It’s been a peculiar experience to discover the German poet Peter Huchel (1903-1981) in this lockdown year, when we were all forced to stay indoors and grapple with the loss of our social lives, while paying closer attention to the details and routines of our everyday lives. For some, this experience may have also turned into growing distrust of the people around us: is everyone following the rules to keep everyone else safe? May there even be secret spies among our neighbours, our nearest and dearest, taking detailed note of our rule-bound or rule-breaking behaviour? And, above all, this long pandemic year crystallized the realization that time is precious and that all our days are numbered.
Peter Huchel experienced isolation at numerous points in his life, working under different German totalitarian regimes. His isolation was two-fold: not only did he spend much time, at different points of his life, isolated from the world around him (a chosen retreat in rural Brandenburg in the 1930s, and an enforced house arrest outside Potsdam by the GDR regime), he is also set apart from his peers as Huchel cannot be categorized and associated with one group of poets alone: In her introduction to the collection of Huchel’s poetry, These Numbered Days (translated by Martyn Crucefic), translator and academic Karen Leeder sees associations with a group of poets sceptical of the GDR regime, although “he sits uneasily in either of these or indeed other familiar categories” (9). For Joseph Brodsky, the label “nature poet” in relation to Huchel is “about as misleading as it is in the case of Robert Frost.” And translator Michael Hamburger observes that Huchel neither fit with German Expressionism of the early 20th century (although his syntax shows Expressionism’s influence), nor with the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, a reaction to the extreme heights of Expressionism (despite his realism and focus on the mundane everyday), for his “were poems of personal experience as much as of social comment” (8). And although his poetry about the natural world always features social realism, it lacks the promise of future technologies desired by the socalist regime in the GDR.
This personal isolation stands in stark contrast with the turbulent times he lived through, ending up in “history’s clutches” (Brodsky, 102), but is also a direct consequence of the political and emotional position he developed as a result. Born in 1903 in Berlin, he spent his formative years in rural Brandenburg on his grandfather’s farm. As a young man, he became involved with the right-wing Kapp putsch boycotting the Weimar Republic, but developed a left-wing leaning when this action left him hospitalized. His first poems written during his student days had a focus on the natural world and peasant life in rural Germany, which he feared might be easily exploited by Hitler after his rise to power in the 1930s, so he had the foresight, at 30, to withdraw his first collection Der Knabenteich from publication. Huchel’s response was a return inwards, to “his inner country,” as translator and French poet Mireille Gansel put it in Translation as Transhumance, translated by Ros Schwartz (39).
Like many of his fellow writers, Huchel experienced the beginnings of the GDR as a new dawn for German society and took on the post of editor-in-chief of Sinn und Form magazine, founded by fellow poet Johannes R. Becher, then Cultural Minister of the GDR, championing writers from all around the world, such as Romain Rolland, Federico García Lorca, Nelly Sachs and Jean-Paul Sartre. The euphoria and optimism with which he began his work at the cultural review in 1949, however, eventually turned, and his fervent internationalism and liberalism and his appeal to free speech and independent publishing caused conflict with the regime. Huchel was dismissed from his post and publicly censored the year the Berlin Wall was built, in 1961, when all of a sudden, “he found himself excluded from all intellectual and social life” (Gansel/Schwartz, 38).
This began his time of “inner emigration” (Leeder, 11): nine years of writing in Wilhelmshorst near Potsdam, under surveillance by the Stasi through its clandestine, neighbourly networks. It is no surprise that shadows make a recurrent appearance in this collection. In the poem “Exil” (“Exile”), the “shadows of the hills” are personified, become “friends,” and draw near, but also tell the lyrical I to leave, to “fly with the window,” to “go now, before the maple leaf burns | with the brand of autumn.” The rhythm of the opening stanza recalls the repetition in Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”): “Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends | wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts” (“Black milk of morning we drink you evenings | we drink you at moon and mornings we drink you at night,” translated by Pierre Joris), immediately creating a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere:
Am Abend nahen die Freunde,
die Schatten der Hügel.
Sie treten langsam über die Schwelle,
verdunkeln das Salz,
verdunkeln das Brot
und führen Gespräche mit dem Schweigen.
Come evening, friends close in,
the shadows of hills.
Slowly they press across the threshold,
darkening the salt,
darkening the bread
and with my silence they strike up a conversation.
Martyn Crucefix’s rendering of the last verse, “strike up a conversation” (as opposed to Hamburger’s earlier version “conduct a conversation with my silence”), finds its thematic continuation in the burning maple leaf, carrying the stigma of autumn. Both this image, and the “vision” which “goes up in flames” in the following stanza, are exemplary of Huchel’s lose biblical references and their interconnection with natural symbolism: the reader is free to interpret the references as strictly referring to the natural world, or as theological interpretations of the stigmata of Christ and the burning bush, in which God appeared to Moses.
While biblical references are a constant throughout the collection, it would be too much to attribute a defined religious faith or belief system to the poet. In her Introduction, Leeder instead ascribes a “spiritual dimension” to the “attention [Huchel] gives the world around him” (13). It is Huchel’s attention to detail and minutiae that can be compared to a form of worship, a reverence of nature and his immediate surroundings. His religion, if any, can be found in the natural world, and he “sees nature as a holy sacrament” (Brodsky, 102). His circumstances may have contributed to this attention to the world in his immediate surroundings, a poetic focus out of necessity. Gansel calls Wilhelmshorst the “home-root of his poetry, where every patch of light, every shadow, every window is a world in itself” (38). However, Huchel’s poetry took a turn towards the melancholic throughout his writing life and he “began with hymns and ended with psalms” (Brodsky, 102).
