In Heidegger’s essay ‘The Nature of Language’ he poses the question “When does language speak itself as language?” He answers: “Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us.” Death fits every one of these categories. It concerns us, oppresses us, encourages us, and it certainly carries us away (although more in the literal sense than the metaphorical, as Heidegger was probably using it), which is why death makes for difficult discussions, which, in turn, is why it is the focus of so much poetry. This is poetry’s job, if one can say that poetry ought to have a job: to take the ineffable and, using only words, which are forever getting in the way, shape it into something that the reader can experience in a way that feels real, or if not real, at least comprehensible. Ernst Meister, a German poet born in 1911 who studied under Gadamer who studied under Heidegger whose fingerprints are all over these poems, did this very well. His collection, In Time’s Rift, just published in a very good English translation by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick thanks to Wave Books, takes death as its main focus.
The first two stanzas of the collection’s opening poem sound out like a somewhat angrier version of Samuel Beckett.
does this sun want
with us, what
from the strait gate
of that huge glow?
In the very next stanza, Meister says he knows ‘no greater darkness/than the light.’ Those two short lines demonstrate Meister’s ability to poetically subvert the clichéd. Meister plans to bring all that haunts, all that preoccupies, all that creates anxiety out into the open. Traditionally, light is treated as categorically good. Throughout In Time’s Rift, Meister uses light to reveal the dark and ineluctable aspects of existence, death being the most obvious of these. Meister personifies Death, calling him ‘the monosyllabic one,/five times a letter’ that ‘forms a line so that/the living sees itself/as it shuffles off’. Thanks to Foust and Frederick, we can hear that eerie shuffling in the lines. A few poems later, Meister, accepting of his own fate, says that Death “crosses the writer out,/when the day comes.” Death has crossed out quite a few writers, many of those who dealt with Him directly.
In an effort to give the American audience a poet with which they can compare Meister to, as a way to help them ease into what will be, for almost everyone, a new poetic experience, they offer up Emily Dickinson, a writer who dealt with death as directly as one can. To a certain extent, this is an apt comparison. Both Dickinson and Meister deal with death. Both Dickinson and Meister use syntax in a way that ‘entices and irritates the mouth’, as mentioned in the intro to the collection. But the point of their divergence should overshadow both syntax and theme and bring the comparison to an end. In Dickinson the reader finds a vulnerability, as well as slight touches of Romanticism, that does not exist in Meister. For Dickinson it is okay that death is incomprehensible, it is okay that death is terrifying, it is okay that death is just too much. Dickinson tells the reader that ‘there’s something quieter than sleep’ but she goes on to say that ‘it has a simple gravity/I do not understand!’ Meister poses throughout these poems as if he does understand. He rarely seems unsure of himself and this confidence, at times, reads a bit cold. Dickinson is the better poet for many reasons, but that doesn’t say much of anything. The phrase Dickinson is the better poet could be said after comparing her to quite a few worthy poets, and Meister is certainly worthy. It isn’t necessarily his work with language that makes him a poet that should be read today; it’s his conception of time, of life, of death, of the finite and of the infinite that gives his poetry the power it holds.
Meister describes the time humans spend on Earth as a without-time, in German an Ohnezeit. He explains it as a rift in two infinities, the infinity that existed before one was born and the infinity that will exist after one is gone. By positing it this way, Meister gives the reader a chance to experience existence differently than the one they might be more accustomed to (the inclusive, unbroken, linear concept), and this above all else is where Meister’s power can be found. Qualifying life as outside of time’s grasp requires that Meister destroy time, or at least re-define it, which he does, saying that we were ‘born to give birth to time’. There are so many ideas tucked away in this concept of time (many that came directly from Heidegger) that it makes for a staggering read. As the collection draws on he pulls them out one poem at a time for the reader to ponder.
Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and Shelley all viewed sleep as death’s kin, but Meister, who seems dead set on convincing us that there is absolutely nothing we experience remotely close to that of death, that death and life are two completely different things, states that “What follows/isn’t sleep,/but skeleton”. In another poem, he doesn’t even allow the reader a chance at death’s description as ‘Hollow, cavern-hollow’ saying that if one went at describing death in this way there ‘would in itself already be an image of life’. Meister’s landscape of death is an un-landscape where readers have had everything pulled from them. It’s as if Meister is there, somewhere in the background, whispering Didn’t I tell you? Light is a bitch and then you die. After stealing from the reader any comfort they might have had in their conception of death, he goes one step further and begins to critique the business of living as well. “You see yourself/as a stranger/ often”, he tells us, and he is correct. It is practically impossible to get through life without at least once or twice stopping to ask Just who am I? but to follow that up with “before long, you’ll drip/with rot,/ appear to rest” seems almost cruel. Cruel but necessary. For there is a certain joy brought to life after having faced one’s death. By treating life as an un-time, by saying screw the ‘needy ones’ that ‘want to hear/what is alive in the dead’, we can begin to truly live.
These ideas are large, which makes for difficult translation. Where one translator may find themselves wanting to help the reader grasp the concepts while sacrificing the beauty of some of the best lines, another might focus too heavily on the poetic and hang the reader out to dry. Foust and Frederick have struck a great balance between these two approaches. They state in the introduction that “Translation is impossible.” They are quite right. There will be loss and this loss can be found in a few places in the collection. But upon close consideration, the loss is justifiable almost every time. For example, “Es will sich/im Toten/das Nichts verschweigen” is translated into “Nothingness wants/to conceal itself/in what is dead”. In meaning, this is essentially what was written in German. What is lost is a bit of Meister’s wordplay. Im Toten does mean in the dead but it’s also used in German to mean blind spot. The phrase is able to pull double-duty in the German. In the English what goes missing is the slightest touch of warmth.
In the translated lines there exists nothing relating to people, nothing warm or human. It is only a touch, but in a collection so devoid of it, a touch can be all that’s needed. For it is only animals that have blind spots and humans who speak of them. One would not say that a boulder or a tree has a blind spot. And maybe boulders don’t experience death, but trees do. Here, though, the problem was unavoidable. The English term for blind spot is blind spot and the German term is not. Simple as that and therefore forgiven. But earlier in the collection this same type of decision is made and that particular poem suffers for it, albeit slightly. It’s in the final two lines of a poem where Meister, in a casual tone, states that “Crossing over would be/a mere stone’s throw, no?” In German, the word for stone’s throw is Katzensprung. When translated directly into English, bypassing the idiomatic, one gets a cat’s leap. Again, what the translators are up against is formidable. Not to mention that Meister has long since begun to “drip with rot” and is therefore unavailable for questioning. Which is too bad, because the question is a simple one. Meister is obviously downplaying death by using a colloquialism, forcing Foust and Frederick to use the English colloquial equivalent, but the question here is one of elegance and warmth. Does one sacrifice the grace of a cat’s leap in order to maintain the casualness of Meister’s tone? Would a mere cat’s leap have been too poetic, not casual enough? The distance being pondered over is inarguably the most important distance that anyone will ever travel, and it’s possible that Meister, even in all his casualness, might see a cat leaping and not just another throw away phrase. This approach is nit-picky, certainly, and it’s very easy to say that one should be grateful that someone bothered to rescue Meister’s poetry in the first place. And one should be grateful, these poems are precisely what this world needs — a reminder that, as important as all the quotidian might seem, we are but sitting in a break in time where infinity stretches out on both sides of us — but sometimes nit-pickiness is only honor turned on its head.
Foust and Frederick have done us all a great favor. Meister’s poetry could have been lost in the rift of time that he wrote so elegantly about, but thanks to them as well as Wave Books, we can face our finitude and then get on with it. As Simon Critchley wrote in reference to Heidegger’s concept of being-towards-death, “if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death.” Reading In Time’s Rift allows us to do exactly that.