Three Worlds/Drei Welten, Selected Poems by Karl Wolfskehl, bilingual edition translated and edited by Andrew Paul Wood and Friedrich Voit (Cold Hub Press, 2016), 312 pp., $45
The poetry is presented according to date of publication, chronologically. The book is a collaboration; both authors are credited with authorship. Professor Friedrich Voit is an authority on Wolfskehl. His introduction to the poet provides the historical context to pre- and post-Nova Zelandian works and the pertinent biographical nodes of experience of Wolfskehl (1869–1948): his education, marriage, fatherhood, separation, publication, employment, exile in Switzerland/Italy, and latterly in New Zealand with his companion, Dr Margot Ruben. Voit, who met many friends of the poet and authored the 820-page German-language study Karl Wolfskehl, Leben und Werke im Exil (Wallstein, Göttingen, 2005) is a heavyweight in the field of studies about a poet who came to New Zealand to find (as Voit writes, quoting Wolfskehl) ‘inner peace’ and ‘distance from [the] fear and confusion’ of events in Europe. Voit’s Introduction provides all one needs in terms of biographical detail, timeframe of the works, and their place/s of authorship.
Wolfskehl arrived in New Zealand after having seen various art and literary movements blaze and fade. He had witnessed the end of the German Empire, the 1917–18 revolution, the Weimar Republic, the elimination of civil freedom and the creation after 1933 of the one-party state. Though he did not learn of it until after World War II ended, his brother died in a concentration camp, and this could have been his own fate.
Andrew Paul Wood’s short essay sums up current notions about translation and cites a good number of writers on the subject. Walter Benjamin (himself translated) has suggested that the German word for bread – ‘brot’ (sic) – and the French word ‘pain’ ‘signify something different to a German or a Frenchman, that they are not regarded as interchangeable, and in fact ultimately seek to exclude one another’. Having lived in both countries, I agree with the spirit of this. Wood brings Nova Zelandian ‘bread’ into the (near) equation with care and sensitivity.
However, Benjamin’s illustration might be applied to more than words. It might be applied to literary movements, and where does it leave us when it comes to recondite terms or the mention of historical figures unfamiliar to the New Zealand reader? The same literary movements occurred in different countries simultaneously. The aesthetic ‘movement’, from which Mallarmé is inseparable, l’art pour l’art, was not one movement but many, and the 1890–1920 movements ‘symbolisme’, ‘Symbolismus’ and Russian or Australian Symbolism signify different things in the hands of a Mallarmé, a Stefan George, an Alexander Blok or a Christopher Brennan. George had attended evenings organised by Mallarmé and translated some of his works into German. He had also travelled to Belgium where Maeterlinck and several symbolist poets emerged. The young Stefan George became a standard-bearer for both movements in Germany. Germans often employed the French term, though Stefan George himself preferred ‘Kunst für die Kunst’. We learn from Voit’s lengthy study of Wolfskehl that in 1897 George sent a copy of Blätter für die Kunst to Mallarmé, who praised Wolfskehl’s poems therein, and called him an ‘admirable poète’.(1) Coming from Mallarmé, that is hardly faint praise. All of which makes Wolfskehl’s interest in Christopher Brennan in Australia understandable (this is discussed further below). When Wolfskehl met Stefan George in 1892 it was ‘a life-changing moment’ (Voit, xv). He would come to call George ‘Master’, but he was not alone in that. With Hoffmannstahl and George, Rilke is credited with bringing German poetry out of the 19th century doldrums, and even he referred to George as ‘Meister Stephan [sic] George’,(2) as did Ernst Glöckner (1885–1934) after his first meeting with George in the spring of 1913. George’s exclusively male circle, filled with hope for a new Germany, has been described as an ‘erotisch-religiöse hocharistokratische gnostische Sekte’ (erotico-religious arch-aristocratic gnostic sect).(3) So, although Mallarmé was regarded as an exemplary figure, George kept the influence of French poetry to a minimum, adopting only the outer forms of French Symbolism, such as a penchant for artificiality, disdain for ‘lower’ forms of literature and the use of masks. The circle was dedicated to educating a new generation of elected male disciples, and to ringing in a new epoch of cultural and intellectual vigour in Germany. It combined chosen aspects of French Symbolism and George’s interpretation of l’art pour l’art with Christian mysticism and the spirit of ancient Greece, as well as with Teutonic myths and other esoteric elements. And so, understandably, it came to exert considerable influence on the intellectual spirit of the Weimar Republic.
