Selected Poems from Our Ghosts and How We Talk to Them

Gabo Winner Summer/Fall 2018

[translated poetry]

I drank coffee with your devastated parents
or something we called coffee:
were you already different
when we sat across from each other in my kitchen
and you didn’t want to eat anything
except a piece of chocolate,
did you already have an eye on the reeds?
I can’t tell .. was that your way
of saying goodbye, impossible to know
if it was more than this exhaustion
I came to recognize
over the years .. the thing in your head
that breaks your bones
whenever it feels a hankering
like you for a piece of chocolate
I don’t know .. I only know
I was much calmer with you at the table
than I am now .. with your parents
who are devastated
where I can hardly breathe
where every sip
from my water glass
makes me cough, so that I, unlike you,
won’t disappear
in the water—

 


you shocked me more than dr. benn
and dr. benn really shocked me
with words that carved through corpses
like small blades until all flesh
hung from the bone
and nothing remained
except a poem

now you are stranded at dr. benn’s
in the middle of a poem, on a table
where they open you methodically
because you lay in the reeds
for two days in your favorite lake
with your clothes on,
and I ..

I stand next to you, to your lungs
which have grown too big for your body
and dr. benn, my analytical demon,
tries to find something
with his mind dull as lead
maybe you wanted to breathe in
your favorite lake

or your favorite lake you

and even when
we pull the skin down a little
from your brow to your nose
and dare to peek into your skull
and the summer sunlight cascades in,
we are in the end—dr. benn and me
and us—my friend

a piece of paper
that is left over—
nothing more.

 


we read the newspaper for five days
and sensed nothing, you spent five days
in the newspaper as “the drowning victim
the unidentified body in the sommersee
5’7”–5’9,” male, thin, a set of keys
in the pants pocket, or jacket
it said: you had your clothes on, even shoes
and your face: olive toned.
as if you were from southern climes!
the ice was your homeland, an iceberg
of crystal and loneliness … you were
not even reported as missing—
we didn’t miss you for almost a week
blissful monsters; you were too distant
for us to miss you after seven days ..
we were afraid for you too often
and became tired
like you did, and we fell asleep
like you—whole on the outside,
you lay in the reeds for two days, nights
stars over you, your shell
three pictures can be found online:
a boat that brings you ashore
two ambulances, a fire engine
as if you were only sick or injured
or alight .. in one picture
they are bent over you, two men
smoking, looking at you calmly
as if you were a rare fish—

 


twenty photo albums all of you
your bare bottom all over the place
a stack of pain on a table
in an apartment house, 11th floor
only child.

august first, eleven thirty
almost all birds quiet in the heat
while you were being buried
three buckets of dirt into a small hole
and a luncheon still to get through.

old friends of your parents
who order steak
and beer and begin to enjoy
and talk about vacation
on another plane than you ..

and your parents who order steak
without knowing what to do with it—
as if they themselves had been forked up
by you .. and were now staring at you,
into your open mouth—

 


you’d been dead three weeks
I was camping in the woods, asleep
when you stopped by, cheerful
in the night, to tell me
you may appear three more times
don’t worry anymore
it’s really
really good here ..
and you had to laugh
because you sounded like
the brothers grimm on valium.

I didn’t wake up,
your words were simply in my head
like diamonds the next day, then for weeks
for months, a year .. but now
they’re tin, with the hollow ring
of a selfie-dream .. a visit from you?
that can’t be: don’t be a fool
you stopped by dressed like him
to visit yourself, I’ve too often
 
thought and thought and thought ..

