Selected Poems of Karl Krolow
Translated by Stuart Friebert
Bitter Oleander Press ($21)
by John Bradley
Some translators seem born to translate a particular writer; that’s the case with translator Stuart Friebert and German poet Karl Krolow. This is the third volume of Krolow’s work that Friebert has translated, with prior books published in 1985 and 1993. In the introduction to this third volume, Friebert relates how he was immediately struck by Krolow the very first time they met, in the early ’60s: “As for me, just starting out as a poet to write poems in German before daring to in English, Krolow’s was the [Friebert’s emphasis] voice I knew I needed to hear, to pay great attention to, indeed to try to emulate some which way.”
It’s easy to see what attracted Friebert to Krolow’s poetry. Take the closing stanza of “Daily”:
Don’t you know: nothing much needs to happen.
It’s just this feeling, of going along daily
the old path to my execution.
There’s a luminous clarity in Krolow’s poetry, a direct expression of complex emotions, and a sense of private disclosure, which creates an intimacy between poet and reader. There’s often an account of life’s small events being profound, if one examines them carefully. The poems frequently reveal a sense of fatality, viewed with calmness, yet with a sting of paradox. In “Daily,” for example, ordinary life, while comfortable, is killing the narrator, as noted in the last line. These ingredients many seem an unlikely recipe for good poetry, but they work to perfection in Krolow’s and Friebert’s able hands.
While tracing the roots of Friebert’s attraction to Krolow’s poetry, the introduction tells us very little about Krolow (1915-1999), however. The back cover offers a brief biography of the poet, which reveals the following: “When Krolow received the Büchner Prize in 1956, West Germany’s highest literary honor, his remarks, unlike [Paul] Celan’s, did not refer to his life during the Nazi years—a near occasion of sin, or worse, some critics complain.” To balance this vague but disturbing revelation, the bio continues with: “The ‘record’ also confirms that Krolow was often generous to a fault regarding the work of others, especially of Jewish writers.” Surely a book of poetry that is published fifteen years after an author’s death can better divulge literary history that enables us to understand his work. What were these “sins?” How did they affect Krolow’s poetry written after 1945?
Hints of the past lurk in many of the poems in Puppets in the Wind. While often subtle, allusions to history and its effect on the speaker can be found in “With Arms Crossed,” “Force,” “Don’t We Want To Give It a Try,” “Nothing New,” “World-Machine,” and “Power.” The poem “History,” in particular, contains strong reflections on the past. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Men carried a flag across the square.
At which centaurs broke from the underwood
And crushed their cloth underfoot
And history could begin.
Fell apart on street corners.
Orators kept themselves
At the ready with mastiffs,
And the younger women
Painted their faces for the stronger.
Without end voices quarreled
In the air, although
The mythological creatures
Had long since withdrawn.
Eventually what’s left is the hand
That goes around a throat.
“History,” with its use of mythic centaurs, feels like a parable about unleashing the deadly power of nationalism, both a reflection on the rise of Hitler as well as a warning for contemporary politicians and citizens. If you think you can control the passions released by nationalism, think again. For Krolow, the end result will be “the hand / That goes around a throat,” no doubt an allusion to the Third Reich.
Some may argue that this poem is not typical of Krolow’s work, but given the number of poems that deal with “the power of the state,” to borrow the title of another of Krolow’s poems, the reader needs to be informed about his past, at least to a fuller extent than a capsule biography.
Another small problem with the book is that we don’t know from what years and what books the poems were selected. Krolow’s poetry covers many decades. Judging by the copyright page, the poems come from books published in 1965, 1975, 1985, 1988, and 1997; a discussion of these volumes and what has changed or remained constant in his poetics over the years would have been helpful. Finally, is this volume a representative sampling of Krolow’s poetry, or a supplement to the two previous volumes of Friebert translations?
Quibbles aside, however, this is a quietly captivating book of poetry, beautifully translated. Without ever calling attention to his craft, Friebert brings us Krolow’s voice in a clear and unobtrusive manner, easily leading the reader to think, despite the German text on the opposite page, that Krolow wrote these poems in English. Karl Krolow may confess that “I hide hours / behind sentences,” but due to the transparent language of poet and translator, we can always find him—and recognize ourselves—in these lucid reflections.