"Buying Rolls and Crossing Borders - Reading Elke Erb"1

by Kornelia Freitag




"I am familiar with these texts - although I’ve never read them before" is my surprised reaction after my first encounter with Elke Erb’s poems. Why do I have this feeling about texts I didn’t know about until quite recently? Why do I have this feeling of familiarity with a poet who has written texts which turn around the very moment one thinks one has "got it;" dense and/or experimental poems which hesitate and linger, vary language, take big leaps, self-reflexively contradict themselves, and sometimes meander endlessly?

Dismissed from training, released 2

I have in my household,
          although the compulsion to do housework
          is a disruption of my work, 3
a kingdom, into which I step
with a freedom of a ruler on his land
-- and the freedom of the clueless.

The household begins its training.

I want to do something in the house.


The urgency and torment
which (among other things) my work
and its certainly tense conditions
subliminally projected onto my household
inflamed and strained the feeling of a burden:

          A blatant example:
          I interrupt work on my translation of Tsvetaeva because it is noon. I cannot cook
lunch, because I "must first do some quick shopping." (The culinary purpose is
already in my head like a bird, it "flaps its wings before me.") I go weak in the
knees because the tension has let up.-- I am dazed, and my eyes can’t make out
what’s in the jars behind the counter. So I ask the sales girl: "Do you have
Brussels sprouts?" She says no, and I break into tears.

Because I was alone in this grind,
beyond labor (and beyond division of labor)
(in my breaks I kept house)

my household economy all by itself took on
the unsolved problems of society.
(Winkelzüge oder nicht vermutete, aufschlußreiche Verhältnisse,
1984, 1991, pp.379, 386)


I am amused and touched when I read this displacement and application of the dialectics of freedom and necessity (cf. "It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom." Friedrich Engels. "Anti-Dühring," p.716) in the field of artistic and kitchen economy. It replays a familiar experience of undercutting the lofty realm of theoretical and practical freedom by the simple "Out of stock" of deficit economy. It exposes dialectical laws where the textbooks would not look. The mixture of theory, translation work, and missing Brussels sprouts in a process of writing which refuses to respect the borderlines between philosophy, literary discourse, and reports of everyday experiences feels liberating. Closed systems are opened, links are established, insecurity erupts - lineated writing becomes an exploration of a (linguistic) reality which was (is?) presented as fixed, strictly determined, well ordered, secure:


I am in trouble
on my side: the law/ the right 4
: there has to be trouble if I litigate
I am in trouble
on my side: the law/ the right
of unprotected speech
(Winkelzüge, pp.70, 71)

The trouble making, the vulnerability, the unspoken, the fluid (the dialectics) in her text are set against the "precision" and the "deadly proportions" of "a culture which denies/ that it excludes and what it excludes,// that presupposes its articulations/ as predetermined perfection/ which need to be served,/ [a culture] that, insincerely, even changes this predetermination/ into a social consensus" (Winkelzüge, p.71) - This cultural criticism refers to and uses the language and the strategies of a specific culture. I have lived in this culture, have experienced the cultural politics promoting it, and know the critical discussions, the artistic subversions, the ruptures and protests within it. Elke Erb lived, like me, in the eastern part of Germany, which was from 1949 to 1989 the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.).

Elke Erb came to East Germany at the age of 11, in 1949, when her family moved from her place of birth in the Eifel to Halle. There she went to school and studied German and history which she finished with a state exam in 1963. The same year she started working as an editor in the Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle. In 1965 she left her job, moved to Berlin (1966) and began to live as freelance poet, essay writer and translator. Her first book of poems was published in 1975. Until 1989 she published six books in East German presses, mostly with the renowned Aufbau Verlag, and four books appeared privately published, among them Winkelzüge from which the first quotations were taken. She also participated in the unofficial literary journal ariadnefabrik where she published in 1987 one of my favorite texts:

Buying Rolls

Two opposite ways of reading,
the first always amazes me, namely with a view to:
What life do these words lead to?
The second: how were the words brought to life?
With the first, the words are raked in, consumed;
because they are only for use, they do not matter.
With the second, the words are as important as what is desired,
therefore desired in themselves. Likewise what exists as such.
What always astonishes me with the first kind is
the moment of abandonment, betrayal
of a secret pact, with a general Mafia.
(ariadnefabrik, 1987, p.79)


    "Buying Rolls" and " How are the words brought to life?" - my first association is René Magritte’s "This is not a pipe." Self-reflexive referral to the materiality of words is a tremendous challenge in a cultural context which favors direct and truthful reflection of reality. - I found the same concerns in strikingly similar formulation in Langugae poet Charles Bernstein’s essay "Stray Straws and Straw Men:"

         Compare / these two views / of what / poetry / is.
         In the one, an instance (a recording perhaps) of reality/fantasy/experience/event
  is presented to us through the writing.
In the other, the writing itself is seen as an instance of reality/fantasy/experience
(Language Book, 1984, p.41)

The same mimetic dilemma pinpointed in both the U.S. and the G.D.R. cultural context. - But my second thought is how strikingly to the point the choice of "rolls" is. If reading (understanding) literature as a process of base consumption ("words are ... consumed") is to be denied, how provocative is the claim that even an article of everyday consumption was changed if it appeared in a poem and had to be "brought to life" by reading - "the roll as such" so to speak. Finally I note how an everyday process is again defamiliarized by transgressing apparently insurmountable boundaries: rolls and reception theories.

       Buying rolls and shopping for Brussels sprouts - elsewhere sauerbraten is prepared and lunch for the son is fixed - a woman observes and writes her reality. Is this writing gendered? Elke Erb has vigorously denied a feminist intent. In an interview she explained that the question in the G.D.R. was not "man or woman - the crucial question was ...[w]hat kind of government is this, what is the matter with the polity? There one pushes against a hierarchical order that subordinates both genders." (Talk with Birgit Dahlke. Diss. Berlin 1994) Furthermore Erb is suspicious of one-sided verdicts of guilt:

... that this self-determination, which the [feminist] women put into practice, only aims at the social, is only political-confrontational, that is very sad. If it were a real liberation - this is something I simply know - these men-creatures would also see the light, the space, the one where it is felt.
           (Diana! Talk with Kerstin Hensel. 1993, p.31)

That reductions of complex gender relations are not her thing is also obvious from her text "Dear women:"

Dear women,
in my text you’ll find yourself not as victimized footprints,
not as the poor Mary...
(Der wilde Forst, der tiefe Wald. Auskünfte in Prosa, 1995, p.241)

On the contrary, Erb has expressed her opinion that the thinking and writing of women is (should be?) characterized by a greater openness to total integration. "Lückenlosigkeit" (completeness, literally "gaplessness" ) is the term she found for this tendency of integrating rolls and Brussels sprouts and metatextual ruminations. (Dahlke, p.19; Winkelzüge, p.392) Not that men would not shop (or occasionally make lunch) - but are they willing to recognize these activities as equally important fields of linguistic and philosophical exploration? Would they not rather make them the scene, the backdrop, the ironic antidote to "real writing and thinking"? Erb’s gendered concept of "Lückenlosigkeit" brings to mind Joan Retallack’s claim that

[w]omen, given our centuries of cultural training in the interrupted life in medias mess, in the feminine arts of making improbable connections between disparate sectors, in the service of carrying on the complexities of everyday life, are now ... in a perfect position to embark on the invention of new models. ("The Poethical Wager," p.296)

While I am writing all this I cannot prevent myself from seeing Elke Erb standing in a bakery, shopping bag in hand, eyes blank, waiting her turn. Completely removed from the smells and the noise of the place she answers the question of the shop assistant: "6 poems, please, and a coffee to go."

