Tuesday 15 September 2015

A review of Self Portrait with a Swarm of Bees by Jan Wagner (Arc Publications, 2015)

Inigo Purcell reviews Jan Wagner's new book, translated by Iain Galbraith.

If asked to describe the main theme of Jan Wagner’s collection, my first response would be 'nature', then I would hastily correct myself, saying that the poems don’t so much focus on nature as on the physical world, and the unexpected similarities between physical experiences. In 'Steinway' (p.99) for example a glimpse of a grand piano becomes 'my childhood’s frozen lake', and aside from a pun on the make of the piano in the final stanza (which is alluded to but less present in the original German), the focus of the poem becomes solely the lake and the poet’s memories of it.

This kind of unexpected turn in a poem is characteristic of the collection. 'The Catkin' begins:

what caused auntie mia to stick a catkin
up her nose, and when exactly she did
our story cannot relate (p.117).

It is not until the third stanza when the aunt is described as a 'wailing girl' that it becomes quite apparent that this event happened long before the poet’s birth, in his aunt’s childhood in Germany during the Second World War, and that the anecdote has passed into family legend. The comic image of the adult aunt sticking a catkin up her nose lingers throughout, however, almost incongruous with the other theme of wartime bombing and the difference between being participants in an historical event, and being 'mere witnesses or extras' to it; how it is impossible to distinguish in an experience between the major 'our town has fallen and stands ablaze' and the personal 'the favourite carpet ruined' when both are part of the same event.

Another thematic migration takes place in the two stanza poem 'earthworms' (p. 49): the poet starts by reflecting on luring earthworms out of the earth during a summer drought in his childhood, perhaps with a degree of regret, then decades later sees 'their shadows drifting by/in sombre clouds' and distrusts the rain and overcast weather waiting for some kind of cruel fate to trap him the way his callous child-self tricked earthworms.

It would be remiss in a review of this collection not to mention the formatting of the Arc Visible poets series: Wagner writes in German, and the original text of his poems is placed parallel to Ian Galbraith’s excellent translations. My German is shamefully rusty, but it is fascinating to compare the two texts and observe where a piece of alliteration has been kept, where one has been discarded and where (as described in 'Steinway' above) a play on words which is hinted at in the German is used more fully in English. The foreword and introduction both stress that the parallel text is not solely intended for bilingual readers, but to allow a greater understanding of the poems and nature of translation in the curious, and for this Arc is to be commended: the presentation is accessible and likely to encourage people to explore or improve their language skills.

This collection is charming, interesting and surprising in the choice of topics (many of which I have had to neglect for the sake of word count in the review): through a choice of extremely specific details it manages to create a sense of a common experience and wonder at being alive.

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