James Reidel is a poet, translator, and biographer. His next book, My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg and other Poems (Black Lawrence Press), will be published in October 2006. In addition to his work on Kees, Bernhard, Werfel, and his ongoing study of Manon Gropius, he has been assisting the poet John Ashbery on reclaiming the fiction of Alvin Levin (1914–1981), whose novel fragments appeared in World War 2-era New Directions anthologies. His most recent book is a translation of Thomas Bernhard's poetry, In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon.
Mark Thwaite: We tend to think of Thomas Bernhard as a novelist rather than as a poet. Are his poems central to an understanding of his writing or are they just interesting ephemera?
James Reidel: Like all of Bernhard’s readers in the English-speaking world, I experienced his novels first, the ones Carol Janeway midwifed and published at Knopf in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, I started reading him on the sly at work: New York City ’s Strand Book Store. His hard covers were being remaindered for a quarter of the price. But he picked up a devotee on the fifth floor of Strand’s building at Broadway and E. 12th. I recall reading Correction [Korrektur]—the novel with the sister and the cone—hidden well away from my supervisors behind boxes of books or in the privy. The different thing about this Bernhard convert picking up on his obsessive cadences, his repetitions, his lines and concatenations despite being contained in one enormous paragraph was that I was a poet studying at Columbia.
All this prose would seem the very opposite of the lyric-kind of poetry that I could write then. But I had this attraction to models outside of my vocation—the thought, in the back of mind, was that I would be less imitative if I read Bernhard over Galway Kinnell. You understand, I hope.
Then I discovered Bernhard was a poet. I found a copy of a New Directions anthology published in the early 1960s, Contemporary German Poetry and there he was in a handful of poem, a lyric poet, a Lyriker. As far as I can tell, this was the only work of his that had been translated into English and it had come after he had eschewed poetry for his first novel, Frost, the title of which had come from a rejected collection of poems that I have still not read.
Yes, his poems have to be seen as where his fiction comes from. But even more so, his drama. The poetry did not really fade from his output but rather evolved into his the plays, the way birds might evolve into dinosaurs. And he did tend to his poems and made them a part of his legacy to the very end.
The essential sadness from which Bernhard writes, that biographical sadness in both his fiction and memoirs, is tested and expressed in those poems. His laments are there about his dead mother, about his dead father. So is his comedy—which does not strike us as comedy in the sense that we have come to enjoy it, as this sanitized thing. Bernhard’s comedy is like the kind that was once experienced by touring madhouses. It is the kind we should feel utterly responsible for. The comedy is played for his readers, on Austria, on the world, on God and, subsequently, so is the joke played on them.
They are only interesting ephemera in the sense that I don’t think the audience came up to the level that the young Bernhard had expected. I see his fiction and theater as him actually having to write down to it. That part of his canon is good training for going back to the poems. Also, people still see an Austrian Catholic prayer in In Hora Mortis rather than a work that is subverting that perception but not in the usual anticlerical or antireligious sense. One editor turned down my manuscript because she was actually put off by the religious tone and content. She thought she was reading real devotional poems. Her reaction was reflexive, too. That kind of reaction, however, can speak volumes for their power and importance.
MT: In Hora Mortis and Under the Iron of the Moon are Bernhard’s second and third books of poetry (collected together in your recently translated volume). What is his first and what is it like?
JR: As you know, Bernhard’s testament stated that his poetry should be considered all one text. He broke his own rules, but I cannot break new ones for him. So, the first book, On the Earth and in Hell (Auf der Erde und in der Hölle), will have to go into an English rendering of The Collected Poems, which I have on my hard drive to wait for another day. These earlier poems are similar to the ones in Under the Iron of the Moon. They are filled with that intimacy and disconnect from the Land. Indeed, my two-in-one book, which I borrowed from a volume of Bernhard’s poetry in Spanish, suggests a kind of bifurcation of the pietistic and rustic that is married in that first book of poems. I have translated those, too, and here are two of them for your readers.
I have seen You as one drowning,
with mouth agape
about the world.
I have seen You,
yet over the bridge is a cloud that does not suffer
that we sell our house and burn our heart
for a day at the fair and look on the way the raven
devours its meat
and the cow tramples in its own filth.
I have seen You,
Your face is the face of Hell.
I have seen You,
Your feet go through my woods and cause torment.
Your voice escapes through my rooms.
I have seen You,
Your blood makes me sick: my hair rots under
under the wonderful earth
reeking of that grass of catastrophic steppes.
I think that is beautiful, and I think you can see the last world war, too, which haunts Bernhard’s poems. These undulant, peristaltic memories and sufferings, because they are exaggerated and monotonous, have this effect of being not only intensely felt but also, paradoxically, worn as though it were all an old comedy routine. This is where Bernhard invites us to laugh. But how do you do that?
I die before the sun and
wind, and before the children who fight over the dog,
on a morning that can’t come to a poem; this morning
is just sad
and green and endless . . . Father and Mother stand on the
I come from the city and bring me nothing
but their rotten springs in great baskets, and they see me —
and they don’t see because
I die before the sun.
One day I will no longer see the flowers, and the grass
will take on my sister’s grief. The doorway
will be draped in black and the sky no longer
out of reach
for my despair . . . One of these days
I will see everything and put out the eyes of many
in the early hours . . .
