Mascha kaléko poems english

German Poetry



Rainer Maria Rilke • Stefan George • Mascha Kaléko • Durs Grünbein

The Translators

Martyn Crucefix Harry Guest Jonathan Steffen Karen Leeder Andrew Shields

Previous Translations

THW1: March 1, 2016


Rainer Maria Rilke: An Extract from ‘Requiem for a Friend’ translated by Martyn Crucefix

O I have my dead—I have let them go

and was astonished to see them so at ease

in being dead, so right, so soon at home, so at odds with what we’re told. Only you

come back, brushing past me, linger, look

to tap at something, make it sound—betray

your presence. Don’t deprive me of what

I’m slowly learning. I am right; you’re wrong, amiss to feel homesickness for anything

in this realm. We transform such things—

they’re not here; we reflect them in ourselves, raise them the moment we encounter them.


I thought you were further on. It worries me

that you return, in error—you, who achieved

more transformation than any other woman.

When you died we were afraid . . . no, rather your cruel death broke blackly on us

to sever what preceded from what was to come:

so this is for us to resolve now—this is

the task we will always have before us.


That you were frightened and feel fear

even now, where to be fearful makes no sense, that you might give up even the smallest

part of eternity, my friend, for this, here, where nothing yet is. That out there, for the first time, distracted, inattentive, you failed to grasp the glory of infinite

natures as you did here, every little thing.

That from the circling that has swept you up, the dumb gravity of some discontentedness

has dragged you back to gaugeable time—

it’s this wakes me often like a night thief.


If I could just believe you’d come back

out of kindness, out of a generosity

since you are so secure, self-contained, to wander here at liberty like a child, unafraid of harm that might come your way.

But no. You plead. This is what lacerates me

to the bone—it’s this that cuts like a saw.

Any rebuke, even the bitterest your ghost

might bring me in the night as I sink back

into my lungs, the workings of my gut, into the last vacant chambers of the heart, such bitterness would not be so potent

as this pleading . . . What is it you want?


Tell me—must I travel? Have you left

something behind, in a place that cannot

bear your absence? Should I go to the land

you never saw, though you held it dear

as if it composed one half of your senses?

I’ll set out up rivers. I’ll make landfall, make inquiries into its ancient customs.

I’ll converse with women in their doorways

and watch as they call children home.

I’ll mark the way they wrap themselves

in their own landscape, even as they attend

to the old ways of the fields, the meadows.

I’ll ask to be brought before their king.

I will bribe priests to take me to their most

powerful idol, to leave me there all alone, to walk away, shut the temple gates.

Only then—when I have learned enough—

will I go to observe its animals, allowing

something of their elegant grace to slide

into my own limbs and then I’ll have

a brief existence in their eyes which hold

and release me, without judgement, calm.

I’ll inquire of its gardeners what names

they give the many flowers so I’ll be able

to carry back with me some remnant

of their hundreds of fragrances

in the little clay pots of their lovely names.


I’ll buy fruit there too—fruits, in which

landscape lives once more from soil to sky.

For such things you understood: ripe fruit.

You’d display them in bowls before you, with colour would take the weight of each.

You saw women the way you saw fruit.

And children you saw moulded from within

to the growing patterns of their lives.

Eventually, saw even yourself as fruit—

eased yourself from your clothes, brought

yourself to the mirror, allowed yourself inside, yet held back your gaze: enormous, outside.

You did not say ‘I am this’, rather ‘this is’.

Your gaze, finally, cleared of curiosity, unpossessing, of such true poverty, it no longer desired even yourself—holy.


Rainer Maria Rilke: Poem translated by Harry Guest


Each hour ignores me, steals away.

Its wingbeat wounds me. I’m alone.

What should I do with what I say?

With my nighttimes? With every day?

I have no lover, home, career

that helps me live. While all the things

I give myself to will appear

successful I decline each year.


Rainer Maria Rilke(1875-1926) was born in Prague and led a nomadic existence, living in Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy and France, before his death in Switzerland from leukaemia. He dedicated himself exclusively to his work, including the New Poems (1907-8), the semi-autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and Sonnets to Orpheus(1923). The Duino Elegies (1923) is acknowledged as his masterpiece. He wrote ‘Requiem for a Friend’ (1909) for his friend, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) who died eighteen days after giving birth to her first child.

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Stefan George: Two Poems translated by Harry Guest


Come to the park they said is dead and gaze.

All’s like the shimmer on a distant shore-haze

as unimagined clouds of azure rays

fold light on ponds and variegated pathways.

Take deeper yellow and a fainter grey

of birch and box where soft winds drift away.

Late roses haven’t faded much beneath

calm skies and there’s enough to make a wreath.

Forget not too how these last asters show

their presence still. Mauve tendrils from wild vine would

wind gently round what’s left of all the green. You’d

create an image of autumnal glow.


