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




352 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

This landmark collection of essays by one of the world’s greatest living authors makes Durs Grünbein’s wide-ranging and multifaceted prose available in English for the first time, and is a welcome complement to Ashes for Breakfast, his first book-length collection of poetry in English.

Covering two decades, The Bars of Atlantis unfurls the entire breadth and depth of Grünbein’s essayistic genius. Memoiristic and autobiographical pieces that introduce Grünbein, the man and the author, and tell the story of the making of a poet and thinker toward the end of a century marked by global political strife, unprecedented human suffering, long decades of totalitarian rule, and, in its final quarter, the dawn of a new, post–Cold War world order; essays that focus on Grünbein’s major philosophical and aesthetic concerns, such as the intersection of art and science, literature and biology; extended reflections on the existential, cultural, political, and ethical import of the poet’s craft in the contemporary world; and, finally, explorations of the meaning of classical antiquity for the present—all contribute to making.


Praise for The Bars of Atlantis

“American readers who’d like not to be caught off guard the next time the Nobel goes out to the German-speaking world (Elfriede who? Herta what?) may do well to acquaint themselves with the work of Durs Grünbein. I can think of nowhere better to start than The Bars of Atlantis, a book of essays every bit as vibrant, witty, erudite, and awe-inspiring as Grünbein’s incomparable poetry.”—Jeffrey Eugenides

"A map of poet and essayist Grünbein's mind using markers from these essays might plot a path from his native Dresden, where a mountain of garbage was the source of his poetry, through Sienna's Piazza del Campo, the town square that has most inspired him, down to oceanic depths and its denizens, the oldest designs on the theme of 'fish,' and to mythical Atlantis. As Grünbein (Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems) ranges from biology through history, architecture, metaphysics, language, and literature, his quirky humor is revealed by incisive juxtapositions. He confirms evolution's politics of thrift by comparing crabs' vestigial eyes with a broken-down bus converted to a dwelling in a Third World slum. The translators, poets themselves, render Grünbein's thoughts into expressive, fast-paced passages. Grünbein describes poetry as lessons in accelerated consciousness and a novel in fragmentary form. He provides pyrotechnics aplenty in this remarkable collection."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Arguably the best-known and best contemporary poet and author to have emerged from the former East Germany, Grünbein received many major awards, including the 1995 Georg Büchner Preis, the most prestigious honor for a German-language author. Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Grünbein, through his various writings, has been an active participant in the debates that aim at facilitating Germany's attempts at reshaping and redefining itself in the post-Cold War era. The essays collected here, covering two decades, represent a wide-ranging and representative cross section of the work of this poet, essayist, and great thinker. They are grouped into six sections that intersect thematically, with each of the sections in turn clustered around major recurring topics: autobiographical pieces; exploration of the author's major interests in art, literature, aesthetics and science; exploration of literary and philosophical tradition; and the living presence of classical antiquity. (The latter is echoed in the title of the book, referring to the sandbars of the Mediterranean and the extinct city of Atlantis.) This first book-length collection of Grünbein's essays is available in English for the first time (Ashes for Breakfast was his first poetry volume in translation). A landmark work that will likely appeal to a wide variety of readers; very highly recommended for all literature collections."—Ali Houissa, Library Journal

Praise for Ashes for Breakfast

“What was it in Grünbein that so seized my attention? It was the sardonic humor, the savagery, the violent candor–all expressed in lines of cool formal elegance. In Grünbein’s pages, uncontrollable feeling encounters the at first invisible control of an expert technique, creating that exciting ‘deadlock’ of equally strong matter and manner that Robert Frost in his Notebooks found essential to poetry.”—Helen Vendler, The New Republic

Ashes for Breakfast is a brilliantly layered book . . . Grünbein’s poems read as if the forces of history pressing in on the present drove them into this world.”—Melanie Rehak, The New York Times Book Review

“Durs Grünbein is one of the most intelligent poets writing in German today. His subject is nothing less than ‘this life, so useless, so rich.’ It is wonderful to have his selected poems in Michael Hofmann’s note-perfect translation.”—John Ashbery

“Durs Grünbein is a highly original poet, an heir to the riches of German and European Modernism. What’s striking in this poetry is a hard, almost cynical tone which turns out to be just a lid on a jar containing many substances.”—Adam Zagajewski

“Grünbein is a vital new voice in the world of poetry . . . Like Joseph Brodsky, to whom he is often compared, he is a serious and focused poet whose work has a depth that deserves our attention.” —David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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
Read the full excerpt


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

  • Durs Grünbein is the author of twelve volumes of poetry and four collections of essays. His work has been awarded many major German literary prizes, including the highest, the Georg Büchner Prize, which he won at age thirty-three. He has lived in Berlin since 1985.

  • Durs Grünbein © Renate Brandt