For then I will be among bunches of jasmine again,
watching the gardener arranging the corpses in their beds . . .
I die before the sun.—
I’m sad because there will always be days that won’t come
anymore . . . anywhere.
MT: Who were Bernhard’s main poetic influences?JR: Trakl, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Eliot, even Whitman turned inside out, and Christine Lavant in a big way, to the point where his work is almost partly a homage to her. In some ways they are indistinguishable.
MT: What is/are the strongest poem/s in the collection?
JR: They are all strong. Some readers, I can think of one very significant reader of poetry, are put off by the sameness and crying jags. She, an editor, could only find one good poem in the whole lot! Many people who think they know Bernhard think he just started off on the wrong track for the first ten years of his career. The poem I think is strongest? The New Yorker wanted to publish “The year is like a year a thousand years ago” as a kind of seasonal piece for this year. But it had appeared piratically before and the magazine promises its readers only the new. I like that poem, too, for personal reasons. I can see my own ancestors in German-speaking lands primordially following the cows, stepping in their shit. My name translates into the object used to whip such animals along.
MT: Do you think Bernhard ever fully resolved his complicated and conflicted attitude towards Austria?
JR: No. It intensified toward the end of his life and reached a kind of crescendo with Heldenplatz and his jealously guarded burial in Grinzing Cemetery. There are still prohibitions set down on his plays being performed there that can only be overridden by his estate. Nevertheless, where his body now lies is a very pretty, typically Austrian setting. I would say he is quite reconciled to the Austria under the Austrians’ feet.
MT: Do you have a particular modus operandi as a poetry translator? Do you try for accuracy first and foremost or for feel (rhythm, metre)? What were the main challenges translating Bernhard’s poems?
JR: I like a mirror-like image, but not to imitate the poem per se but to retain its timing, the drip feed of each line, image, in their proper order. So, in some cases, things I know English poetry lovers fancy above all, a verisimilitude of structure in a translation, may get sacrificed in my translation for the way the poem tells its “story.” I do this with Werfel and I will get called on it in a big way.
MT: What other (neglected) German writers should we be reading?
JR: Franz Werfel’s poetry. Like Bernhard, he wrote fiction as a kind of correction to his being a poet, a correction that his girlfriend and later wife, Alma Mahler, instigated and kept in line. Nevertheless, Werfel continued to write poems after his debut as one of the leading Expressionist poets of his World War I generation. As I mentioned, in his case I have rendered him without his precise music, which cannot be translated without his message sounding trite in English. He is not the O Mensch! poet that irritated Canetti and Karl Kraus. He is quite acute, even disturbing the way I do him, which is really a way of emphatic rendering. Here’s an example, a lyric one:
Each going to sleep
What I did today
Is an utter failure.
A mighty wrestler is taking me to the mat.
It’s happening as I speak,
And I lie here a long time.
But it’s much nicer than besting everyone,
To snuggle in my cradle,
To have no doubt
About day and resurrection.
I sent that to Franz Wright and he was very much taken by it.
MT: You are a celebrated poet in your own right. Tell us something about your own work James.
JR: And a poet whose first book is long overdue because I got carried away by my biography of Weldon Kees, my translations, my writing poems without their subsequent promotion. Black Lawrence Press is publishing My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg and other Poems. It has work from the 1990s to a couple of years ago and there is no resemblance to the Bernhard work or to Kees or to anyone. I compartmentalize, I guess. My work tells a story but it is also shaped more in keeping with how things are imagined and perceived. This may be an impossible task. But it’s not displeasing. I’ve published a few things here, in Verse.
MT: Who are your other favourite poets and writers? And your favourite novel?
JR: I grew up on James Tate and John Berryman. They seem to have influenced me enough to admit it. Weldon Kees, of course. Pavese. Cavafy. I reread certain books almost on schedule. Under the Volcano is one and Lolita and Reflections in a Golden Eye are others. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. I like to talk like his dialogue. Everything by the early Highsmith. I read Werfel’s novels, good or bad, because they are my research and because they have this unwritten book inside them and so subtextually.
MT: What are you working on now?
JR: Well, it is a book that attempts to understand what Werfel is writing about vis-à-vis his stepdaughter Manon Gropius, the natural daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. Like Bernhard, she is buried in Grinzing and so far this long piece, with its heartbreaking photographic record, is probably safer to call a meditation rather than a biography. Manon, or Mutzi as she was called, is a Randfigur, one peripheral to the Alma Mahler story. But I see her microhistory as being quite the more revealing thing from the edge and she does have this place in the center and around her spin significant lives and works. She is the muse of Alban Berg. His Violin Concerto is dedicated to her. But she comes with a very interesting and sad and mysterious story. Much of it comes out in Werfel’s novels that were published after her death on Easter Monday 1935. It is in research now. But I have been at it for a little over a year and much of the book is drafted.
MT: Anything else that you’d like to say?
JR: I wish to tell your audience that there is an embarrassing little mistake in my introduction to In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon. Bernhard did not die in 1988. It’s a tic of mine when I think and write about him. Whatever I had written in that introduction had so captivated a legion of reviewers and editors that none noticed until a friend did. I make this mistake all the time. I can even see myself making it back in early 1989 when he did die. I am one of those people for whom years and time are plastic and runny, the kind who misdates his letters well into a new year!