To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sebastian Reichmann: Three Poems with a Postface by Jerome Rothenberg

Translation from French by James Brook

Sweeper at His Door

We must have the same attitude toward words
as that of a fly-hunter
using as the absolute weapon
all the other words
already trapped by the sticky paper
or buzzing for a little while longer
above the most commonly hidden

We must attend to what the glue catches
and see that the flies fall
above the hand that writes
beneath the skin of the bear
happy for just a little longer
in its sold-off forest
brought right here as an offering

We must untiringly return
to the head of stone prepared just for this
as a prelude to the whole body
hidden sprawled across the path—
tired warrior or exhausted tempter—
before the ultimate apparition
this black woman
sweeping in front of her door

We must attend to what the jungle conserves
its temples buried up to the neck
immersed since the first day
beneath the strata of ash
of the wives burnt alive
temples returned to the groundwater
guardians of darkness—
sheltered from the hazards
of helping hands
and feats of strength—bright spots

We must without delay recognize
in the head of the temple
taken out of the water
the signal for the opening of a new season
of manhunting
recognize the hooks of blood
that hold together the clothes of the officiating priest
in the water that separates head and body
we must wash away the forgotten blood
of crimes committed in our name
during our repeated absences
we must no longer forget
the blood spilled by others
—in my name—
thus speaks the head of the temple
brought out of the water
to give the signal for the opening

The Unclassifiables

In the street those who saw the flames
engulf the triple body of the prison
didn’t believe it

After licking the curves of the stone
the tongue of fire lashed out
toward the heights

No revolution came to warn us
of the approaching end of fear
of the instantaneous spreading of the fire
in the narrow hallway
where the well-informed trainers had
killed in advance their favorite wildcats
and waited now for the fire
to procure them a supplementary ration
of unhappiness

The traps thus destroyed like
drawers emptied into the mass
grave where victims and executioners
came to meet

The feet of the colossus that was consumed by the flames
were the last to disappear
their decision to endure was weak
the fire in the shape of the worm Ouroboros
had also aspired too avidly to the heights

In the street those who weren’t blind
didn’t believe what they saw
the painting already tarnished before being framed

In the street there was nothing but mirrors
and eyes turned up
no trace of the fire that had invited us

Mother Country

this took place in 1948
a year when the young czechoslovakian writers not yet
brought into step
believed firmly in the triangle country-mother-poetry
there was only the voice on the radio to reassure them
and the loved ones in a hurry to make them abandon
right away the cheap apartment of the gate-crasher
and the well-chosen word-play to render forgotten
the intoxicating scarf glimpsed on a street in Edinburgh
where people took their own wine to a restaurant
just as they did in the real war

some could not forget
neither the offering-poems on the benches of the suburban trains
or the metro Sunday mornings at the same station
where they got off year after year
of finicky work
nor the eternal pullover whose grayness
was the proof in this world that poetry knew how to transgress
the choppiness of the seasons passed in inhospitality
nor the wind in the streets of London or Toronto
nor the suffocation in the woods of Chapultepec

1948—a year when the Congress of Young Writers
in Prague had not yet been
brought into step but had
energetically condemned Ivan Blatny’s
nonreturn from London
the nonreturn of the beloved poet to his public
before he knew which relatives to turn to
Nezval or his father according to confirmed rumors
but who could his mother be
among all those immobile people mouths of fire
of unsuspected bunkers

I salute you Ivan Blatny!
and I admire your courage!
throughout your life against the phantoms
of the old country
where the mothers always cry too late
for the wars that they incite

by Jerome Rothenberg

If there is a Romanian diaspora - & there is – then Sebastian Reichmann is among its notable poets &, like others before him, ready to be a player on a worldwide stage. The predecessors of course are awesome: Tristan Tzara in the days of Dada, Paul Celan & Gherasim Luca, Eugene Ionesco, Isidore Isou, Mircea Eliade, even (nearer home) our bon ami Andrei Codrescu. All of them began in Romania & all, moving out from there, changed languages but kept the native accent in how they spoke the words they wrote. That much is the mark par excellence of the “nomadic poet” for whom – Pierre Joris has told us – “there is not at-home-ness…but only an ever more displaced drifting…’ on the way’ [unterwegs] as Celan puts it.” Or still more tellingly : “The NOET [nomadic poet] learns & then writes in foreign languages (real or made-up ones) in order to come to the realization that all languages are foreign.”

For Reichmann the path to other-ness began in post-World War II Bucharest and took him from there to later residence in Paris. Israel was another stop along the way, as was – for periods up to a year & more – America. As with others of his time, his moves were conditioned by the loss of possibilities in the native place & language and by the desire, then sensed, to work without constraints, at the furthest limits of his powers. The exile to France was also to a place of exile in the “other” language. Thus the tension was played out in the very body of the poem – not as theme so much as skin or substance.

This is quintessential twentieth century – a time of renewed wanderings but also, as he words it, “the season of authorized murder.” As a matter of biography – cultural, political – the thread runs from war & holocaust (before his birth) to cold war & repression (in his growing years) to the later time of crossing borders – “a departure,” he writes, “from the compulsory Paradise in search of the problematics of hell.” It is a search too – & again he is aware of it – for a “post-totalitarian synthesis,” where history & personal history come together. While rarely overt, as another kind of (message) poetry might be, it permeates the work to become what he describes as his “particular weaving of elements of memory, history and myth.” That “weaving ,” if its terms sound familiar here in U.S.A., is not at all in Pound’s or Olson’s mode, for the deeper histories – the ancient matters – lie just outside or well below the surface of these poems, so that everything here exists in the immediate present – or just before.

For the rest, it is enough to read the poems – in James Brook’s cool & sure translations - & to keep a sense throughout of all their underlying tensions, both those which can be translated and those locked into Reichmann’s adopted & nomadic language. The synthesis – of a language-centered surreality with the awareness of a man in motion through real worlds, real times – is both precise & striking. And it is this synthesis which prepares him for what the new century – like the old one – so much needs: the ability to see what is there in front of us but also what lies hidden where appearances no longer are sufficient in themselves.

[More poems by Sebastian Reichmann can be found in translation on the Duration Press web site:, for which this postface was originally written. Some of his work will also appear in the next issue of Poetry International.]

No comments: