Introductory Remarks about this section:
This section will feature contemporary poetry -- and accompanying poetics / essay / journal writing, when possible -- translated into English from other languages. If you are translating work, please propose your ideas to our on-going translation coordinator: Cole Swensen, <>

featuring poems by Elke Erb
"Buying Rolls and Crossing Borders - Reading Elke Erb" by Kornelia Freitag

Translator's Note by Rosmarie Waldrop

Elke Erb shares with her generation of GDR poets an emphasis on the concrete, but her way of presenting it is unlike anybody else's, East or West. As she has said, she has her "eye fixed on the molecule" because "truth is always concrete and stands in a fruitful working tension to logic and its formulae. But like the latter, it requires strict precision and clarity."

In the poems from the GDR years, the complex syntax gave the lie to official simplicities, and the close observation of everyday occurrences or social structures leaped off the page into the unexpected and surreal.

The more recent poems presented here come with the subtitle: "Poems and other Journal Entries," which points us toward their more relaxed, more open structure. But Erb's formulations always have an intense precision, while at the same time allowing the full range and richness of overtones in the language (somewhat lost in translation!).

Elke Erb lives in what used to be East Berlin. She has published ten volumes of poetry, most recently Mensch sein, nicht [To be human, not], from which our poems are taken. Also a book of essays and many translations from the Russian (Zvetaeva, Achmatova, Chlebnikov, Essenin, Pushkin, etc.). Her many honors include the "F. C. Weisskopf" prize of the Academy of the Arts in Berlin (1999).

A selection of poems in English, Mountains in Berlin, was published in 1995 by Burning Deck Press (my translation).

In March 2000 she will read in Providence and other US cities. (If interested, contact J�gen Keil, Dir., Goethe Institute, 170 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02116. E-mail:




Talking to Oneself is Just a Roar from the Sea

Intermittent Refuge

Train Across the Spree River

Untitled (first line: "To be human, not:")

E.F., Emigrant

Untitled (first line: "Now I've visited the Etruscans.")

Very Jesus


A Dictionary Is

A Rhyme on Ever


Raw Material, Virgin

Attempt in Words



Talking to Oneself is Just a Roar from the Sea

because the self, as we've got it,
the pure
—under God's jealous & sanctimonious blink—

that our Sibeirian, Carpathian and Klondike claws
scraped from rugged quartz:

extraordinarily soft
and elastic, easy

to modify mechanically, and
slow to react,

a monstrance disk it nods on its stem

neither listens nor talks itself,

an incarnation
of the innermost brain—
O blastula, O gastrula, O guest

from distant seas, traveling
in as it were rising ponds,

amoeba in
pond's ear, roar of the sea






Intermittent Refuge

You would come to Caputh*
and ask for the Jewish shelter

You'd go through twelve locals
no, twenty-three, thirty-four,

till you'd get one who didn't
only afterwards

the one in Caputh who really when it really

or another in Caputh
after others again

the one, when in Caputh

and every one of those in Caputh
who really were in Caputh when it

my heart like poison
drips into Socrates' cup

or even ask every one
about his part in it all
As we see on marble monuments
clothes make the man...

Ask yourself too and your kind
about their part in the history
as if born to it

Let their lips move
them, their investiture

this poison, this blood, this eye-devouring green
demolishes a refuge

Nest egg seals destruction

They rise they go
go and wear robes

walk wear faces
know their own history

are the ones who tell

2/9/92 - 9/3/94

*Town near Berlin, location of a Jewish children's home. During the Nazi time, the home was destroyed and the children deported, with the collaboration of the inhabitants.





Train Across the Spree River

Yes stroking
me, soothing

below, from quay to quay the precise strokes
lead grey, pleasantly precise the ripples,
the water. — It is

in balance with itself as well as
everything else as well as

in motion, engaged in continuous
adjustment, as everything is, except

in concepts there's rest.