But wait a minute! The bakery I imagine is the one at the corner of my street, which did not exist when the poem appeared in the unofficial ariadnefabrik and in 1987 our bakeries did not normally sell coffee to go. If I come to think of it - there are more differences between our biographies then similarities. Alone the age difference is immense. I am 20 years younger than she is. When she gave up the security of her editing job for a writing career in East Berlin I just started going to school. I never came even close to the small unofficial and critical literature scene in East Germany she was an important part of. At the age at which she published her first collection of poetry I had started researching American experimental poetry and the G.D.R. had seized to exist for at least 5 years. If Erb’s poetry speaks to me its hardly biographical parallels which matter.

Reading her poetry does bring back my reality - then and now - through another, a sharper lens. What we share - and what I find her using and analyzing in a mind-boggling way - is the everyday language of my part of Germany before and after the Wall came down. I grew up with, was taught, spoke, and read this language that carried in its rationality, linearity, transparency, and self-containment the cores of its own dismantling and opening. Reading Elke Erb tells me more about my past and present (form of) life than most of the political commentaries, historical analyses, and expert statistics on the subject which promise unambigous explanation.(Wittgenstein applied!) Erb’s texts do not so much reject, judge, and fix but strive to ask, to synthesize, to wonder: "what always astonishes me" she writes, and "the words are as important as what is desired." The transgression of borders, the attentive quest for knowledge in/ by/ with the poem and the "natural" integration of the everyday sometimes remind me of Lyn Hejinian’s constant queries into the nature of life and language: "As for we ‘who love to be astonished’" (My Life, p.9, passim) and "What does a poem know?" ("The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem," pp.171-189). My reading of Hejinian and other American experimental writers has prepared me to feel familiar with some aspects of my compatriot’s work that I would have overlooked or not understood at all before. But there are traits in Erb’s writing which make her texts stick out as "Erbian." Her words and style are unmistakably her own in her peculiar search for ways to condense and "bring words to life" from the very beginning.

Even her early, more conventional lyrics are unsettling in the way they prefigure the later meticulous tracing, the unearthing, the rupturing of boundaries. In her poem "Reflection" (1978), for instance, the order and the border (or limit) 5 of self, language, reality, and representation are formally sustained. But this apparent formal and metaphorical harmony is a result of acts of violence (excluded from the text but presupposed by it) leaving "shards" and "injuries" which puncture and potentially threaten the superficial stability and confident stance of the closed, end-rhymed lyric:


Again I see myself stand tall at my
own limits. I’d forgotten myself.
Bird, breaking these limits in quick flight,
I triumph, mirror shards are gleaming.
I had starved myself, now I will eat again:
This manna of my injuries, delicious.

(Der Faden der Geduld, 1978, p.64)

The self has become visible "again" not as a whole, or as part of some greater whole reflected in a mirror, but precisely because the mirror is broken: Bird ... / I triumph, mirror shards are gleaming." It seems that the "I" has smashed the limiting mirror - how else could one explain the delight in the injuries (line 6)? The poem secures a lyrical subject only to show its precarious state. It alludes to "reflection" only to declare the victory over it. The metaphors are strangely at odds with the G.D.R.’s official literary representational strategies which expected an integral reflection of reality through a stable self, preferably the self theorized as "universally developed socialist personality." Although Erb still integrates the shards of reflection theory into a fixed form she calls the problem by its name. The metaphorical limits in the poem inevitably call up, reflect (?) the other, the literal limits of the G.D.R. Could an East German reader in 1978 have overlooked the political shadow behind the line "Bird, breaking these limits in quick flight"? (As my fellow students and I sang a variant of the famous folk song: "Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär und auch zwei Flügel hätt, flög ich nach Trier, weil’s aber nicht kann sein, weil’s aber nicht kann sein, bleib ich allhier;" changing "I flew to thee" to "I flew to Trier," a town in West Germany.)