The salons of Karl and Hanna Wolfskehl in the years before World War I in Schwabing (a centre of increasing artistic and intellectual activity which had become a part of Munich in 1890) did much to spread George’s reputation. Voit underlines the importance of George to Wolfskehl, and the generosity of Wolfskehl to George. Wolfskehl rented a small room for George to stay in at Schwabing, calling it the ‘Kugelzimmer’ after its ball (Kugel)-shaped lamp, referred to in a 1939–47 work:
O welch Verstummen, als im Kugelzimmer
Ver Sacrum aufging
translated by Wood as:
O what sudden silence when in the Master’s room
Ver Sacrum dawned.(4)
(From ‘Fünf Fenstern’/’Five Windows’)
If Wolfskehl’s own hopes for a finer Germany were to be dashed to pieces, he never lost his remembrance of that utopian vision. But when he writes of that collective passion and, with his exile’s lonely passion, of that vision, the reader will need to look further for explication of certain terms. The book is published for the English-speaking or New Zealand reader. A few notes are provided in English, but there are not enough for my liking.
Wolfskehl, as depicted through Wood’s translations, never seems as sure of himself, psychologically, as some of his contemporaries were after the war. He took on the mantle of Jewish poet in exile, but he never let fall that of German poet:
… I, flinching and almost reluctant, but obeying, I the co-adjutor, the co-guardian of the German spirit, feel called upon to represent the living, even the creative symbol of this [Jewish] destiny.(5)
In fact, he often seems to be burdened with his intellectual and genetic destinies, to the extent of self-derision, a quality that might have endeared him to intellectual-suspicious New Zealanders had they looked beyond his imposing figure and habits. It must have been difficult to resent the aspirations of a man who could have written, in 1934,
All meine Weisheit ward Dunst und Spreu.
Ich bin arm, Gott!
All my wisdom was [literally, became] dust and chaff
I am poor, God!
(From ‘Herr, ich will zuruck’/‘Lord I want to return’ (in Die Stimme spricht/The Voice Speaks, 1934))
or one who was able to write so easily from within and from without the German, Christian, Teutonic and Judaic heritage of his genetic, environmental and cultural forebears in southern Europe, a heritage in which he was embroiled, and to which he adhered through thick and thin. Recondite his poetry may be, but he knew his heart and the shapes that his education had formed within him. Many abandoned or misread aspects of that heritage. Some, as in the case of Karl Popper’s parents, had dropped their unpopular religion in favour of Lutheranism. Andrew Wood’s Wolfskehl often seems to be determinedly enacting his roots, as if his voice is the embodiment in breath and friction of the ambitions and struggles of centuries, not only of his Jewish origins, but also of his German ones, misguided, betrayed, and mangled by the rise of fascism:
commanded […] to press ever onward,
Press towards the one and only goal –
Dreadful resting wherever it pleased Him [God],
Strange wandering to the Rhine from the Nile.
Unsern Gott, der uns hiess, fürder und fürder ziehn.
Ziehn nach dem einen einzigen Ziel –
Schauriges Rasten, wos Ihm gefiel,
Seltsames Wandern zum Rhein vom Nil.
(From ‘Wir ziehn’/‘We Move On’ (in Die Stimme spricht/The Voice Speaks, 1934))
But during Wolfskehl’s exile in New Zealand, few New Zealanders or New Zealand writers had read his work or attempted to translate his anguished poems of deracination:
What was, is worthless,
Is death – you wear
The wanderer’s garb:
To leave is pain,
To leave is joy –
Do not stay behind!
