k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 11, march 2012|
Und hier, hier, fast zum Greifen nah, ein Grösster
Das bist du, Albatros! von meiner Fähre
Freisten dich, ihn den Künder, meine Lippe
Great wings, spread flat gliding,
As if in play–but not play: as if the urge
And here, here, almost within reach, a majestic one
That is you, Albatross! From my ferry
You the most free, him the prophet, my lip
HEILIG UND HEIDNISCH
»Old-fashioned, kaum antikes Porzellan?
Ist es der Ledas? Der zum Lohengrin?
Erst lehrt' er Leda wie man Eier legt,
Wieder beim Märchen-Mädchen langt er an,
SACRED AND PROFANE
“‘Old-fashioned’, hardly antique porcelain?
Is he Leda’s? Or Lohengrin’s?
First he taught Leda to lay eggs,
Again he meets the fairytale maiden,
The German-Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl (1869-1948) fled from the Nazis in 1933 to Switzerland and Italy. Up until 1938, Mussolini’s brand of fascism had been relatively ambivalent about the Jews–he himself had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti–but eventually Il Duce gave in to Berlin and instituted anti-Jewish legislationo Auckland, where he found himself in a country of far less cultural density than he was used to, but at least where any anti-Semitism was of an ambiguous, abstract and only distantly received sort. New Zealand was in the terms of Austrian-Jewish philosopher Karl Popper (biding his exile at Canterbury University in Christchurch at the time) an “open society.”
In German letters, at least until the jackboot came down on the rich Jewish contribution to Germanic culture, Wolfskehl was a well known name linked with the circle of Stefan George, and up until 1904 with Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler. In New Zealand he was little known outside of a circle of literary friends, and even then Frank Sargeson was to write in his 1975 autobiography More Than Enough: “There were times with Karl Wolfskehl when I could feel myself overpowered, weighted down by so much civilisation, a feeling which I had often and keenly experienced during my time in England…and now here I was once again being overpowered by Europe, and this time in my own country” (111).
Wolfskehl’s work continues to be published in Germany and the New Zealand composer Edwin Carr set five of his poems to music, first sung by Ronald Maconaghie at a Wolfskehl commemoration arranged by the New Zealand Embassy in Bonn in 1977. I came to his poetry through a desire to find a bridge between my fascination with German history, culture and language, and my New Zealand-ness. In exile, he had continued to write poetry, and most of his New Zealand production had never before been translated, and thus was lost to the majority of New Zealanders.
From a collection to be published by Holloway Press later this year I have chosen two poems–both coincidentally using birds as metaphors–which for me express the dual nature of Wolfskehl’s exile. The first “Albatros” expresses his sentiment upon his arrival in New Zealand (the albatross as bird of ill omen was largely an invention of Coleridge). The poem by Baudelaire alluded to is “L'Albatros” in which the poet compares himself with the great bird, graceful and dignified in his natural element of the air, but clumsy and clownish on deck when downed by cruel sailors: “Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule! / Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!” Wolfskehl’s mentor George had made a number of translations of Baudelaire into German.
I was a little slow to grasp this at first as for some reason Wolfskehl wrote Baudelaire in phonetic German as “Bodläre” in the text, which is unusual. This does ensure that the terminal “e” is voiced, providing the rhyme for “Fähre.” . The poem’s soundscape suggests the albatrosses slashing wingbeat and gliding swoop. The reference to Job is to the long-suffering Old Testament figure, with whom, through all of his own tribulations, Wolfskehl occasionally adopted him as a persona in the early New Zealand poems of 1938-39, and sometimes in letters after 1945. This is not to be confused with the usage in Wolfskehl’s “Job” cycle, which is different.
There is a wonderful humour in this poem in which Wolfskehl, commenting on age, makes a complex triple pun about his flagging powers:
Well aware he is too old for the “fairytale maiden,” unable to please from the front, the swan / poet must induce her from his back, which could mean both the confections in the concavity of the swan dish, or the wallet in the old poet’s back pocket.