In the later Winkelzüge speculations about borders, limits, and handicaps to living and writing become more explicit. Is this text predicting the fall of the Wall? Unlikely, but it points at and breaks up rigid structures of thought and representational conventions in the language of a system frozen in an endless repetition of phrases. Literary postmodernism - not as imported from the West, miming French poststructuralists, but calmly revising the language of the place, our place, next to the Wall where we were living.

And after the Wall came down? After the change of social system, of possibilities, of perceptions, and - of the language? Her style changed, had to change. She traveled West - new experiences with places and texts are reflected in her writing. Most importantly she met - on the page and in person - Friederike Mayröcker who inspired her to find new forms and ask new questions. She flew to Austria, to Britain, to Italy, to the U.S. where she met, for instance, Rosmarie Waldrop, whose excellent translations of her texts were published as Mountains in Berlin in 1995.

Erb has been constantly writing and publishing. Shortly after the Wall came down there was a period mainly devoted to Information in Prose (Auskünfte in Prosa). Then she returned to writing primarily poetry. She and her texts have gained more and more prominence on the German poetry scene which is reflected in the many literary prizes she has been awarded since the end of the eighties. Looking for ways to place herself and her writing in relation to the changing, new, strange world - formulating and reformulating questions - she is still detecting and unsettling hierarchies in life, in art, in discourse, in thinking. The openness of poetic knowledge is - with self-reflection and a good shot of irony - saved from degenerating into mere business tips:

The sense of gain
while you think poems carry knowledge:

for quick-as-a-flash and shoulder high general interest
comes swimming, surrounds you like a pond
as if it meant to reconnoiter what is,
as if it existed for sure.

From this deceptive height your eyes fall
on something down by your elbow: business tips.

Now wave green, water splashing over
and against the quay.
(Mensch sein, nicht, 1998, p.19)

Why, Elke Erb, I hear myself reply, I did not pretend to know and to explain your poems, I just said that they felt familiar...

My heart-felt thanks to Rosmarie Waldrop who helped to make my translations readable (back to text)

2 The English versions of Elke Erb's poems are literal translations from the German originals which can be found in the appendix. (back to text)

3. German "Arbeit" -- includes "work" and "labor." (back to text)

4. German "Recht" encompasses both "law" and "right." (back to text)

5. The German word "Grenze," which Erb uses twice in the short poem, can refer to "border," "limit," "frontier," and "boundary" alike. (back to text)


German originals in the order of their quotation in the essay:

Entlassen aus der Lehre, freigelassen

habe ich in dem Haushalt,
obwohl die Nötigung zur Hausarbeit
eine Störung der Arbeit ist,

ein Reich, in das ich trete
mit der Freiheit eines Herrn auf seinem Boden
- und der Freiheit des Ahnungslosen.

Der Haushalt beginnt seine Lehre.

Ich will etwas tun im Haushalt.


Von dem Drang und den Drangsalen,
die die Arbeit (und nicht nur sie)
aus ihren gewiß gespannteren Verhältnissen
unkenntlich auf den Haushalt projizierte
erhitzte und überspannte sich das Gefühl der Last:

Ein grelles Beispiel
Ich unterbreche die Arbeit an der Zwetajewa-Übersetzung, weil es Mittag ist. Ich kann aber nicht kochen, sondern "muß erst mal schnell etwas einkaufen". (Also habe ich das Kochziel wie einen Vogel bereits im Kopf, es "flattert mir vor"). Ich gehe mit weichen Knien, weil die Anspannung nachläßt. - Ich bin ganz benommen, und es will sich mit den Augen nicht klären lassen, was in den Gläsern hinter der Konsumtheke ist. Nun frage ich die Verkäuferin: "Haben Sie Rosenkohl?" Sie verneint, und ich breche in Tränen aus.

Da ich in der Plage allein,
jenseits der Arbeit (und jenseits der Arbeitsteilung) war
(In der Arbeitspause hielt ich das Haus),

belud sich die Wirtschaft freihändig auch
mit dem in sozialer Hinsicht Ungelösten.