Was war, ist Tand,
Ist Tod – ihr seid
Fortgehn ist Leid,
Fortgehn ist Glück –
Bleibt nicht zurück!
(From ‘Set Forth Set Forth, After the meteor shower October 1933’/‘Aufbruch, Aufbruch, Nach dem Sternfall Oktober 1933’ (in Die Stimme spricht/The Voice Speaks, 1934))
Non-Hebraist Wolfskehl read the Old Testament in German (not Hebrew or Greek or Latin). Wood cites his own chief literary influence as being the King James Bible. This protestant Bible is certainly the most poetic of our English Bibles, having been written by commissioned writers and poets. However, it is worth noting that its unique poeticism sets it apart from all other Bibles, and from the language of the most popular Lutheran translation.(6)
His exile poems written in New Zealand lack any kind of nationalist project. They seek universality through strictly personal reliving of figures and landscapes of his continental life. His New Zealand poems have something of Nerval’s El Desdichado, evoking both landscape and myth to release a poetic cry that touches all who can hear it. And like any poet, he wished that the completed works might be read. He had entertained hopes that the ‘Job cycle’ and a newly completed ‘An die Deutschen/To the Germans’ might be published in 1947, but his publisher, presumably for commercial reasons, opted to publish a translation by Olga Marx and Ernst Morwitz of the Die Stimme spricht (1934) with a new title: 1933!(7) The New Zealand works were not published until 1950 (Hiob oder die Vier Spiegeln) and 1960 (Gesammelte Werke) and translations have appeared in collector’s editions. This Cold Hub volume makes available much of his work from all periods, and contains the two significant poem sequences written in New Zealand, ‘Mittelmeer oder Die Fünf Fenster’/‘Mare Nostrum or The Five Windows’, and ‘Hiob oder Die Vier Spiegel’/‘Job or The Four Mirrors’.
Wolfskehl was granted residency in 1938 and became a New Zealander in 1946. His New Zealand poems take on a different allure after being conveyed into New Zealand English. One cannot resist thinking of two towering figures in English literature, Blake and Milton. Wolfskehl’s ‘Job’ may easily be read as himself or representative of those who had suffered unjustly year after year. His anguished voice in the ‘jungle’(8) has full possession of the fertile recesses of his imagination and recollections.
We begin to get a sense of the influence of Karl Wolfskehl upon those he met, above all upon NZ writers fighting to change public perception of their craft from that of a leisure pursuit to that of a profession and a necessity for a critical and developed society. Wolfskehl was born the year the title of New Zealand’s local political leader was changed from Colonial Secretary to Premier, and in the space of his life New Zealand politics and literature had only just begun to come of age. Wolfskehl had not needed to undergo any coming of age. He had taken part in a literary milieu and a specific circle. He had chosen the literary path, and when necessary there were employment opportunities in the field, whether in journalism, translation or editing. He did not doubt his credentials, and saw no reason to defend them. Literary movements on his continent were taken so seriously that they were under the scrutiny of secret services. Literature was a force in Europe, especially in Germany, and Stefan George’s circle contained men with a fiercely burning vision for their country. Often of aristocratic birth, and of an erotico-mystical bent and Hellenist in learning (both rare, or rarely paraded in New Zealand literature at the time), two of them would attempt to assassinate Hitler. Wolfskehl addresses them in one of the last poems in this volume as the Greek homosexual tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton.
