Ashes for Breakfast By Durs Grünbein, trans. Michael Hofmann

Animal passion from a German wunderkind

By Philip Oltermann
Friday 10 November 2006 01:00

Dresden-born poet Durs Grünbein has been likened to Georg Büchner, the original enfant terrible of German letters, and not just because he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 1995. By the time of his death aged 24, Büchner had written three wildly passionate plays, one radically innovative novella and one scientific dissertation on the nervous systems of freshwater fish. Grünbein, too, has the allure of a young genius - his first collection of poems was published when he was 25 - and his lines simmer with a similarly jumpy intensity. He shares Büchner's fascination with biology: Grünbein writes poems about dogs, hedgehogs and penguins, and his 1991 collection Skull Base Lesson came complete with anatomical drawings.

It has taken Grünbein a good two decades to arrive in the English-speaking world, but that's less of an indication of his talent than a testament to the limited appeal of modern poetry, and modern German poetry in particular. The poems in Ashes for Breakfast have been selected and rendered into English by Michael Hofmann, himself a versatile poet and estimable translator.

"Translator" seems like a dirty word here, given that "poetry in translation" is, according to Robert Frost, an oxymoron - the former being precisely what gets lost in the latter. In fact, it makes more sense to think of this book as a collaboration than a translation. In his foreword, Hofmann points out that he sees Grünbein as an equal, not a master: his work is "not the product of steel rulers and midnight oil", but "poems that want to be poems". Hofmann cheekily extends his artistic licence: Grünbein's self-defining lyrical sequence "Porträt des jungen Künstlers als Grenzhund", becomes "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (not Collie)". The collie is nowhere to be found in the German - not that Hofmann would care.

There's much to commend this recklessness - in fact, one is left wishing that Hofmann had taken his approach a step further. Grünbein loves to jump from one register to another - one moment he is the street poet of Berlin, the next he comes over all marble and ancient philosophy. In English, Grünbein in public-intellectual-mode is as much of a mouthful as in the German - but the more colloquial passages never quite seem to get off their teutonic stilts. At times, Hofmann's phrases ring with the triumphalism of the accomplished bilinguist rather than with their proper music. In "Robinson in the City", a "malodorous hole" in the ground yawns at the human spectator. "Stinky", I think, would have done the job just as well.

This is not to say that Ashes for Breakfast isn't an overall success. When the teeth of Hofmann's vocabulary grip into the material of Grünbein's ideas, these poems can develop an irresistible emotional pull. "Greetings from Oblivion City" has the popular appeal of a Radiohead lyric, "Portrait of the Artist" works as a riveting, veiled historical epic and "In the Provinces" is a stoically comic cycle of five poems about different species of roadkill. "No resurrection, save in the form of the larvae / Of the flies that will hatch from it tomorrow", say Grünbein and Hofmann: cynicism is a sentiment that speaks all languages.

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