Between dream and dread, Peter Russell

Under New Stars: Poems of the New Zealand Exile: German and English, Friedrich Voit (ed), Andrew Paul Wood, Margot Ruben, Dean and Renate Koch (trans) 
Karl Wolfskehl 
The Holloway Press, $290.00, 
ISBN 978086461828 

This book will be welcomed by those whom the language barrier has hitherto prevented from appreciating the poetry of our most distinguished German literary refugee. In 1938 Karl Wolfskehl chose New Zealand as his haven from fascism because he wanted to remove himself as far as possible from Europe, and cherished a positive though idealised vision of this country. Already 69 and almost completely blind, he spent his last 10 years in Auckland, dying in 1948.

An excellent introduction by Wolfskehl authority Friedrich Voit of Auckland University outlines Wolfskehl’s life and work. That his later poetry now appears here in an expensive limited edition with photographs is appropriate, for Wolfskehl was an early disciple of the poet and aesthete Stefan George (1868-1933), sharing his lofty conception of poetry and love of formal beauty. From his master Wolfskehl also learned a stylised grandiloquence, and a preference for strict metre and rhyme.

After a period in which Wolfskehl wrote little verse, the advent of Nazism brought an outburst of new poetry, now impelled by a passionate consciousness of his Jewish heritage. Under the stresses of fascism and exile, Wolfskehl emerged from the shadow of Stefan George and found his own distinctive voice as a poet. The poetry created or finished in New Zealand is his best.

As both editor Friedrich Voit and translator Andrew Paul Wood point out, Wolfskehl’s poetry is often difficult. Not only is it erudite and packed with biblical and other allusions, but his German is also idiosyncratic, characterised by invented compounds, archaisms, dialect words and neologisms. Sometimes the rhythmic and tonal qualities of a poem are as vital to it as its literal meaning.

The first cycle in the book, Job or the Four Mirrors, though begun in Europe, was completed in New Zealand. It appears here in a translation by the companion who followed him into exile, Margot Ruben, as revised by Voit and Wood. Inhabiting an interior world of violent spiritual conflict, it could have been written in any country. The following cycle, INRI or the Four Tablets, reflections on why a Jew cannot accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, less anguished and more accessible, has been beautifully translated by Dean and Renate Koch.

Significantly, the first poem in the book in which Wolfskehl appears to respond to an object in his physical surroundings is inspired by an albatross gliding over his ship on the voyage to New Zealand. This poem marks a spiritual unclenching and an increased lightness and ease in his poetry, which is evident in many of the fine poems he subsequently wrote in New Zealand, typified by the best known of them, “Fig-tree”.

The poems inspired in New Zealand are almost all translated, with Voit’s help, by Andrew Paul Wood, who also provides “A Note on Translation”. Wisely opting for free verse rather than versions in metre and rhyme (though Margot Ruben does skilfully render “Fig-tree” in the original’s iambic pentameter), Wood has created consistently excellent, painstaking and imaginative translations. Though he doesn’t mention this, a feature of Wolfskehl’s verse which eases the translator’s task is the poet’s fondness for short statements in end-stopped lines, one statement to a line; the translator thus seldom has to cope with complex suspensions like those of the later Rilke. However, a feature unkind to the translator, also unmentioned, is Wolfskehl’s strong preference for words with Germanic roots, often exploiting alliteration or assonance, which when rendered in English words of Romance language origin lose force, as in the second and fourth lines in this example:

Tröstlich der Stunde zwischen Traum und Grauen
Vor der ich schaudernd Jahr und Jahr gebangt.
Mag tote Nacht hier toten Tag betauen:
Sie kommen mir nicht bei. Bin angelangt.
Comforting the hour between dream and dread
Which I have apprehended trembling years 
                                          upon years.
May dead night bedew a dead day here:
They cannot touch me. I have arrived.


Specific translations constantly provoked my admiration. Only occasionally did I think a translation misrepresented the original:

Alas, if you still breed. 
Better, your brood should be doomed 
Then rise against you and curse …. 


Here the first line is misleading, for the original reads: “Curses on you, that you still breed”. In the third line “Als dass” has been translated “Then” instead of “Than”, which actually reverses the poet’s intended meaning.

The book is very handsomely produced. One forgives minor slips. But, alas, in the editor’s introduction every reference to a poem in the book is to a wrong page. I hope this can be corrected in a future edition. I hope too that the latter may target a larger readership. Andrew Paul Wood burns to bring Wolfskehl’s poems to more than the “handful of New Zealanders” who know them. Will a limited edition of 90 numbered copies at $290 each achieve this?


Peter Russell was Associate Professor in German at Victoria University of Wellington.


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