If only we'd sensed,
O you all five of my senses,
it in time.

Now I don't suppose we'll get,
O you my poor orphans,
another chance.

9 / 20 / 94





To be human, not:

a horse that rears — and bolts,
its head a trace,

reins like tangled trajectories
thrown all through the body






E.F., Emigrant

Once clear of danger he
would know, what was it made of.

Its name: not you.

Figures of speech, mechanisms,
carvings without knife & norm.

Like characters
a traveler
could read.






Now I've visited the Etruscans.
Like that earlier time, in the giant Washington museum (with the golden Indian on
horseback in front), before the glass case of "Precolumbian Art:" This was enough;
why again? why — start all over again?*
I walk from case to case — a rather casual presentation, as if the loot thieved from
the tombs had been deposited with some embarassment: Well, what's done is done,
this is what we took. I walk from vase to vase and feel my eyes relax, grow
easy, beauty cleanses.
And: the word ancient — if you don't think (mean), but see — has no meaning at
all. Everything is new and shows: how it is made and intended, in all its elegance, a
dance of what in the graves — utensils.
What's amazing: how come no kitsch? — like the stuff added to one altar or
another in all churches, even the most beautiful? (And whence the cave spirit of
these ever more beautiful churches, caves in broad day? Surely not from
underground?) —
Sepulchral relics. Slaying, stabbing, hanging and strangling, torture, drawing and
quartering, poison, illness, age. — Beauty, made to order.

*This question accepts the claim to perfection inherent in our concept of art. Aside from the distorting aura of the absolute with which this claim tends to appear (thanks to the unwise standards of our society) — the aggressive point of the question "Why again?" calls on the conditions of historical reality to attack it from the rear, and then has to shut up.






Very Jesus

Below the mosaic dome of the apse a strip of sheep,
rams, six each from the left and from the right.

From the one in the middle,
the runt, the odd one out,
the thirteenth —

as if shrunk
in a secret noose —

to those others: a charge of inner light such
that their backs seem to take wing.

Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, 3/8/95






When sadness prepares its rising line:
Feel of a jolt, haste, flight impulse, anticipating
the hysterical chaos that germinates,

out of wintery ground pricks its tiny green.
Where then, without horseman, do I gallop...?






A Dictionary Is

after all only
inferred from the sounding of sound-existence,
hence a rather approximate (somewhat, respectively)







A Rhyme on Ever

The bushes, the bushes, the brambles,
the clumps of wild roses and round sloes
have torn our eyes forever
into bushes, brambles, roses and sloes







Stray dogs
are considered particularly close to reality.
But then they are gone again, vanished
wittily from the screen.







Raw Material

...truly universal thinking that doesn't just expose
one's own part and/or brace itself on tradition masquerading as culture,
hence also embrace (each one's own)

no way, forget it:
the eye that looks out for itself has no time to —
hunger (hang out?). And grudgingly.

This leads me (to bring in what's below
the chin) — leads me (assuming

I'd ask) to consider the optical arrangement
as non-random, to expect out of the depth
of momentarily (while he sleeps) unused army boots:
wise words, grassroot-true or heart-wood-hearty...







Attempt in Words

— or that he, in the clearing, at the knee
of... and around us... or who... (witches?)
... hands me a cup of chicory,

milky beige. Too far afield. Colts-
foot. Not sufficient. A wood scene, simply. De-
forested, soft. Kneehigh, but someone's

back perhaps against —
towering — the stump — and his

hands chicory
ether fragrance clearing
coltsfoot legtide








one... somewhere... ghostlike, but the opposite
(materialized) without shoulders hair eyes
without arm leg let alone two
skin house say

on a bare field a hedgerow-rabbit
— but in a blink — heretherezigzagacross

just once more this once
eggwhite protein energy fogwhite ghostlike
engendered as if no danger and
finally wise

"Buying Rolls and Crossing Borders - Reading Elke Erb" by Kornelia Freitag

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