A man who felt Germany had betrayed its ideals, the hetero- (as far as we know) and (from his own poems) highly sexual Wolfskehl must have been an extraordinary presence among the Auckland intellectuals with whom he socialised. He became the ambassador of European literary movements that had manifested themselves in different countries and developed in different ways. He was a living example from a continent of intimate networks and intense ideas, of which members of the then tiny New Zealand literary ‘family’ had little experience. We hear of Wolfskehl towering among Sargeson’s tomatoes, and of his huge footprint. It is hard to believe that Wolfskehl was an intrusive person himself, but he represented so much that Sargeson was to write, ‘There were times with Karl Wolfskehl when I could feel myself overpowered, weighted down by so much civilisation.’(9)
Voit’s Introduction tells us that Wolfskehl took the time to translate a work by Australian poet Christopher Brennan when in Australia en route to NZ. Translation can be a means of coming to know the sense of a poem in a language one is learning, but Wolfskehl had another reason. Brennan (1870–1932) had won a scholarship to Berlin in his youth, married a German, determined he would be a poet, and discovered French Symbolism, which led to a brief correspondence with Mallarmé. Wolfskehl and Brennan might have had much in common had they met: both men admired Mallarmé, married ‘foreign’ women and conversed every day of their married lives in a language that was ‘foreign’ to one of the partners.
In 1941 Wolfskehl travelled to Dunedin and Christchurch, meeting Denis Glover, Leo Benseman and many immigrant German speakers along the way. His relationship with Sargeson was perhaps the closest he had with a New Zealand literary gentleman, and Sargeson often read to the increasingly blind Wolfskehl. Particularly between 1942 and 1944, Wolfskehl took an interest in the poetic endeavours of Auckland writers like A.R.D. Fairburn ‘who dedicated his volume Poems 1929–1941 (1943) to his refugee friend’ (Voit, xxviii). Wolfskehl and Ruben were good friends of R.A.K. Mason and family.
Wolfskehl was granted residency in 1938 and became a NZ citizen in 1946. He and Margot Ruben spent years of peace on these islands to the east of the land of Brennan, and this is a superb compendium of his work. There will always be moments of confusion on the part of a reader (like me) who is less erudite and who has spent less time slaving over proofs than the authors. A reader like myself might wonder why the title of ‘Mittelmeer’ is translated into ‘English’ as Mare Nostrum. The New Zealander or any reader cannot know this was Wolkfskehl’s working title for an earlier version of the cycle, and that it was the ancient Roman and Italian nationalist name for the Mediterranean.
I come at the text as you, the potential reader, might do. Owning a little German, I begin with the German original, grappling with it, as Wolfskehl himself must have grappled with the English of Brennan, swinging over to the English when I am exhausted by that labour. Peter Russell (New Zealand Books, December 2012) describes Wolfskehl’s language as ‘idiosyncratic, characterised by invented compounds, archaisms, dialect words and neologisms’. I would only add that it is rich with literary references, passionate, and does not appear to me to be gratuitously ornate. Its Old Testament references were literary and personal, if easily adopted for political purposes. Humour is not lacking, but, like the bread mentioned above, German humour is not at all like French humour or Russian or Australian humour. Wood captures it here:
Jeder Schneck beschleimt
Was behütet keimt.
Every snail covers with slime
Sprouts cared for at the time.
(From Satyrspiel/Satyr Play (NZ years, unfinished, 1948))
His humour often undergoes a pessimistic turn like this, and self-irony or understatement seems to be used with the intention of diminishing his own self-importance. One feels he was a man who knew how to love. If he is most earnest in poems (discussed below) that appear out of the mythological, religious and historical potency of his background and his upbringing, he is at his most sincere in the love poems, such as Flöten im Sturm, Fünf Liebeslieder für Margot/Flutes in the Storm (written 1938–48). His love for Margot Ruben plays the music of a flute for her. In some stanzas he puts his love simply:
Bist du meines Herzens Schlag
You are the beating of my heart.
Elsewhere in this sequence he gives it beautifully complex form, referring to an unidentified story or artwork set on the fifteenth-century frontier between Europe and Asia. It must be some work with which both Karl and Ruben were familiar – a noblewoman wearing a robe of Byzantine-era muslin, Pisanello’s Liberation of the Princess of Trebizond, in Verona, perhaps (though I have never seen it – to know its effects).
