand
like a bird on a
stone without a legend.
Like Celan or Valentine or Rilke, Raeber could never be described as an “easy read.” This is not because the poems’ imagery is not intense and enthralling (“The parachutists/ roll around in the topsy-turvy winds and/ only turn sober/ on the ground”), nor that the issues the poems are built on are not gripping (“Can’t you wait till/ the grave caves over you,/ why are you knocking, why crying?”). It is because Raeber’s poems never explain themselves. They speak quite plainly really, and don’t worry about being accessible. They ask us to read with our minds in gear so that we may do more than rely on what has been received. For the poem to live fully as we read it, we must in some way contribute. (“A boat without sails a tree/ turned in on itself and motionless on one/ shore. The other way/ on the other side of the water/ invisible.”) Although the world we live in today is not the same as the one that Raeber inhabited, we too find ourselves alive and coming to some kind of consciousness within belief systems that require examination. We too are facing whatever is on the other side and invisible. In a poem titled “Fjord” he writes “Between the narrow/ walls feather flurries. The ship/ in the depths. Feathers/ on the deck and/ drops of blood./ War in the heights.” That’s all. But don’t you find you have to think about that too?
As you read the poems you will find it increasingly easier to enter into the heart of the work. Just as your reading of Celan or Valentine is enriched as you become more familiar with their imagery and obsessions, the reader of Be Quiet begins to get a feel for Raeber’s poetic vocabulary and his deepest concerns. That knowledge becomes a powerful resource and allows the later poems to be read more fully. That’s why I find it remarkable that the ordering of the poems in this book is not Raeber’s but Friebert’s. The arrangement seems inspired and even inevitable, perhaps because Friebert is particularly well-qualified to do this work. Although he is a native speaker of English. he is so at home in German he has published four books of poems in that language. He not only knew Raeber, he communicated with him for years. Friebert’s extensive experience in translation, (see his translations of Gunter Eich, Karl Krolow and others as well as his co-editorship of the Field Translation Series) his immersion in German culture and his close reading of these poems make him an inspired guide. Reading Be Quiet front to back I was reminded of the precision and elegance of a yoga practice in which the beginning postures, while worthwhile on their own, prepare the student for later more difficult postures. Weeds of Forgetting, the final poem in the book, has a special power when read in the light of the previous poems.
Rest on no armchair, it’ll break,
its feathers sticking you in the butt.
Keep going through the rooms, don’t
spill the soup; not till you reach the end,
where the portraits of the dead…
panes covered by dust, there, in the last
chamber, put the plate down in the ashes: eat!
Raeber must have had a lot of confidence in his readers. In Be Quiet he is always asking us to join in, to offer an opinion or tell our own version of the story. It’s as if invoking the archetypal and the everyday, together we can bring something to life. In Miracula Sti. MarciII Cire of a Sick Physician and Rescue of a Ship in the Same Night he asks “Night traveler, where do/ you want to get across to?” That’s a question that could open our reading of many of these poems. We need to read them in light of our journeys. We need to invest in and actively respond to them. In much the same way Anglo-Saxon riddles do, Raeber’s poems often sketch moments that we feel a need to interpret and complete: “Twilight and a breeze/ from the meadows. The path/ a snake alone/ into the unknown and white.” Involving ourselves with Raeber in this project of expanding the poem’s meaning we create the truth-teller’s paradox – that what we have most in common is the solitary nature of many of our deepest experiences and most significant insights.
A number of Raeber’s poems use symbols that are also used by sects of the Christian religion (fish, snakes, potsherd, shepherds, Egypt, David and Goliath). Quite naturally, those familiar with and devoted to those faiths read these poems as if Raeber meant those as Christian references, and perhaps he did, but interestingly, most of the poems work as well, and speak as powerfully, if the references are experienced simply as ancient powerful imagery now grown into a central part of the human story. Raeber was so thoroughly at home in the world of nature and symbols that he accessed not just the symbol as appropriated by dogmas, but the very reasons they became “symbolic” in both religion and literature. Consider “Barefoot bareheaded the world/ left behind the butterfly caught in/ the cave…” There are, of course, religious interpretations of butterflies as transformative and of caves as repositories of texts and even as the tomb of Christ, but Raeber by pairing these images gets at why the butterfly became such a symbol of both miraculous spiritual growth and incredible vulnerability: i.e., why it is capable of carrying a reference to transformation forgotten and imprisoned in a cave. He seems at home in both the world of Christian iconography and the more ancient myths and stories. Thus in the third section of Be Quiet we find poems with titles like “Tree”, ‘Stone,” “Plank” but also poems about St. Sebastian, John the Baptist and the miracles attributed to Saint Mark.
With Raeber some hard thinking is required, some active interpretation is necessary, and that’s fine. But the poems also invite a certain pleasurable passivity, a rolling in the waves of this music with its stern moments and its moments of delight. In this way the poems work on you, changing you the way any sweet good discipline will. They will work on you like this:
Last night the snow started to melt. I’m sitting
here in the gutter, cars
are spraying me. People
are driving home from the theater. And
from the tree a cicada’s flying my way,
which no one else has seen,
down into my open hand and
sings as long as I want.
The theater’s long been closed. I’m sitting
in the gutter and holding
my hand outstretched, it’s not
tiring: my cicada’s
Copyright 2015 Deborah Bogen. Translations copyright 2015 by Stuart Friebert. This essay appeared as the introduction to Be Quiet by Kuno Raeber, a collection of poems translated by Stuart Friebert, introduced by Deborah Bogen, and published by Tiger Bark Press in 2015.
Deborah Bogen has written three books of poetry and two novels. Her most recent book of poems is Let Me Open You a Swan.
Stuart Friebert has written twenty-five books of poems, prose and translations. The winner of numerous awards, he’s held an NEA Fellowship and (with David Young) edited two anthologies. A new book of poems, On the Bottom, is scheduled for publication with Iris Press.