Gymnastics in Language: Herta Müller

Looking at these collages—complete with peculiar drawings and colorful wording—one cannot help but picture a madman/woman hunched over a desk while cutting up words for ransom letters. These poems are in fact ransom letters to an oppressive regime that can only be criticized and exposed anonymously.

 

What do gymnasts and poets have in common? They both have to bend the form and shape of something that has its limits—one the body, the other language. Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller would win a gold medal if there were such a thing as a true Poetry Olympiad.

 

Her dark lyricism and politically significant subject matter—the oppression and censorship under the Communist Regime in Romania—led to her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. Her prize-winning novels, such as Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel, Metropolitan Books 2012) und Herztier (The Land of Green Plums, Metropolitan Books, 1996) are readily available in the English language; and anyone familiar with her prose, will have noticed that Müller is a true poet at heart. Her protagonists often speak of hunger, death, and homesickness in labor camps or hostile communist villages—subjects that are not for the feeble-hearted; and yet, her imagery is the opposite of oppressive or desperate. Her ability to bend language like a gymnast bends body parts is most visible in her poetry. By bending language I do not mean creating new words, but rather the act of fashioning unique metaphors that run along the borders of surrealism. Her imagery is quite real in that it depicts an accurate emotional landscape of a Communist regime; and the combination of abstractions and concrete objects in a totalitarian setting brings about its own brand of surrealism resembling that of Kafka.

 

Unfortunately for English readers, her poetry has not yet been published in translation. I say yet, because it is only a matter of time until someone will take up this project. Any takers?

 

Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen Müller

 

A glimpse at her collection of poems Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen (transl. Father telephones the flies) reveals a unique art form—the art of cut-ups. Müller used newspaper and magazine clippings to fashion poems that represent her poetic voice. Looking at these collages—complete with peculiar drawings and colorful wording—one cannot help but picture a madman/woman hunched over a desk while cutting up words for ransom letters. These poems are in fact ransom letters to an oppressive regime that can only be criticized and exposed anonymously. The author of these notes is holding words hostage in return for freedom of speech. Müller’s poems speak to the truth that words should always be free, no matter how oppressive the regime. The cost, however, is exile and loss of home and memory.

 

Seidiger Ball des Auges MüllerThe following collage poem, as an example, expresses this loss and inability to return to a place once it has been left. Müller always utilizes an incredible array of sensory details, such as colors in this poem. “Die Farbe der Kohle weiß / wem ich fehle” (transl. “the color of coal / knows who aches for me”) plays with the double meaning of the German “weiß,” signifying both “to know” and “white.” Müller’s playful semantics invite second and third readings in order to see all the possible images. The heart of this particular poem, however, lies in the interaction with another traveller at the train station:

 

mit einem

gelben Hahn im Arm sagte ein

Mann am Bahndamm

Richtung gibt’s in allen Fällen

wo Sie wollen aber Rückkehr

wäre eine so blaue Affäre

wie der blinde Dienst

der Winde

 

(transl. “with a yellow rooster in arm / a man on the platform said / direction existed by all means / to where you’d like to be but returns were such a blue affair / like the blind shifts / of the winds”)

 

We get the sense that the colors here—yellow and blue—are cancelled out by the blindness one experiences when being gone from home. What were the colors of the coal at home? Black in reality, but perhaps white in memory?

 

 

Kurz notiert Müller

Müller depicts this particular home in intimate and startling details. We find ourselves in a Romanian village sitting at a kitchen table with the people—people who live under and with the regime. The following collage poem represents a simple image, but at a second glance we are confronted with the ugliness of oppression, here personified by a controlling housewife. In translation the lines read:

 

Briefly quoted
Mr. Frodl relates
when my wife in a whispering tone
counts the money I earned
on the dining-room table, the fur-lined
roof of her mouth turns to the ugliest
place in the world

 

In the original, the beginning line “kurz notiert” evokes the image of an official interrogation, something quite common in Müller’s poetry. A voice is being recorded and someone provides incriminating information about someone else. But who is the accused in the case of Mr. Frodl and his wife? Either way, Müller seems to say that nobody can be trusted and everyone’s ugliness comes to light in different ways.

 

Despite the ugliness and raw nature of Müller’s actors, her poems leave us with a taste of freedom. Art is unique in that it can depict reality in distorted ways. The bending of language’s limbs in Müller’s case is a beautiful example of how language can be more powerful than any weapon and how it knows no limitations. Even if you do not have command of the German language, it is worth your time to check out the beautiful collages in Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen. The images speak for themselves.

 

Milch ist der Zwilling Müller

(transl. “Milk is the twin of / tar in white or / black you can lie / mother pushes a piece of candy / back and forth in her mouth / father telephones the / flies”


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