Like that empress of Trebizond
You should shimmer wholly dressed in muslin,
Breeze-light wrapped as if by the pleading moon
In fabric borrowed out of Faërie.
Gleich jener Kaiserin von Trebisonde
Müsstest du schimmern ganz in Musselin,
Hauchleicht umflossen wie vom flehenden Monde
Von dem Gewirk aus Feenland entliehn.
Wolfskehl’s lover is wrapped by the moon in shimmering muslin, while he becomes ‘Selenos’, a tender, if primitive figure. Is this ‘Selenos’ a masculinisation of the moon goddess Selene? Or is the poet referring to Silenus, tutor of Dionysus and notorious drinker of wine? If the latter, the spelling differs from the more usual (in German) ‘Silen’ (spelled by the poet this way in ‘Mare Nostrum’/’Mittelmeer’, and translated there as Silenus), so perhaps his ‘Selenos’ (translated here with identical spelling) is an intimate term of affection used only between the lovers, or a representation in art of Silenus known only to the couple. Without annotation, my own and the reader’s imaginations are free to range, in my case from an early, hairy Silenus, to Peter Paul Rubens’ largely depilated Der trunkene Silen/Drunken Silenus in the Munich Pinakothek, to the comic figure of a Roman Satyr play:
Möcht ich, ein taubenblütiger Rubin,
Von Hügel der Erwartung niedertauen
Bis du dem Mond entbietest abzuziehn,
Bis er, Selenos, leibhaft vor dir stünde
Der daunenzarte, eins mit dem Rubin,
Den senkt er tief in deine wehenden Gründe
Du selbst gewandelte, du Musselin.
Rendered by the translator as:
How I wish, a pigeon-blooded ruby,
To fall as dew from the hill of expectation
Till you tell the moon to move away,
Till he, Selenos, the down-tender, bodily
Were to stand before you, one with the ruby,
Sinking it deep in your drifting depths
You self-transformed, you, muslin.
(The above four quotes are from Flöten im Sturm, Fünf Liebeslieder für Margot/Flutes in the Storm, Five Love Songs for Margot, 1938–48)
The love poems, sensual and hardly self-flattering, complement the heavier matter of Wolfskehl’s painful journey from the land of his birth, education and literary circles, through an Italy of rising Fascism, to an Australia that denied him nationality, and on to New Zealand on a return ticket he never redeemed. Then there is the sub-textual journey of varying uncertainty about the fate of his family, and years without publication in a British-colonial literary community with quite different preoccupations.
Das Wort hat seine Qual gehabt,
Die allerbangste Qual gehabt,
Mit aller Wesen Ach
War immerdar das Wort begabt,
Bis es vor Ach zerbrach.
The word has had its agony,
Has had most fearful agony,
With the grief of every being
The word was always burdened,
Until from grief it broke apart.
(From Des Menschen Wort vergeht/Man’s Word Passes Away in Präludium/Prelude [n.d.])
But the journey is also that of any man growing older. Wolfskehl’s eyesight and overall health was deteriorating during his last ten years in New Zealand. Medico Magistrali, written ‘For Dr. W[alter] G[riesebach], Dunedin, New Zealand’ is a directly personal and appealing poem among the New Zealand compositions. The poet has freed himself of Greek and Hebraic mythoi, for the Latin of diagnosis. He again makes himself the object of the satire, ending with a delightful paean to life. The tone of light-hearted self-abjection ends as his little bird’s heart refuses to hang ‘in the Nothingness’ (‘Denn es [his heart/the bird] ist keines, das im Nihil hangt’) (‘Der Windsbraut/Das Vöglein’):
Still I tower with rising sap when the naked wind demon
Grabs old trunk and gnarly spirit in a wild round dance,
And invisible my little bird, while she [the wind-demon/tempest] rants,
Victoriously drowns out the giantess’s song:
His [the bird’s] heart pounds strongly, whether in joy or trembling,
For it is not one that hangs in the Nothingness.