Ich bin im Argen.
Auf meiner Seite: das Recht
: es muß ja Ärger geben, wenn ich rechte

Ich bin im Argen
auf meiner Seite das Recht
des unabgesicherten Redens


Zwei entgegengesetzte Arten zu lesen,
über die erste wundere ich mich ja immer, nämlich die Sicht:
Zu welchem Leben führen die Worte?
Die zweite: Wie sind die Worte zum Leben gebracht?
Bei der ersten werden die Worte eingeheimst, konsumiert;
weil sie nur dienen, sind sie gleichgültig.
Bei der zweiten sind sie von gleicher Geltung mit dem Erwünschten,
folglich selbst erwünscht. So auch: das Vorhandene überhaupt.
Bei der ersten Art ist es das Moment des Verlassens, Verrats,
geheimen Pakts,
einer allgemeinen Maffia, über welches ich mich immer wundere.



Ich seh mich wieder groß an meinen Grenzen
Aufgetaucht, ich hatte mich vergessen.
Vogel, flugs die Grenzen zu verwunden,
Frohlocke ich, die Spiegelscherben glänzen.
Ich hungerte, jetzt will ich wieder essen:
Dies Manna der Verletzungen, die munden.


Das Gefühl des Gewinns
bei der Überlegung, Gedichte seien Erkenntnisträger:

nämlich hast-du nicht-gesehen schwimmt schulterhochund
umgebend teichgleich ein allgemeines Interesse
als habe es im Sinn, zu erkunden, was ist,

und existiere gewiß.

Von dieser falschen Höhe fällt dann der Blick
hinunter auf etwas in Ellbogenhöhe: Geschäftstips.

Nun darüber Wellengrün, Wasser
klatscht an den Quai.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. "Stray Straws and Straw Men." In: Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein Eds. The Language Book. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, 1984.

Engels, Friedrich. "Anti-Dühring." In: The Marx / Engels Reader. Norton: New York, 1978.

Erb, Elke, Kerstin Hensel. Diana. Gespräch im Februar. Grafiken von Karla Woisnitza. Kontextverlag: Berlin, 1993.

Elke Erb. Der Faden der Geduld. Grafiken von Robert Rehfeld und einem Gespräch zwischen Christa Wolf und Elke Erb. Aufbau-Verlag: Berlin, 1978.

___, Mensch sein, nicht. Urs Engeler Editor: Basel, 1998.

___, Mountains in Berlin. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Burning Deck: Providence, 1995.

___, Der wilde Forst, der tiefe Wald. Auskünfte in Prosa. Steidl Verlag: Göttingen, 1995.

___, Winkelzüge oder nicht vermutete, aufschlußreiche Verhältnisse. Grafiken von Angela Hampel. Galrev Verlag: Berlin, 1991.

___, interview. In: Birgit Dahlke. "Die romantischen Bilder blättern ab." Inauguraldissertation: Freie Universität Berlin, 1994.

Hejinian, Lyn. My Life. Sun and Moon Press: Los Angeles, 1987.

___, "The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem." In: Anne Waldman, Andrew Schelling Eds. Disembodied Poetics. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1994.

Koziol, Andreas, Rainer Schedlinski, Eds. Abriss der Ariadnefabrik. Druckhaus Galrev: Berlin 1990.

Retallack, Joan. "The Poethical Wager." In: Peter Baker Ed. Onward. Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Peter Lang: New York, 1996.


Bibliography of Elke Erb’s Publications (in the order of publication)

Gutachten. Poesie und Prosa. Aufbau-Verlag: Berlin, 1975.

Einer Schreit, Nicht! Geschichten und Gedichte. Wagenbach-Verlag: Berlin, 1976.