“Die Engel” (“The Angels”) similarly combines the natural world with religious elements and folklore, personifying “the shadow” even more explicitly: Ein Rauch, | ein Schatten steht auf, | geht durch das Zimmer” (A smoky fume, | a shadow rises, | crossing the room). The opening stanza is repeated at the close of the poem, an incantation bringing the mythical shadow to life. The first stanza concludes with the following haunting lines, which seem to speak from beyond the grave: “Remember me, | whispers the dust.” This poem sets a striking scene, while simultaneously letting it vanish into thin air, as it oscillates between tangible elements and events, and mythical, magical storytelling. A previous translation into English by Joel Spector from 1994 uncovers Expressionist stylistics and gives the impression the personified shadow suddenly appeared in the room, in a puff of smoke: “A shadow stands, | crosses the room, | smoke.” Indeed, there is an element of magic in this poem, yet Crucefix’s version captures the muted tone and voice of Huchel’s subdued observation or imagination more closely in his rhyming of “fume” and “room,” repeating the rhyme of “Rauch” and “auf” that establishes a connection between smoke and shadow.
While Huchel’s first collection, his collected early poems appeared in both East and West Germany in 1948, his second collection Chauseen, Chauseen (1963, Roads, Roads) could only be published in West Germany, where he eventually emigrated in 1971, settling near Freiburg. His last two collections (of a total of only four), Gezählte Tage (1972, These Numbered Days) and Die neunte Stunde bring together the poems written in isolation at his home near Potsdam. Translator Martyn Crucefix describes Huchel’s last collection, Die neunte Stunde (1979, The Ninth Hour) in reference to Christ’s hour of despair nailed to the cross, as “a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament” (quoted in Leeder’s Introduction, 12).
Crucefix has truly earned the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize 2020 for his versions of Huchel, as illustrated by a number of ingenious choices in these translations. Most notably when rendering a German phrase, expression or feeling in need of multiple words by a single, precise word in English. “The Knack,” for example, is a brilliant translation of the more general “Die Fähigkeit” (the skill or ability) to describe the honed, well-developed skill and inexplicable expertise “poet-spiders” have
to spin from their own
substance a thin wire
on which to balance
adroitly with two faces,
a single feather,
whatever the breeze.
Another example are the two shadows (here they are again), who turn out to be “two men loitering on the frosty grass” (“These Numbered Days”), an improvement on the original “warten” (waiting), as it implies the spies’ shady intentions, while drawing attention to the mundanity of their profession, the sheer boredom and matter-of-factness of the surveillance state. When Huchel died in 1981, he had “found himself alienated, exiled and silenced in three German states” (Leeder, 12). It is no surprise, then, that an atmosphere of claustrophobia pervades this melancholic selection of poems, reflected in Crucefix’s choice of syntax and vocabulary: short, and shortened, lines are the rule in these poems, often leaving single words standing, isolated, on one verse.
These poems are full of questions, queries and unanswered statements, from concrete to philosophical ones: “Who kindles a bonfire | under the smoking fog?” (“Arrival”); “Who established the darkness?” (“Where Eight Ways Meet”). The deeper the reader enters into this collection, the more the poet’s voice begins to waver, losing its footing (often in the snow), with uncertainty and questioning dominating the feeling of these poems. Disembodied voices emerge in this search for answers, most prominently in the title poem “These Numbered Days,” where voices are “sent ahead through sun and wind” and again, later, “through fog and wind”. Notably, in Crucefix’s translation, Huchel’s “Nebel” has thickened from Hamburger’s earlier “mist” to an opaque “fog,” intensifying the oppressive atmosphere of the knowledge of being observed, in the knowledge that one’s days are numbered.
Delving deeper into the melancholy world of Huchel required dedication which was, however, ultimately rewarding. What is both refreshing and elusive about Huchel is that the poet forever attempts to disappear behind the work – a vice or virtue usually ascribed to the translator – as Hamburger observed: “Not confession, but bearing witness has been his constant aim” (9). And maybe we need to keep a closer eye on these hidden witnesses in the future, experiencing the world’s upheavals in isolation and silent retreat, but ultimately giving account of the sensibilities, if not the events, of an era in crisis.
Huchel, Peter. These Numbered Days. Translated by Martyn Crucefix. Shearsman Books, 2019.
Rebecca DeWald is a bilingual translator, predominantly for academic and non-fiction texts, with a Ph.D. in Translation Studies from the University of Glasgow, working from German, French and Spanish into English and into German. Her monograph Possible Worlds: Jorge Luis Borges’s (Pseudo-)Translations of Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka (IMLR books, 2020) questions the maintenance of a strict distinction between original works and translations. She is Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme Manager at the National Centre for Writing and coordinates the Literature and Translation Programme at Cove Park, Scotland’s international artist residency centre. She also sits on the assessment panel for Publishing Scotland’s Translation Fund, contributes to PEN Translates, New Books in German, and 12 Swiss Books, and runs the monthly Translators’ Stammtisch and Translation Theory Lab at the Goethe-Institut Glasgow.
Mireille Gansel, Translation as Transhumance. Translated by Ros Schwartz. London, Les Fugitives: 2017.
Brodsky, Joseph, and Peter Huchel. “Poetry: Peter Huchel.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), vol. 18, no. 1, 1994, pp. 100–107. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40258820. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.
Hamburger, Michael. The Poetry of Peter Huchel. PN Review; Jan 1, 1980; 7, 4; ProQuest pg. 8
Martyn Crucefix, The Outlaw Beyond the Wall: The Poetry of Peter Huchel https://martyncrucefix.com/2020/11/24/the-outlaw-beyond-the-wall-the-poetry-of-peter-huchel/