Rage doch treibenden Safts, wenn Windsbraut nackt
Altstamm und Knorrgeist wild im Runde packt,
Und unsichtbar mein Vöglein, weil sie wettert,
Das Lied der Riesin siegreich überschmettert:
Sein Herz pocht machtvoll, ob es jauchzt, ob bangt,
Denn es ist keines, das im Nihil hangt.
The translator indicates the little bird (Vöglein, neuter, in German) as masculine, aligning it with the poet as if to remove any ambiguity. Its appearance intensifies the poem, and takes us from the light humour of one bemoaning our physical lot, to the tempest of world events. Wolfskehl’s little bird, now on the other side of the Roman–German world, cannot lie still, and, with its song, overcomes monstrous forces.
The seed of an earlier poem, ‘Shekinah’, refers to a manifestation of Divine presence, usually by light. The word Shekinah is found in both Hebrew and Christian theology (Oxford English Dictionary, 1971). Judaic Shekinah means God’s dwelling or settling in a place, while in Christian texts it refers to that of Christ. ‘Shekinah’ is one of the beautiful poems of Die Stimme spricht (1934).
A tiny seed is buried
Somewhere in the world.
Whoever awaits that seed
Is someone who does well.
The seed has more grace
Than gold and precious stone,
From God’s richest store
It fell into a heart.
Well protected there it lay
Though all around it screamed and raged.
Both the seed and Wolfskehl’s little bird are surrounded by maelstrom. In the earlier poem, the seed lies passively throughout the centuries. In the later one a song silences the giantess.
‘Mittelmeer’ is a major sequence written in New Zealand. It attempts a historical sweep, trying to situate Ancient Greek and early Christian values in a Jewish community and German or Roman empirical scheme. The five windows are subtitled in the Latin of Pope Gregory:
Der Grösste Gregor ältesten Romgeschlechtes
Legt auf der Welt Heilsbann des Kirchenrechtes.
Gregory the Great of oldest Roman lineage
Laid on the world salvation’s edict of canon law.
But there is no note telling us about Gregory. It is up to the reader to discover that he was a reformer and a prolific writer, and that his papacy was marked by his attitude to the Jews, refusing to allow the appropriation of synagogues, on one occasion returning a synagogue to a Sardinian community after it was seized by a Jewish convert to Christianity. Drei Welten/Three Worlds is annotated in English when it comes to the history and places of the Tyrol, but I had to do my own research to discover more about Wolfskehl’s medieval Roman women. He assembles three Roman or Italian women. I came across a mention of a Rusticiana in a work by Pascal Quignard, who has brought figures such as Apronenia Avitia (born 343, related to another Rusticiana) out of obscurity, casting fresh light upon history and upon our own implicated selves. It may help to contrast Quignard’s narrative and psychoanalytical use of Roman women with Wolfskehl’s epic aims. Wolfskehl is content for his matrons to remain in (the semi-obscurity of) symbolic form, like statues one may not approach. They are his representative mothers of the Mediterranean, if not of southern European culture. Wolfskehl regrets the humiliation of Rusticiana (the wife of Boethius, humiliated by the fall of Rome) and the undoing of Cornelia’s work (mother of the Gracchi who went to great pains to oversee their education along Greek and strict aristocratic lines) by subsequent events, while the Corsican Letizia (mother of Napoleon) sounds a cautionary, subjunctive maternal voice (‘Pourrvou que ça dourr’, translated by Wood as ‘Let’s hope that it lasts’).
