A late flowering, Peter Russell

Karl Wolfskehl: Three Worlds / Drei Welten: Selected Poems: German and English
Friedrich Voit (ed), Andrew Paul Wood (trans)
Cold Hub Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9780473358679

This book is a triumph: a triumph of the translator’s art, and a triumph in that it provides English-speaking readers, New Zealanders especially, with their first access to a comprehensive selection from the poetry written over a lifetime by one of our most admirable but least known poets, Karl Wolfskehl (1869-1948), the German-Jewish refugee poet who spent the last decade of his life in Auckland and became a naturalised New Zealander. As we shall see, his poetry, too, exemplifies a triumph: his own victory over adversity.

This publication follows one of 2012 by the same editor, Wolfskehl scholar Friedrich Voit, of Wolfskehl’s poems of the New Zealand exile, with translations by four hands, chiefly Andrew Paul Wood (reviewed in NZB Summer 2012). An elegant collectors’ edition of 90 copies, costing $290, it could not meet the ambition of Voit and Wood to bring Wolfskehl closer to New Zealand readers. All the more reason to rejoice in the present publication from Cold Hub Press: an attractive paperback of over 300 pages, at a price of $45.00. As previously, German originals and English translations are on facing pages.

Voit provides an exemplary introduction to Wolfs-kehl’s life and work. The book’s title, Three Worlds, refers to Wolfskehl’s threefold heritage: German, Jewish and Mediterranean (the Romans had settled in his part of Germany, and he had received a classical education). As he put it: “Secretive and proud, worldly-wise, humble in God / Remained I Jewish, Roman, German all at once”. Big in both body and mind, steeped in European history and culture, in his youth a member of the exclusive literary circle around the poet Stefan George, and between the wars a distinguished essayist, editor and translator, he was also a poet of turbulent introspection who pondered in his verse the weightiest existential, cultural and religious themes encountered in his life. These included political developments in his native country which betrayed everything he believed in: the entire heritage of European humanism.

The specific conditions of Wolfskehl’s personality and life resulted in a poetry unlike any written by an English or New Zealand poet. Yet it was in exile in Auckland, where he arrived in 1938 with his companion Margot Ruben, nearing 69, almost blind, and in difficult personal and financial circumstances, that he was to create or finish his best poetry, and that to which New Zealand readers are today most likely to respond.

Wolfskehl’s earliest poems, written under the influence of Stefan George, are probably least likely to appeal to New Zealand readers: exalted in tone, they inhabit a self-conscious realm of dreaming worship and prophecy which never assumes identifiable contours. But by the time of The Sphere (1927), Wolfskehl’s visions are taking more menacing and violent forms, as in “Fimbulwinter”, a series of lurid poems evoking an apocalyptic end to the world. The establishment of the Nazi régime brought a new urgency: rediscovering his Jewish roots, in The Voice Speaks (1934) he creates a impassioned dialogue between God and his Chosen, evoking the history of the Jewish people, God’s convenant with them, and their struggle through centuries of adversity. This volume, the best known in his lifetime, also signals a new fluency and clarity in his verse.

The works which followed, all written or revised in Auckland, include his best poetry. In the sonorous verses of Mare Nostrum or The Five Windows (1939-47) Wolfskehl hymns the Mediterranean as the cradle of European culture, in moods both of glorification and of lament. In Job or The Four Mirrors (1944-7), he focuses on a Biblical figure with whom the sorely afflicted have frequently identified; for Wolfskehl he symbolises the essence of the Jewish faith. Many regard as Wolfskehl’s masterpiece his poem To the Germans (1934-47), his proud and bitter reckoning with the catastrophic turn of events in Germany: the true German spirit, he declares, is wherever he is. Finally come the poems from Banishment (1938-48) and other poems, which record his experience of exile in New Zealand. Understandably, transition was not easy:

I shiver somewhere by the wide ocean.
I appear strange, people seem strange to me.
At the long journey’s resting place the heart is
heavy.

Yet these late poems are an inspiring testament to Wolfskehl’s openness to new friendships and experiences, and his courageous resolve to make the best of his fractured life. Making poetry is central to this. “Auf Erdballs letztem Inselriff / Begreif ich, was ich nie begriff”, begins one of his best-known poems:

On the globe’s last island reef
I grasp what was once beyond belief.
Here I surveying see
Life’s ever mutable sea.
Though happiness has long avoided me,
Pain falls asleep, suffering turns to song.

A word, now, about the translations. Wolfskehl’s idiosyncratic diction, knotty with erudite allusions, archaisms, dialect words and neologisms, is no fun for the translator. Wood’s “Note on Translation” reveals that he is conscious of the problems he faces. He has opted for free verse, rather than versions in metre and rhyme: his aim is not to create new English poems out of the German poems of Wolfskehl, but rather to provide translations which enable one better to appreciate the originals. In this, he was aided by Voit.

Between the Scylla of literalism and the Charybdis of licence, Wood steers a virtuoso course. For although he is fastidiously accurate, he also has a poetic flair. This results in translations which are both painstaking and imaginative, and technically often accomplished. A line in the first poem illustrates this, in which an alliteration in the German is deftly replaced by assonances in the English, “Fern bleibe Dunst und Düster dieser Schwelle” becoming: “Stay hence from this threshold haze and shade”. Translating a more violent imagery in another poem, “Blutsaugergier Wirker und Werk zertrat”, Wood replaces the W-alliteration with a d-alliteration, and introduces the internal rhyme of greed and deed: “Bloodsucking greed stamped out doer and deed”. In his rendering of even bizarre metaphors, Wood is invariably rigorous: even the most extraordinary imagery in the English proves always to be also an accurate rendering of the German, as in these Swinburnian lines:

let the seeds bloom
More ripe with your poison in lecherous lilies
At lascivious vigils magic with incense

which faithfully translate:

liess die saaten reifer
Von deinem gift beblühn in geilen lilien
Zum weihrauchzauber brünstiger vigilien

Only very occasionally would I question Wood’s translations. The “lockige Knaben” to be consecrated to Osiris, for example, I’d prefer not to be “curly boys”, but “curlyheaded boys”. The phrase “Wie mir der frühwind sonst im nacken lag!” I suggest means not “How the early wind would touch my neck!”, but is a poetic rendering of the phrase “den Wind im Rücken haben”, to enjoy a tail wind. When Stefan George declares to him “Nie überrasch uns, Karl, das Ungefähr!”, he is not saying, “The approximate never surprises us, Karl!” but “Never, Karl, let the approximate surprise us!”

But these are tiny blemishes in a work of translation which is as near perfection as one can hope to get. It serves supremely well the work of a poet who himself never lost sight of the possibility of perfection, and whose idealism should all the more inspire readers in a country whose concept of the ideal so rarely goes beyond the physical. I wish the book a multitude of readers.

Peter Russell was formerly an associate professor in German at Victoria University of Wellington.

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