Der Faden der Geduld. Grafiken von Robert Rehfeld, Gespräch zwischen Christa Wolf und Elke Erb. Aufbau-Verlag: Berlin, 1978.

Trost. Gedichte und Prosa. Ausgewählt von Sarah Kirsch. Aufbau-Verlag: Berlin, 1982; Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt: Stuttgart, 1982.

Vexierbild. Aufbau-Verlag: Berlin, 1983; Residenz-Verlag: Salzburg, 1988.

Winkelzüge oder nicht vermutete, aufschlußreiche Verhältnisse. Grafiken von Angela Hampel. Privately published: Berlin, 1984.

Der Fuß - thront... Grafiken von Andrea Hampel. Privately published: Berlin, 1985.

Kastanienallee. Texte und Kommentare. Aufbau-Verlag: Berlin, 1887; Residenz-Verlag: Salzburg, 1988.

Gesichtszüge. Gedichte. Grafiken von Christine Schlegel. Mariannenpresse: Berlin, 1987.

7 Texte. Grafiken von Wolfgang Smy. Privately published:1988.

Winkelzüge oder nicht vermutete, aufschlußreiche Verhältnisse. Grafiken von Angela Hampel. Galrev Verlag: Berlin, 1991.

Nachts, halb zwei, zu hause.Texte aus drei Jahrzehnten. Ausgewählt von Brigitte Struzyk. Reclam Verlag: Leipzig, 1991.

Poets Corner 3. Gedichte. Unabhängige Verlagsbuchhandlung Ackerstraße: Berlin, 1991.

Malachit. Grafiken von Karla Woisnitza. Berlin 1991.

With Kerstin Hensel. Diana. Gespräch im Februar. Grafiken von Karla Woisnitza. Kontextverlag: Berlin, 1993.

Unschuld, du Licht meiner Augen. Steidl Verlag: Göttingen, 1994.

Der wilde Forst, der tiefe Wald. Auskünfte in Prosa. Steidl Verlag: Göttingen, 1995.

Mountains in Berlin. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Burning Deck: Providence, 1995.

Mensch sein, nicht. Urs Engeler Editor: Basel, 1998.

Elke Erb has co-edited two poetry anthologies:

With Sascha Anderson. Berührung ist nur eine Randerscheinung. Neue Literatur aus der DDR. Kiepenheuer und Witsch: Köln, 1985.

With Christoph Buchwald. Luchterhand Jahrbuch der Lyrik 1986. Luchterhand-Verlag: Darmstadt/Neuwied 1986.

She has chosen and edited collections of works by Peter Altenberg, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sarah Kirsch, Friedericke Mayröcker, Marina Tsvetaeva and others.

She has translated texts by Anna Achmatova, Alexander Blok, Valerie Brjussov, Sergej Jessenin, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Marina Tsvetaeva and others.

She wrote several plays for children.

Literary awards:

1988 Peter-Huchel-Preis for Kastanienallee

1990 (with Adolf Endler) Heinrich-Mann Preis

1993 Ehrengabe of the Schillerstiftung

1994 Rahel-Varnhagen-von-Ense-Medaille

1995 Erich-Fried-Preis

1995 Ida-Dehmel-Preis

1998 Norbert-C.-Kaser-Preis

1999 F.-C.-Weißkopf-Preis of the Academy of Arts Berlin-Brandenburg


BIO: Kornelia Freitag is an assistant professor for American literature at the University of Potsdam, Germany. She is working on a book-length project on U.S. Women's Experimental Poetry and Cultural Criticism. She has published articles on contemporary American writing including a recent essay on Art Spiegelman's MAUS.


Cole SwensonCole Swensen -- Translation Coordinator

Cole Swensen is a poet and translator of contemporary French poetry. Her translation of Olivier Cadiot's Art Poetic was published this year by Sun & Moon Press. Recent volumes of her own work include Try (University of Iowa Press, 1999) and Noon (Sun & Moon Press, 1997). She currently directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver.

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