It did not last. As Wolfskehl puts it in ‘Mittelmeer’, if the first Caesar was genuine (presumably meaning, a man of culture and vision), the last (Hitler) is but ‘his shadow’. Rusticiana, Cornelia and Letizia make a formidable trio, and are in turn represented by the figure of the luckless Theban queen Niobe, whose six sons were murdered by Apollo, and whose daughters were murdered by Artemis, the vengeance of Leto for her boasting. Could there be, in this, a veiled criticism of the Apollonian aspirations of Stefan George to overtake the intellectual disposition of a Dionysian Nietsche? Might these specific historical references not be seen as a further maturing away from diffuse Symbolist and l’art pour l’art philosophies? He must have been aware that even Baudelaire once characterised the latter movement as ‘puerile’ (though Baudelaire’s art criticism sometimes contradicts itself). Wolfskehl refers to Evios/Dionysus in ‘Mittelmeer’ as one of the founding forces of Mediterranean culture, which the enlightened efforts of the three Italian mothers could not save from enfeeblement. The Mediterranean ‘ is ‘mud’ and ‘blood’:
Broken the Cross, in bits the Book of Books,
The earth burst, the oak tree dribbled pus.
Geknickt das Kreuz, zerstückt der Bücher Buch,
Die Erde barst, von Eiter troff die Eiche.
It is a complicated poem, moving about in time, shifting focus among and within its distinct ‘tabellae’ from personal to public, from esoteric knowledge to popular historical, and from his secretive, intimate and passionate work with Stefan George to a depressive endurance in a place where the laurel was not granted to poets, their voice was hardly appreciated, and one did well to remain ‘modest!’ [B]escheiden! ohne/ Dich Krausen. Ungebärdigen geht es auch’/’Wrinkled, unruly, you’d hardly be missed’ (from his famous poem ‘Feigenbaum’/’Fig Tree’).
The other major work of his New Zealand period subordinates several ‘greater’ personages to that of Job. ‘Hiob oder Die Vier Spiegel’/‘Job or The Four Mirrors’ not only upsets the hierarchy of biblical figures, it removes the apocalypse and man’s salvation from time. This poem makes use of the voices and genres of prayer, chant, and cries of the religious or exiled heart. In the same way as there are multiple issues in ‘Mittelmeer’ regarding annotation, and in the same way as the latter is and is not a Mediterranean work, ‘Hiob …’ is and is not a religious work. Trusting in the translation, it announces a new-found wisdom, the summation of the poet’s experience as a German of received Christian narratives, a European, a Jew, a poet, a former member of an astounding artistic and literary elite and, finally, as an isolated exile. Past and future blend into an enduring absence personified. All of history is encapsulated in the present word. Job is here. The Messiah is here. There is no waiting for him. The Messiah is Job. Him, you, us. The kernel of what is conveyed in the concluding stanzas of ‘Hiob oder Die Vier Spiegel’/‘Job or The Four Mirrors’ – which represent Job’s final statement – lies in opposition to (or is contained within) the husk of Wolfskehl’s and his literary personages’ suffering. I quote it at length:
Yes he is here, don’t ask from where.
Is already here, here as all, all along.
Is already here, is the water in the snow,
Is the germ in the nut, is the honey in the clover,
Is everyday dirt, swept by the broom,
The worm in the vinegar, who twists like an eel.
Look, listen, persevere, all you people,
Grow up, grasp what all of this means:
It would never be if not here, if not now:
Where would it be if not here?
When would it be if not now?
Where if not here, when if not now?
And suddenly now is The Now, suddenly Now is Here.
Suddenly you are brightness, ornament, The We.
What happened IN THE BEGINNING happens again.
There then You, You then there.
Yes – now You He. Yes – now He You.
He the Other, the Every, the Ever-Neverlasting-Now.
Stay – He You. Vanish – He You.
Presence, altar, You You You.
WHO – HE – YOU.
If it were a religious treatise, I suspect it would verge on the heretical. It is a poem.
Plenty has been written about An die Deutschen, completed by Wolfskehl in New Zealand. The updated translation is followed by helpful endnotes. Wood’s translation captures the warmth, sincerity and pride in his German heritage of the first section, and the far from deferential bitterness of the Coda/Der Abgesang.
