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To the German Language

                                           To B.C. Kuzin

               Freund! Versäume nicht zu leben:
               Denn die Jahre fliehn,
               Und es wird der Saft der Reben
               Uns nicht lange glühn!

               Ewald Christian Kleist

It’s my contradiction and disadvantage:
like a moth to a chink of light at midnight,
I feel some urge to leave our language
and all the things there I’m tied to.

There’s praise without flattery between us,
no hypocrisy, we’re the closest of friends...
But let’s learn some respect and how to be serious
from a family of strangers in the West.

Storms are fantastic for poetry!
I recall one Kapitän, how the hilt
of his sword was tangled with roses,
and the name of Ceres lay on his lips...

In Frankfurt, fathers were still yawning,
and no one had heard of Goethe just yet.
Hymns were composed, and horses
pranced and leapt on the spot, like letters.

Tell me, my friends, in what Valhalla
did we sit together and crack nuts?
What kind of freedom was it we had?
Which of my landmarks did you construct?

Straight out of an almanac’s pages
of first class news, unafraid, they ran
down the steps and into the grave,
as if to fetch Mosel by the tankard.

A foreign language will be my cover.
Before I dared to be born, I was a letter,
I was a trellis from which grapes hung,
I was the book that you dreamt of.

With no form or order, I slept
until friendship woke me like a shot.
Give me the fate of Pylades, or rip
my useless tongue out, Nachtigallgott.

They’ll still recruit me, nightingale god,
for seven years’ wars and new pestilence.
Words will spit and stamp, sounds taper off,
but you’re alive, and you and I are at rest.

8 – 12 August 1932

 

NOTES:
• B.C. Kuzin. Biologist met and  befriended by Mandelstam on his 1930 trip to Armenia.
• Ewald Christian Kleist (1715-1759): German poet. The quotation reads: ‘Friend, don’t miss out on life: / the years are flying on, / and the juice from the vines / will not warm us long.’

 

[Alistair Noon's first full-length collection is Earth Records, forthcoming from Nine Arches Press in 2012. His poems, reviews, essays and translations from German and Russian have appeared widely in magazines and several chapbooks, most recently Out of the Cave (Calder Wood). He is currently preparing a full-length collection of translations of Osip Mandelstam, and lives in Berlin.]

Copyright © 2011 by Alistair Noon, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.