Friday, May 16, 2014

Hölderlin, by Aleksander Wat

Aleksander Wat: Truth on a Toilet Wall

During his last 36 years Friedrich Hölderlin, mentally ill, lived in the
house of a carpenter named Zimmer in Tübingen. He addressed visitors
as "Altesse Royale" and always answered questions with "No." His last
poems are signed, "avec humilité, Scardanelli." The fragments "the Road
from the Alps," "the cities on the Euphrates," and "poetry tends to the
land" ("dichterich wohnet der Mensch auf dieser Erde") are taken from
his poems. The quatrine in quotation marks reads in the original, "De
Angernehme dieser Welt hab' ich genossen,/Die Jugendstunden sind, wie
lang! wie lang! verflossen,/April und Mai und Julius sind ferne./Ich bin
nichts mehr, ich lebe nicht mehr gerne!" [Wat's footnote]


I lift the black lid of the harpsichord
And break the strings—until there are two.
With them I play my last song—
One plays YES! While the other NO!

YES—I sing in awe to the Unchanging She
While for you I have—Nein, Altesse.
A serpent watches me from a grove.
What am I? Scardanelli, avec humilité.

The model for me was Empedocles
Though not his royal wisdom or seer's vanity—
Like he into Mount Etna, into insanity
I jump to affirm my singularity.

Into the wildest mountains and ravines
And to the farthest crossings of entangled roads!
How to escape the Hunter, how to join the Hunt.
Where to be the ruler or the last of the ruled?

—Poetry tends to the land, therefore we too
Shall humbly tend without delusions.
Down is the Neckar, take walks in the summer,
In the winter listen to the songs of Lotta Zimmer.

He must be insane who all his thoughts and heart
Puts into chasing Chimeric meanings and shapes.
Empty are the cities on the Euphrates, the road from the Alps,
And no heavenly dwellers In the carpenter's house.

"I have enjoyed this agreeable world,
The youthful hours, how long! how long! are gone,
Distant are the Aprils, Mays and Junes,
I am nothing now, I wish I lived no more!"

Birds depart in weary keys
When the bell of gold announces their time.
Everywhere I see ominous signs,
All the roads are wrong, the night comes down to a rhyme.

The garlands of owls garnish the pines and the wind
Wrinkles your face in the water mirror, Diotima,
Mountain campfire smoke enwraps me.
Fifers call me for a long night's march.

(translated from the Polish by Frank L. Vigoda)

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