It would be interesting to see Wood’s eventual translation of the sequence ‘INRI oder Die Vier Tafeln’ (‘INRI or The Four Tablets’), mentioned in Voit’s Introduction as having been ‘begun in 1933, originally entitled “Triptychon Christianum”, a profound contemplation of the Messianic figure of Christ’. This work from his Italian/Swiss period of exile was also completed in Auckland in 1944–45. But literary ventures here are like miracles; when the cake is served, it is discourteous to complain that there is no cherry on top.
It is truly marvellous to have selections from all Wolfskehl’s works, and particularly those written or completed in New Zealand. This is an essential and long-awaited volume, admirably prepared, with updated translations of ‘Hiob oder Die Vier Spiegel’/‘Job or the Four Mirrors’ and poems from Bann/Banishment (previously published in limited edition by Holloway Press), not forgetting An die Deutschen/To the Germans (previously published by Cold Hub Press in 2013). The poem ‘Mittelmeer oder Die Fünf Fenster’/‘Mare Nostrum or The Five Windows’ with its translation is published here for the first time.
To conclude, Cold Hub has come up with an attractive, appealing and serious edition. This is a deeply researched selection of poems for the English-speaking reader. Its success defies current limitations of funding, time and resources, the early days of translation as a respected discipline in New Zealand, and the rarity of anything resembling Complete Works here. The translations carry out the translator’s aims. They are apt, clear and faithful where possible to the originals, allowing for a few switches of case or tense for readability’s sake. Voit offers a much needed overview of Wolfskehl’s life and work. Three Worlds/Drei Welten is a second homecoming from Wolfskehl’s adoptive land. One cannot ask for better than that.
WILLIAM DIREEN is an Otago-based poet, novelist, dramatist, translator and musician who has spent considerable periods of time in both Germany and France. His most recent book is the experimental novel Enclosures 2, a collection of fiction, poetry, diary, utopia and zootopia. His personal website is http://william.direen.free.fr
1. Mallarmé’s favourable description of Wolfskehl is found in Friedrich Voit, Karl Wolfskehl, Leben und Werk im Exil, 31, n.56.
2. Jess Rieckmann, A Companion to the Works of Stefan George. Rilke cited by Rieckmann is quoted from Stefan George, Leben und Werk: Eine Zeittafel (Amsterdam: Castrum Peregrini Press, 1972), 74.
4. Ver Sacrum was the magazine of the Vienna Secessionists.
5. Letter to ‘Kurt’, 13 September 1946. Quoted and translated by Carol North Valhope: www.holocaustcentre.org.nz/remember/holocaust-survivors/karl-wolfskehl
6. Thanks to Arno Loeffler, Sarah Egger and Professor J.A. Loader for informing me that the Lutheran Bible was the standard in philosophical–literary departments, and that someone like Karl Wolfskehl, steeped in literature, might well have read other translations, such as the Mendelssohn translation of the Tanach. It is Professor Loader’s opinion that Wolfskehl would have read the ‘Pentateuchübersetzung’ (1867) of Samson Hirsch, and would probably have known the Zunz translation of 1837.
7. 1933, New York: Schocken Books (1947). Die Stimme spricht was first published in 1934; a second edition was published in 1936; a Hebraic translation appeared in 1942. The German–English version of 1947 with such a title must have made commercial sense.
8. NICHT DIE Wunderblume des verklungnen
Letzten Lenzes, der nie Frucht gebar,
Neu zu finden, trug ich zum verschlungnen
Dickicht müdes Herz und greises Haar.
NOT TO find anew the magic flower of the faded
Last spring which never did bear fruit
Did I carry weary heart
And grey hair to the jungle-like thicket.
(‘Hinfahrt’/’Outward Bound’, from Bann/Banishment (1938–48) and other poems written during the years of exile in Italy (1933–38) and New Zealand (1939–47) (pp. 257–58 of Three Worlds))
9. From Sargeson, More Than Enough, in Andrew Wood, ‘Karl Wolfskehl: Two poems’: ka mate ka ora, 11, March 2012, www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/kmko/11/ka_mate11_wood.asp
Leave a Reply