Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Jürgen Becker: An Introduction

by Okla Elliott

Jürgen Becker was born in Köln, Germany, in 1932. He is the author of over thirty books—including drama, fiction, and poetry—all published by Suhrkamp,  Germany’s premier publisher. He has won numerous prizes, including the Heinrich Böll Prize, the Uwe Johnson Prize, the Hermann Lenz Prize, and the Georg Büchner Prize, the highest honor a German-language author can receive.

I first discovered Becker’s work during a year-long study abroad in Germany. I was immediately struck by his ability to track the oddities of consciousness and by the unexpected ways ideas and images ricochet off one another in his poems. I was also taken with his subject matter and the way he renders historically or politically charged content in aesthetically sophisticated and nuanced language. Becker’s work often deals with his childhood experience of the Second World War and the political consequences of the postwar division of Germany. It is perhaps his melding of the personal and the political that makes him a truly great poet.

When I returned to the United States, I continued to read his work, and with ever-increasing interest. Comparative literature scholar and critical theorist Gayatri Spivak has claimed that the most profound way to read a writer’s work is to translate it. In many ways, I agree with this notion, especially in the case of poetry. Once I began translating Becker’s poems, I had to find my way into the shape and feel of his lyric idiom more thoroughly than I previously had in order to recreate it as accurately as possible in English. That comingling of my language and his makes my relationship to Becker’s work unlike any other I have.

The following six translations will appear in Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, out from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015. “In the Wind,” “Correspondent,” “A Provisional Topography,” and “Oderbruch” were originally published in A Public Space, Natural Bridge, Plume, and Indiana Review, respectively. “Autumn Story” and “Poem about Snow in April” appear here for the first time. I hope these translations, along with this brief commentary, spark interest in Becker’s work among poets and scholars, as well as general readers.

***
 
In the Wind
 
Blackbirds, then other voices. It doesn’t stop
when it snows, when with the snow
a newness comes that is
entirely essential this morning. Or how
do you see it? I see the pear tree and how it
(the pear tree) reacts to the wind (to the
wind). This morning, yet again,
the decision fell. War
between magpies and crows, only this war,
no trappings, only this clear understanding.
Yet another voice, the next commentator; it’s all about
(yet again) the whole. Are you standing
in the garden? The you know, tsk tsk, the blackbird
warned above all else, you know, I’ll say it yet
again, in war, in the new snow, in the wind.
 
***
 
Oderbruch
 
The camera’s broken? It’s cold out,
and there are crows bigger than crows
usually are, scattering smoothly over there across the fields.
 
Nothing over there. Twilight. Gold gray twilight
spreads out. A tree in Poland
is over there the lost barren tree.
 
Lighted and empty, the bus drives over the levee.
On the riverbank, two men with their backs
to the dam, which neither begins nor ends.
 
You don’t hear anything. You hear the slippage
of the floe, the circling floe. You hear
for a long time yet, later, in the dark, the drifting ice.
 
The camera’s broken, else why are the pictures
blurry now? Two men stood on the riverbank.
They came back. They could tell the story.
 
***
 
Correspondent
 
He hardly looks into the camera; it almost seems
as if he were having a discussion with himself, a correspondence
with Something on the unseen table, perhaps
with his pen or cigarette.
A light tremble of his hands . . . no one knows; in any case
very nice, nothing specific, just mumbling—
what can you say . . . coldness and glances
toward the street, which is somewhat lighted
with snow; a leftover flag
blown by the wind machine. Something gigantic that slowly
disappears . . . it has already disappeared, yet before
any decree. He reiterates, he can only leave
once nothing else is happening. We’ll miss him.
 
***
 
Autumn Story
 
A sign, or just some scribbling . . . I’ve tried
to give the old, sunken pear tree fortification.
But the support of pencil-marks failed. Now,
for a few days already, a fog reigns, one that finally
has finished the job. There’s nothing more to see here.
That’s how everything has gone this year:
structures, frosts, the flight of owls, wars in September.
 
***
 
 
A Provisional Topography
 
On the Weichsel River, before the war. You see
exactly where we
could have gone farther on the path
above the dam separating the Nothing of river-silver
from those things that formed only shadows
in the changing light.
 
The unmoved architecture of clouds: it is
this moment that over decades has dragged itself
and has adopted the color of newsprint.
 
In the distance, in the dark, two houses.
Although it’s bright as day.
 
Whether souls wander here . . . in any case, distant,
on the dam, two people walking
stand out against the horizon, in the middle
of this past.
 
The rows of trees continue until
they disappear in a line that returns
on the other side of the river.
 
The question, whether such or similar conflicts begin.
 
At night, and not just nights, in the subjunctive.
 
. . . as though the embankment were to come against us.
Then it’s clear that you can’t steer anything in history.
A progression, an altogether private movement stays
undecided between the return home and a further absence.
These years, it’s said, have left traces of bitterness.
 
But the landscape is rather quiet.
Invisible the destruction, if in fact
there is destruction.
 
And the time is passed
which the subsequent, the subsequent time produced.
 
But you never speak of Now.
 
Probably in the summer. At that time of year
we remember. Fence posts follow the paths,
or turned around, all of it belonging
to the landscape . . . who owns it? The landscape
leads into landscapes, from the visible ones
to the unseen ones which await us.
 
A provisional topography.
You can cover it up. You can change
it, but a series emerges, until we achieve
the shore of repetition.
 
***
 
Poem about Snow in April
 
April-snow; quickly; once again
fifteen minutes
of winter and full disappearance
of crocus-regions
                                             and
fifteen minutes, in the future,
says Warhol, is fame. Quickly,
a poem about snow in April,
for mood and snow
are quickly gone
                                and suddenly,
metaphorically speaking,
snow-mastery disappeared
in the region of the crocus,
and the regime of spring rules.
So, a spring-poem.
And quickly. Tomorrow it’s winter, again,
and new mastery,
                                           no,
not tomorrow: in fifteen minutes
with snow, like quick life,
says Warhol, metaphorically speaking,
like snow, disappearing, April.