Thursday, July 19, 2012
Two new translations of the poetry of Robert Walser have been published this year. Christopher Middleton's slim volume for New Directions is a beautiful thing, but highly selective (it eschews all of Walser's early lyrics). The Black Lawrence Press have issued Oppressive Light, a fuller collection of translations by Daniele Pantano starting with 'In the Office' from 1897/8 ('The moon peers in on us. / He sees me as a miserable clerk / languishing under the strict gaze / of my boss...'), and ending with 'Contemplation' (1930), written in the Waldau asylum ('...Life lay by the riverside like a boat / no longer able to sway, to drift.') Carolyn Forché's introduction to Oppressive Light can be read at Ready Steady Book: 'one enters his language to be enveloped in gentle agonies, dark praise, rays of bright pleasure and the tumult of recognitions regarding selfhood and the fog of self, an ich ohne ich.' More straightforwardly, Hans Bethge, writing in 1920, found 'lovely, inward-looking, and frequently quite ironic poems that are dreamy and spellbinding'. He was describing early verse like the title poem, 'Oppresive Light', first published in 1904 while Walser was still living in Switzerland: 'How small life is here / and how big nothingness. / The sky, tired of light, / has given everything to the snow.'
The last time I wrote about Robert Walser, I described the way nature in his novel The Assistant seems able to speak to a lonely young man, unsure of his place in this world. In his early poems, Walser can be found walking home, looking down at the snow, recalling his 'delusional and awkward' conversation, or passing through trees with their pleading hands under a sky 'rigid with fear', or wanting to stop but finding that 'the green of the meadows laughed / the smoke rose smiling like smoke, I carried onwards.' And yet nature can also be a comfort: 'gently the meadows draw / the dead fear out / of my heart, then / everything is still again.' If these early poems are reminiscent of The Assistant, the later verse reminds me more of Walser's Microscripts, those strange texts written in a radically miniaturised form of a Germanic script, so small that a whole story could fit on the back of a business card. Landscape remains an important presence - the first poem in this collection from his years in Berne is called 'How the Small Hills Smiled' (1925). Among these poems' smiling hills, white clouds and green meadows, flags and boats and laughing children, there is always a whisper of sadness. Nature, he writes in 'Sensation', is a riddle, cheering but failing to calm him. He can do without it, but would miss the brilliance of its sounds and colours, enshrining them in memory. The poem concludes on a note of hope: 'it's beautiful everywhere, / as long as we see beauty from within ourselves.'