You’re slim and pure as any flame

like daybreak tender bringing light

a bud in bloom of noble birth

sleek water from some secret spring

Accompany me on sun-drenched fields

in dusk’s mist shudder close to me

brighten my way where shadows reign

cool as a zephyr warm like breath

You’re all I wish and all I dream

make fragrant all the air I breathe

I taste you from each glass I drink

and kiss you with each breezed caress

A bud in bloom of noble birth

sleek water from a secret spring

slender and pure as any flame

like daybreak tender bringing light


Stefan George was born in 1868 in Büdesheim, today part of Rhineland-Palatinate. He began to publish poetry in the 1890s. While in his twenties was at the center of an influential literary and academic circle known as the George-Kreis. In 1933 after the Nazi takeover Joseph Goebbels offered him the presidency of a new Academy for the arts, which he refused. He also stayed away from celebrations prepared for his 65th birthday. Instead he travelled to Switzerland where he died near Locarno.

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Mascha Kaléko: Two Poems translated by Jonathan Steffen


So, legendary city, this is you:

Outside the Gare du Nord, the film sets start.

I’m new still, and I cannot parlez-vous:

Paris – be kind and take me to your heart!

Now, as I doze my way home, you return –

The massive churches, minuscule cafés, Me at the zinc with my café au lait, The walks along the Seine where gas-lamps burn.

You little girls arrayed on Métro seats, Straw-hatted cavalier with pre-War beard –

But there’s that Louvre scene my mind repeats:

‘Hey, look – this picture! Rembrandt? Kinda weird …’

Dawn breaking in Montmartre without a sound, The sleeping tabby on the window-sill;

A Bal musette at dawn, abandoned, chill, With wilting flowers and empty cups around …

I found you different from the things I’d read:

The guidebook left out this and that of you.

But millions love you, Paris – and, that said, Please count M.K. among the number, too!


It rained and rained and rained the whole night through.

I thought: this doesn’t augur well at all.

At noon, the tax inspector came to call.

And later, in the evening, I met you.

I only recognised your face on close attention.

You’ve changed a lot in all these years, I see.

And there’s enough been happening to me.

My optimism put in for its pension.

What am I up to? Not a lot. It seems

The daily grind just goes on endlessly.

And I have mothballed all my youthful dreams.

They’re long outgrown. Now they’re too tight for me …

Your endless questions … Am I happy now, Am I in love, what else has happened to me.

I ask you nothing. But I can read your brow.

Time was … But that is long since history.

Now you’re a corporate big-shot with two sons.

You chose banality without remorse.

Once you were set upon a different course, But opted for the safe and healthy one.

I see you, and our good old days of yore, And how time trickles through our hands like sand.

And I’m no kid these days, I understand.

I don’t believe in wonders any more –

The splendid hopes we shared in years long past

Are small and cold and very short on thrills.

– I think about God’s ever-turning mills:

Sometimes they really can grind very fast.


Mascha Kaléko’s family moved from Galicia to Germany after World War I. From 1929 on, she published poetry presenting the daily life of the common people in various newspapers. Capturing the atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s, her poetry was positively reviewed by Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. In 1938, she managed to emigrate to the USA with her second husband, the composer Chemjo Vinaver. In 1956 she returned to Berlin but then emigrated to Israel in 1959. Kaléko died in January 1975 in Zurich where she fell ill en route back to Jerusalem from a final visit in Berlin.

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Durs Grünbein: Three poems translated by Karen Leeder


Centaurs, what I wouldn’t give to have been able

To see you with my own eyes, before I cease to be.

Unicorns, dragons, you harpies, sphinxes and fairies, You can all go hang. Of all the creatures of fable

Horse-men, you are the greatest curiosity.

Couldn’t you return, couldn’t you come back to life

One day? I don’t mind if you’re not inclined to neigh, It would be enough if one of you could emerge one night

From the bushes, in Greece perhaps, on the motorway

Or at a service station, a shape in the headlights.

But no second chances. I know the score of course:

The forests that once housed you have been felled.

The dance is over, the gallop through the Peloponnese, All the fir trees are long since taken for the fleets

That won the sea war at Salamis.

You were the finale, and when you’d gone that was the last

Of the gods. All that was left behind was the eerie sound

Of twigs cracking in the rain. A few things to remind

Us like the hairy wrist of my neighbour on the bus, And the brillo-pad on a grown man’s chest.

You stubborn mutants, heralds of an ancient world, You visited Europe one more time under Ghengis Khan.

And the storm from the Steppes left the cities buckled

The man merged with the horse, Mongolian dream, The last before railway and aeroplane.

Texts were all you had, vases and marble reliefs

To let your muscles play. Only the immortal verse

Of Homer or Ovid that depicts you holding sway.

That philosopher apart, who would want to give you birth?

