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Where war's ghosts reside

Ashes for Breakfast Selected Poems Durs Grunbein, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 298 pp., $27

October 09, 2005|Benjamin Lytal | Benjamin Lytal writes a column on fiction for the New York Sun.

WE lack an anthology of poetry about the brain. Even John Keats, who inveighed against "cold philosophy," promised to build the goddess of the soul a temple, not in his heart but in "some untrodden region of my mind, / Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain, / Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind." After all, the brain is perhaps more spacious than the heart.

It is also more worldly. If the heart points to the heavens, the brain moves laterally, along the ground. "The brain, in its lucid moments of bitterness, / Sniffs something that cries out for destruction," writes Durs Grunbein. The brain "sniffs" -- it, not the heart, is closest to the animal in us.

Grunbein, an East German poet, has reason to look within his own mind for trouble. "Ashes for Breakfast" is a major translation, exceptional for a poet in midcareer -- a translation motivated, probably, by interest in Grunbein's striking attitude toward evolving German guilt over World War II. Born in 1962, he cannot consider that past a memory so much as a part of his mental landscape, a painful sensation to be registered along with all the day's detritus. That past, after all, can be pervasive:

As to whether they still make soap

Out of bones, the foam drying

On the lines of your palms takes the fifth.

That "foam" is cutely scientific -- associated with the postwar consumer -- and foam of course cannot be asked to read one's palm, let alone account for war crimes. Grunbein doesn't want to exorcise his shower; he accepts these ghosts as part of his world. He is simply representing a moment. If the brain entwines phantom memory and everyday corporeality, so will the poem.

Meanwhile, the guilt-wracked art of the '60s and '70s is implausible for him: the "patient / elegies" and "those skewed / mo- / biles of phone wire / and old fencing / sad sad," that, like the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, were once controversial but now seem pious. Grunbein resists the artistic standpoint in which "you're nothing but a / wiry little extra / most of the time / pushed back and forth / in the frames of / a grotty suburban flick / 4 decades / after the war." That jotted Roman numeral 4, so casually at hand, belies the sickening ease with which World War II looms, like the low gray skies that are ubiquitous in these poems.

Not happy in the thick atmosphere of "sad sad" poetics ("I'm fed up / with being so grief-stricken," he writes in an early and rare first-person confession), Grunbein has cultivated a scientific angle. Much of his nonfiction concerns science's relation to the humanities, specifically regarding perception. He wants to make the poem a transcript of a perceptual instant. He returns over and over to moments of fecund mental carelessness: a walk in a dull part of Berlin, or ablutions or shaving: " ... each time you shave / The haggling begins again...."

Grunbein favors the second person perhaps because he intends his looking inward to be diagnostic and impersonal. He addresses not just his mind but the mind as it generally functions:

Embarrassing -- the way even the earliest

photographs

Of you show the same trusting smile

At the lens, which bunches your beams

Into a nostalgia, opened

For milliseconds, the body seduced

By the promise of the return

Of everything familiar. And later

Time is palpably passing,

A vanishing, shocking, on celluloid.

Just as your smile seems to dissolve

As you look at it years later. Chary

Of the unknown, fixed on something

Long ago and far away, your gaze rejects you.

This beautiful poem, in which self-reflection occurs after a lifetime-long delay, addresses any person of the 20th century but most especially any person who has reason to distrust nostalgia and remember catastrophe. It demonstrates the rueful condescension with which Grunbein approaches his universal second person, which of course includes himself.

But, Grunbein knows, there is something evil at the bottom of the brain. His brain-stem poetics are most concentrated in the long sequence "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog," in which the overdetermined fate of being German is sinisterly conflated with the life of a dog:

Where Pavlov stands for the residue of spirit

(instinct mobilized, a zigzag compass)

Dialectics is nothing but ... dumb loyalty;

An ear for the feeling in his master's voice.

The old dialectical habit of German philosophy, Marxism included, is ruthlessly collapsed into gullibility and the pyrrhic assiduousness of reckless politics. Feeling and spirit become mechanisms of Pavlovian reflex.

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