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Thin-skinned dreams: Reading Friederike Mayröcker




(with thanks to Poetry Ireland Review, where this first appeared)


Friederike Mayröcker, Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006. Translated by Richard Dove. Carcanet, 2007.

Some facts first: Friederike Mayröcker was born in Vienna in 1924, worked as an English teacher from 1946 until 1969, since when she has lived as a freelance writer. She began writing in her teens and was first published in the Viennese avant-garde magazine Plan. From her beginnings as a writer she has been associated with the Wiener Gruppe, figures such as Hans Weigel, Andreas Okopenko, H.C. Artmann and her companion Ernst Jandl, whom she met in 1954. Since giving up her teaching job she has lived, in Jeremy Over’s words in a recent (Autumn 2008) issue of New Books in German, ‘an almost hermetical existence surrounded by unruly mountains of books, papers and notes in a tiny flat in the Zentagasse district of Vienna. . .’ where she ‘started to produce the main body of her extraordinary avant-garde literary work.’

The unruly piles of books and papers are reproduced on the over of Richard Dove’s translations of her work in Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006 (Carcanet, 2007) in a mixed media piece by Linda Waber from 1995. Atelier Friederike Mayröcker is an impression of the kind of romantically fruitful artistic disorder beloved of the public – think of the Bacon Studio in Dublin – but it offers us an image of the working method that might help us if we don’t take it too literally. The piles of papers, painted as generic clutter, may have a perfectly rational coherence for the poet. The space is tiny and the stuff seems to be bursting out of it, as if it can’t be contained; and almost a quarter of the scene is dominated by the buildings of Vienna visible from the poet’s apartment, and that in itself is a useful image: the city spilling in, perpetually available to the avid eye of the poet. Vienna is crucial to Mayröcker; to a great extent she writes with the city. In an interview she has said that she can only write in Vienna, and described how during a six month residency in Berlin she found herself unable to write; she had to go home to Vienna for a weekend in order to write anything.



Avante-garde is a very general and maybe not especially helpful description. Mayröcker’s work is a kind of continuous torrent of freely associative, passionate language in the service of private obsessions; in the service, if you like, of the individual lived life rather than the life of the greater social entity. There is nothing specifically national or political in this work, nothing identifiably sociological. Its methods favour the apparently random: the habitual use of collage techniques which layer seemingly disparate levels of experience. But because it it so clearly rooted in the experimental tradition – she herself singles out the period between 1966 and 1971 as her ‘experimental years’ during which she concentrated mainly on the manipulation of language, on making explicitly concretist and Dadaist poems – her later work has little need of the obvious armoury of alienation and is in fact highly approachable.

The techniques which deflect or distract the reader from some kind of normal autobiographical expectation do in fact cohere – they cohere into what interests the poet, what engages her attention. They have in common a certain pitch of language, a certain emotional intensity. The pitch is influenced by the fact that the poems are often conceived as letters; they have specific addressees. Many are addressed to Jandl after his death in 2000 and the ‘raving language’ or ‘rasende Sprache’ of the title is a language of heightened perception that comes from the intensity of this address:

I’m writing deluded letters which you’ll never receive,
such thin and vulnerable skin-intercourse, this is merciful
weather, the whitethroat’s kiss in the gardens. . this
word in the wire in communion I’m dreaming of you, and
ecstasy itself, this magpie,
have just invented language raving language.


Hallucinatory and ecstatic, these poems seem to invent their own searing idiom. Mayröcker in this aligns herself with the tradition of Hölderlin, an important precursor for her, as indicated by Richard Dove in his excellent introduction to this selection:

...Hölderlin became a key point of reference in the 1970s, and ...she has deliberately adopted – or rather adapted – elements of his late hymnic style. Isolated phrases are taken over lock, stock and barrel. . . .But it is in terms of syntax that the affinity is greatest – Mayröcker’s primitivistic parataxis has a similar ‘Asian’ feel to Hölderlin’s (to cite the eighteenth-century distinction between ‘Asian’, i.e. non-classical, and ‘Attic’, i.e. conventionally neo-classical). In her mouth, parts of speech like aber (but) or nämlich (namely) have a decidedly Hölderlinian feel.

(Introduction, xxi)


Her poem about a visit to the Hölderlin tower in Tübingen begins with the striking image of the poet getting her Hölderlin fix:

Hölderlin’s Tower, River Neckar, In May

this snort of Hölderlin
in the bright-red Hölderlin room/
standing in the corridor
my glance falls on the red flowers in the glass
bordered by petals
shed
nothing else/
the room empty just the vase of flowers
two old chairs --
I open a window
in the garden, you say, the trees
are still the same as in his time
bur we hear a snatch of music the bluish
silverware is glittering

for Valerie Lawitscha


The suggestion of drug-taking is deliberate. In his note on the poem Richard Dove discusses his search for the best English rendition of the noun:

What is certain is that Hölderlin is a drug for this poet. During a conversation in Vienna in February 2005, I asked Mayröcker how she wished ‘eine Prise Hölderlin ’ to be translated – a pinch (as in ‘a pinch of salt’ or ‘a pinch of snuff) or a snort (as in ‘a snort of cocaine’). Her answer was instantaneous: a snort.’
xxviii



Her influences are eclectic, and derived from wide reading. Apart from Hölderlin she cites Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Henri Michaux, Beckett and Gertrude Stein, but it's reading itself which is the real influence -- ‘Writing/is applied reading’ one poem announces briskly – and an inevitable spur to imaginative work. Writing about her in a recent New Books in German, Jeremy Over notes the importance of reading :

At Vienna’s Schule für Dichtung (‘Poetry Academy’), she recommended to probably horrified student writers that they read for at least ten hours a day. . .