And what can I do to meet you again someday?


In the agave’s green cluster of swords

The oath of the Horatii becomes real.

The legend does not disappear. It

Returns to the sources, overwinters.

This hard leaf genus carves the air

Into segments, creates a thunder zone.

Heat turns the fleshy leaves to

Tin that curls under the secateurs

Absurd the blade bristling with spines, This pompous austerity, the distaste

For any kind of green spring lament.

No truce can unbend its rigidity.

An agave does not succumb to the frost.


The yellowed circus posters in a little town

by the sea set the air on fire, in summer

especially, when a match is all it takes.

Squirrels leap like this streak of burlesque red.

Nowhere do posters shine with such promise.

The graveyard wall is plastered and the fence

by the overgrown football field: sun and rain

have bleached the colours. The orange

of the tiger, grey of the trumpeting elephant, against the garish purple background.

An apparition in the dust at the edge of the highway:

This is where time, just for a while, burned

Like grass, tyres at the edge of the car park.

The posters are peeling away. The kids who laughed

In the circus then are business men these days.

Durs Grünbein ‘Epiphanie mit Kentauren’ and ‘ Agave’, taken from: Durs Grünbein, Koloss im Nebel. Gedichte © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2012. All rights with and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

Durs Grünbein ‘Der Sprung durch den Reifen’ © Durs Grunbein. English version published here by kind permission of the poet.


Durs Grünbein: Two Poems Translated by Andrew Shields


Memory, shy

Friend, which window will

You open for me today?

At the most impossible times, You turn up; draw back from me, There in the milky light.

All milk had dried up

When she first arrived, And I watched her part.

Mother, that’s where it started:

All around me, the world

Began to blur.

Word by word, since then, It goes, when memory calls.

Go out, go out.

Everything’s blurred since then, With consciousness the hole

Breathed on now and again.

Down deep, though, grew

Something unknown that

Leaped like a sea horse.


Put up your hands to bury your face

Press them firmly on cheek and brow

Let no more light through your fingers

Inside the walls of your brain

And skull and cheek-bone settle down

Your head is no cage so linger

No roof to catch you no floor

Words right and left above below

None hits the bull’s-eye like woe ignore

The places where you’re known

By nothing forest bay outskirts

Don’t dream except of the end

There’s no gap between heaven and earth

For you no support in the land

Just space just time which rub you out

Try to not remember

Open your eyes open them wide

What do you see when you turn around

Now — is that the darkness inside

Is that the night you go into

Durs Grünbein ‘Ultima facie’, taken from: Durs Grünbein, Nach den Satiren. Gedichte © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1999. All rights with and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

Durs Grünbein ‘Hippocampus’, taken from: Durs Grünbein, Strophen für übermorgen. Gedichte © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2007. All rights with and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.


Durs Grünbein studied theatre in Berlin, where he has lived as a freelance writer since 1987. He published Grauzone morgens, his first small book of poems, in 1988. In 1991 he published his second collection, Schädelbasislektion. Grünbein has been awarded many German literary prizes. he has also published several essay collections and new translations of plays from antiquity.

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The Translators


Martyn Crucefix’s original collections include Hurt(Enitharmon, 2010), The Time We Turned(Shearsman, 2014), A HatfieldMass (Worple Press, 2014). He has translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Enitharmon, 2006) – shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus(Enitharmon, 2012). Daodejing – a new version in English will be published in 2016. Website and blog at Martyn Crucefix


Harry Guest’slast collection was Some Times from Anvil in 2010. In 2012 Impress produced his translation of Torsten Schulz’s novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed) called A Square in East Berlin. His long poem Philadelphiana is expected (from Guernsey!) soon, all being well.


Jonathan Steffen read English literature at King’s College, Cambridge and taught translation and interpreting at Heidelberg University during the 1990s, working simultaneously as a freelance translator and interpreter. He has published literary and scholarly translations from the French and German. Jonathan also writes poetry, essays, short stories and songs. For further information, please visit .


Karen Leeder’s translations of German poetry have appeared in Poetry Review,PN Review,MPT, Magma, SPORT (New Zealand) and WordLiterature Today(USA). Her volume of Evelyn Schlag’s Selected Poems with Carcanet(2004) won the Schlegel-Tieck Prize in 2005 and in 2013 she received first prize in the Stephen Spender competition with her translations of Durs Grünbein. Volker Braun’s, RubbleFlora: Selected Poems, translated with David Constantine appeared with Seagull in 2014 and was commended for the Popescu Prize of the Poetry Society 2015.


Andrew Shields was born in in 1964 in Detroit, Michigan, and thereafter raised in Michigan, Ohio, California, and England. He attended Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania (where he finished his PhD in Comparative Literature in 1995). He now lives in Basel, Switzerland. His collection, Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong, was published by Eyewear in 2015.


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