Poet's Pick April 24
Else Lasker-Schűler: "Parting"
Selected and translated by Anya Silver
National Poetry Month 2014

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Anya Silver's Poetry Month Pick, April 24, 2014

by Else Lasker-Schűler (1869-1945)

I always wanted to whisper
Many words of love to you,

Yet you restlessly wander,
Searching for lost wonders.

But when my music boxes unwind,
We’ll celebrate our wedding.

Ah, your sweet eyes
Are my favorite flowers.

And your heart is my heaven . . .
Let me peek inside.

You’re created entirely of shimmering herbs
And you’re soft and pensive.

I always wanted to whisper
Many words of love to you.

Why didn’t I?


* Anya Silver Comments:

When I was asked to contribute a poem to the Poetry Daily Poets’ Picks, I was delighted and honored, and decided to try a hand at a translation.   German was my first language, and for years, I’ve been scribbling my own alternate translations in the margins of books of German poetry that I’ve read, occasionally quibbling with the choices of a translator of Rilke, Celan, Bobrowski, or one of the many other magnificent German language poets of the last centuries.  I immediately knew that I wanted to translate a poem by Else Lasker-Schűler.  Although she is not well-known in America, this German-Jewish Expressionist poet was called, by Gottfried Benn, “the greatest lyric poet Germany ever had.”  In her poem “Autumn,” Lasker-Schűler writes, “I was harmed on this earth” (“Mir ist auf Erden weh geschehen”), and indeed, her life was a difficult one.  She was married twice, unsuccessfully; was never financially secure, relying on financial help from friends; suffered the terrible death of her only child, a son, from tuberculosis; and eventually fled Germany after being beaten by a group of National Socialist thugs.  She spent the rest of her life in Palestine. However, despite her personal anguish, her poetry was recognized during her life as daring, intense, ambitious and imaginative.

I chose a love song because, axiomatic as it is, even people who don’t normally turn to poetry turn to it for hope, joy, and consolation in the events of love and death.  At these moments, we wish to read words that somehow mirror or complement our own thoughts and feelings.  I suspect that poems about failed love outnumber the many poems about burgeoning and fulfilling love by a fairly wide margin, and Lasker-Schűler’s “Parting” is no exception.

What drew me to the poem first are its surprising and somewhat surreal images, such as the music box  (5) and the herbs (11).  The poet, in the manner of an Expressionist painter such as her friend Franz Marc, hops, doe-like, from startling image to startling image without worrying about logical transitions or explanation. (For which “lost wonders,” for example, is the beloved seeking?) Instead, the reader follows along, trusting the poem’s intuitive leaps.

The speaker of the poem seems hopeful in the third stanza that perhaps one day she and her loved-one will be brought together, but the image of the music boxes is an artificial, mechanistic image in comparison to the flowers and herbs that make up her lover ’s body.   The stanza strikes me, thus, as more whimsical wishful-thinking than real optimism. 

Translating Lasker-Schűler’s work is more difficult than it first appears, for while her syntax is quite straightforward, she plays a great deal with sound, especially, in this poem, with assonance.  For example, the first couplet reads, in German: “Ich wollte dir immerzu/Viele Liebesworte sagen.”  The words translate, very simply, as “I always wanted/to tell you many words of love.”  However, such a literal translation fails to capture the lines’ repetition of “o” in “wollte” and “worte” ; the “i” in “Ich” and “dir”; and the “ie” of “Viele” and “Liebesworte.” So, to capture the sounds in the poem, I took some liberties with literal meaning by using the word “whisper” for its alliteration and consonance with “words.”  Luckily, it was easier to capture the playfulness of sound in the second stanza—“Nun suchst du ruhlos/Nach verlorenen Wundern”—with the half-rhyme of “wonder” and “wander.”  Though Lasker-Schűler’s verb “suchst” translates literally as “seek,” I felt that “wander” was close enough in meaning to justify its use for the effect of the lines’ musicality.

My favorite image in the poem is that of the “shimmering” (or “glittering”) herbs (literally, “mint”).  I had a hard time figuring out the vehicle of the trope, whether Lasker-Schűler imagines sunlight gleaming on growing mint, or the juicy shininess of minced herbs.   The striking image more than makes up for the more familiar comparison of her beloved’s eyes to flowers.   Even in that somewhat tired image, though, the poet’s use of the word “sweet” tweaks the metaphor from merely visual to one of fresh fragrance as well.  As readers, we are also less likely to read of a man’s eyes as sweet than a woman’s.  Again, Lasker-Schűler is more tricky than she might at first appear.

The poem’s last line comes as a surprise.  Perhaps as readers, many of us had forgotten the poem’s title, “Parting,” upon reaching the poem’s final, unanswered question.   Unrequited love is an irresistable subject for poetry.  Longing—or Sehnsucht, as a German might say, in a more melancholy mood—is the kind of pain that comes with a shiver of pleasure.   And so, on reading this poem, even though it explores the failure of love, I am left not feeling sad, but rather feeling that whatever evanescent loss the poem shares is more than made up for by the fact of the poem’s continued, lovely existence.

About Anya Silver:
Anya Silver's book of poetry The Ninety-Third Name of God was published by Louisiana State University Press. Her second book, I Watched You Disappear, is forthcoming from LSU. She has had poetry published in many journals, including Five Points, The Georgia Review, Image, Witness, and Prairie Schooner. She lives in Macon, Georgia, with her husband and son and teaches at Mercer University.

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