(Jeremy Over, New Books in German)
http://www.new-books-in-german.com/english/316/220/220/129002/design1.html



The reliance on collage is one application of reading. Books provide an endless source of found material to be deployed and orchestrated. It’s the technique of an inward and remarkably self-contained sensibility.

In the same way that the late, fragmentary Hölderlin appeals, her imagination fastens on fragmentariness as if the rendering of the fragmentary were the only true way to engage with the world. Her poems are shot through with, and driven by a fierce sense of mortality and an accompanying determination to pack in as much of the world as possible. The work is visually rich; she is a very painterly kind of poet -- she has described herself as an ‘Augenmensch’, an ‘eye person’. There’s a kind of ferocity or a fierce anxiety about the way she crowds the visible into her lines; the eye that is in love with the world is acutely aware that everything looked at is vanishing and that its ecstasy is a form of grief:

….. I
only know this life
won’t be coming my way again, not I
my heart is grazing
in mournful pastures

(country rain, july)


A poem like ‘in praise of a fragment’ gets all these concerns in: the random, material world, ‘the thought of transience’, unstoppable joy and a deliberate inconclusiveness that is her particular fidelity to experience:


across the street
at two facing windows
a woman and a man call out
the state of the world to one another /
on the sliding roofs of containers for old glass
the sign with an arrow in three languages
hier öffnen open ouvert /
the thought of transience
gets me howling
while I tread the cobbles
beneath mimosa trees and the oriental
candyfloss wafts through open windows out into freedom /
lilac is blossoming in a small lane /
on rubber soles a youngster
is leaping through sudden May rain /
the young robinia leaves torn down in a nightly storm
are swimming on the surface of a lustrous
puddle / gesticulating
horse-drawn cart

with a pursed lip the apostrophe,


The rapt attention and inclusiveness are a by-product of ‘der Gedanke der Vergänglichkeit’, ‘the thought of transience’ that makes her howl. Inconclusion is the conclusion, and the grammar goes about its own independent business. We can see too in a poem like this how the freedom of the technique is a reined freedom; the method is associative, the laying down of apparently disparate layers, but the different layers reinforce each other, and add to the impact of the poem – an it’s a canny kind of associativeness, the randomness is judiciously selected. The poems are full of these kinds of moments of passing life caught in the sudden ecstatic glare of attention, with the language a headlong rush to capture them before they vanish:

in the effulgence of hair
this effulgence of hair in the window
hair-effulgence, never seen anything like it
reflection of a tail of blonde hair
in the front window of a car
hair-effulgence of a woman who remained invisible
eyes mouth nose chin not to be made out, just the angle
of the hair
blonde hair
(drum) dripping dropping of hair, chimera
in the morning

(effulgence of hair)

or

with windows flung open on the morning of a radiant
August day such an August day / to drink
the flowing air /still / tell myself I’m alive /still /
and now and here yet finitely
or through the blinding blue sails the finite
swallow


Some of the most attractive and striking poems here are those written about her mother in old age. The stark presentation of her mother’s mental disintegration is accompanied by the poet’s unshakeable sense of the world continuing on its way:


to spit around
the little prayer-mat
babble around throw one’s arms around
as though I were now her mother and she
my child. . . it’s all, she says, getting turned
inside out, she’d
expected more of old age, the world’s
lost its charm

meanwhile February shoots up
in mimosa plumage

(‘on this morning’)


This double or multiple focus is very characteristic of the work. In another of these poems the poet and her mother contemplate a tree outside the hospital window

is that a gingko tree, she says,
there’s something else you can write about
the nun looking after her
comes to her bed and says
do you want to confess and take communion tomorrow
and holds her hand
I say she’s without sin, always has been
the white-stockinged
finches among the leaves

(‘mother, eighty-three, hospital’ )


Through all the work runs the sense of poetry as a kind of continuous conversation – with the self, with writers, artists, friends, and with Ernst Jandl. They have the intimate form of letters – practically every poem has a specific addressee – and this accounts for much of their liveliness. It also accounts for their urgency, both in the sense that the poems move with the speed of letters written at speed, but also in the sense of felt pressure of something needing to be said. There are no half-measures – the rhapsodic pitch is sustained convincingly, informed by a rage against mortality that makes her ‘CLEAVE to this earth’.

At over two hundred pages, Richard Dove’s is a substantial collection but it still amounts, as he reminds us, to only about a quarter of her output. It makes a convincing case in English for this prolific and remarkable poet.

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