The Bars of Atlantis

Selected Essays

Durs Grünbein; Edited by Michael Eskin; Translated from the German by John Crutchfield, Michael Hofmann, and Andrew Shields

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

How do you introduce someone you know only in passing? It has never made sense to me why this person should be familiar to me just because I kept running into him. All I can tell you is that I was born on October 9, 1962, in Dresden, where I grew up as the only child of youthful parents.
My father and mother were twenty-two when I appeared on the scene one afternoon with the usual caterwauling. Like everyone else, I was traumatized by birth. Decades later I came across a poem by the French poet Pierre Jean Jouve that brought the shock to mind:
I saw a puddle of green oil
That had leaked out of a machine and for a long time
I stood thinking on the hot pavement of the seedy quarter
Thinking and thinking of my mother’s blood.
What happened then was a cheerful childhood spent in the provinces, where the emphasis soon came to fall on spent; in other words, the thing was pretty soon over. To this day, I have been unable to shake the conviction that when you throw open your arms to clasp life, you are caught up in the wind and are blown backward into the future, and each successive period is less magnificent than the one before, so that the feeling of loss is pretty soon immeasurable. Nor is the end any consolation, it’s just a limit set to this infinitesimal quotient of happiness.
The name of the province was Saxony, an old cultural landscape turned ash gray, comprising a conflagration site the size of a city or whatever was left of this city after the war, called Dresden. All the learning I received in its walls—years at school and years in libraries and long wanderings—finally culminated in one single, slightly vengeful conclusion. In a farewell poem to the city, I described it as what it was, a baroque ruin on the Elbe.
My early desire to be an American Indian persisted in the form of a susceptibility to nomadism that has also driven so many of my fellow Saxons, and the propensity for con tricks that allowed me to go on dreaming into my early adulthood. When the dreams came to nothing (it’s fairly standard for people from my part of the world to get their centuries mixed up), I wanted to become a vet, with Africa as the setting of choice. But the reality of veterinarian life, drastically described to me in the course of a career interview, alarmed me so much that I took my hat in disappointment; the Serengeti would have to die without me.
Things took their inevitable course; I remained ensconced in the shadow of a Chinese wall, cooped up in a space that was only a little larger, and to visitors hardly less fearsome, than Albania. Then one day, suddenly and unannounced, in the manner of someone coming into his own after noticing that all those things that preoccupy others have no need of him, I started to write poems. Novalis and Hölderlin were my first ancestors: the former’s Pollen together with the disturbing appeal of his Hymns to the Night; the latter’s “Prayer for the Incurable,” his ravaged playground of the gods. “Like rushing streams, the end of something takes me with it, that once extended as far as Asia”—lines like these from Hölderlin’s “In Lovely Blue” swept me off my feet well before my understanding was able to cope with them. At seventeen, a friend lent me a tattered paperback copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and that accelerated the catastrophe. Since that time, I have written with an alertness that goes backward as well as forward, and this impossible condition, the duration of a few breaths between antiquity and X, can only be endured if slowly and line by line I check my voice, the body, and what was caught in the inner ear.
One day, and this wasn’t in a dream, I pictured my situation as that of a swimmer caught in a current coming out of the future.
No wonder, then, that many a thing was mere occasion for me, fleeting sensation and personal chronogram. I thought less and less about raising objections to the politics of the day, since understanding and interpreting cost me more than any thinking and doing. I experienced—and I say this with a degree of shame—I experienced the collapse of the dictatorships in the East as just that, a collapse, in which I was passive, an unpolitical dreamer, albeit an occasionally amused participant in critique and demo. However overwhelming the experience of the end of the Soviet empire was, it became fertile for me only five years later, in Italy, when I was visiting the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Only there did I see the effect of that massive explosion called time, the delayed rain of shards of civilization, and, in the famous calamity, under the volcano, evidence of a kind of memoryless memory—deus absconditus, or whatever you want to call it. Poetry, as I always knew it would, would get on the case—what else was it there for? In the house of charred furniture I paused, for hours all historical agitation was suspended, calmed by the murals in the mystery villa. In those small rooms—no bigger than a pigsty, some of them—with their scribbled lines of poems, obscenities, and decorative drawings, I felt myself better understood than in all the classrooms, barracks, and attics that had ever held me. Then, at the sight of the anonymous fresco representing dream and birth, the entanglements of sex and knowledge, ages and seasons, I had an illumination of what writing, above and beyond anything current, might be all about. The fact that the subjects were all foregathered before Calliope’s throne in the mystery frieze at Pompeii, I found incredibly encouraging.
Ever since that pivotal year, 1989, I’ve been on the road. Berlin, the city where I’ve lived these past ten years, is like a transit lounge from where I’ve struck out for my various destinations; it might just as well have been New York, its opposite number and for me from early on the embodiment of the metropolis. I’ve dropped out of university and spent several years working in the theater, before, by chance as much as anything else, publishing my first book. Even now it makes me nervous to think of the particular sequence of events that’s governed everything in my life subsequently.
One more thing before I finish, a sort of official clarification, if you will. My name, however unexampled in its strangeness it may seem to you, is not an artistic invention. It is merely the name that the law and my parents’ obstinacy did not want to spare me. The fact that it occurred to you to include it in the list of names of the members of this academy encourages me like an exhortation from an unexpected quarter. Thank you.