I tore the dream up myself
don’t wor
it’s rea
rea ood
 

 

ich hab mit deinen verwüsteten eltern kaffee getrunken
oder irgendwas, was kaffee heißt
ob du schon anders warst vielleicht
als wir uns gegenüber saßen, in meiner küche
wo du nichts essen wolltest
außer einem stückchen schokolade
ob du schon schilf im auge hattest?
kann’s nicht sagen .. ob das schon deine art
von abschied war, fast unbemerkbar
ob da schon mehr als diese müdigkeit
gewesen ist, die ich schon kannte
all die jahre .. das ding in deinem kopf
dass dir die knochen bricht
wann immer es die lust verspürt
wie du auf schokolade
ich weiß es nicht .. ich weiß nur noch
ich war viel ruhiger dort, mit dir am tisch
als jetzt .. mit deinen eltern
die verwüstet sind
wo ich kaum atmen kann
wo jeder schluck
aus meinem wasserglas
mich husten lässt, um nicht wie du
in diesem wasser
zu verschwinden—

 


du hast mich mehr erschreckt als dr. benn
und dr. benn hat mich mal sehr erschreckt
mit worten, die wie kleine messer
durch leichen fuhren, bis alles fleisch
vom knochen hing
und nichts mehr übrig blieb
nur ein gedicht

jetzt bist auch du bei dr. benn gestrandet
mitten im gedicht, auf einem tisch
wo man dich öffnet, schritt für schritt
weil du im schilf gelegen hast
zwei tage, in deinem lieblingssee
noch alle sachen an
und ich

ich steh jetzt neben dir, vor deiner lunge
die viel zu groß geworden ist für dich
und dr. benn, mein analyse-wicht
versucht noch irgendwas zu finden
mit seinem verstand stumpf wie’n kamm
ob du deinen lieblingssee
einatmen wolltest

oder dein lieblingssee
ganz plötzlich dich

und selbst
wenn wir die haut von deiner stirn
ein wenig runterziehen, bis zur nase
und einen blick in deinen schädel wagen
und alles sommerlicht reinfällt
sind wir am ende, dr. benn und ich
und wir, mein freund

ein stück papier
das übrig bleibt—
sonst nichts.

 


wir haben zeitungen gelesen, fünf tage lang
und nichts gespürt, du warst fünf tage lang
in allen zeitungen „die wasserleiche“
„der unbekannte körper aus dem sommersee“
1.70 – 1.75, männlich, schlank, mit einem schlüssel
in der hosentasche, oder jackentasche
dort stand: du hattest alles an, auch schuhe
und dein gesicht: südländisch.
als ob du aus dem süden wärst!
du kamst vom eis, vom eisberg
aus kristall und einsamkeit .. du warst
nicht mal vermisst gemeldet—
fast eine woche haben wir dich nicht vermisst
glückliche monster; du warst zu fern von uns
um dich nach sieben tagen zu vermissen ..
wir hatten angst um dich, zu oft
und wurden müd dabei
so müd wie du, und schliefen ein
wie du—von außen unversehrt
hast du im schilf gelegen, zwei tage, nächte
sterne über dir, der hülle
drei bilder, die jetzt online weiterleben:
ein boot, das dich ans ufer bringt
zwei krankenwagen, eine feuerwehr
als ob du immer noch ein kranker wärst
und brennst .. auf einem bild
beugt man sich über dich, zwei männer
rauchend, die dich ruhig betrachten
wie einen seltenen fisch—

 


zwanzig fotoalben nur für dich
dein nackter kinderpo in allen posen
ein stapel schmerz auf einem tisch
in einem hochhaus, 11. stock
einziges kind.

erster august, halb zwölf
fast alle vögel still vor hitze
als man dich eingegraben hat
drei eimer erde in ein kleines loch
und noch ein mittagessen in der nähe.

die alten freunde deiner eltern
die sich steaks bestellen
und bier, und langsam lustig werden
und von urlaub sprechen
ganz parallel zu dir ..

und deine eltern, die sich steaks bestellen
ohne zu wissen, was man damit tut—
als wär’n sie selber aufgespießt
von dir .. starr’n sie dich an
in deinen mund—

 


du warst drei wochen tot
ich schlief im wald, auf einem campingplatz
als du vorbeikamst, nachts
fast gut gelaunt, um mir zu sagen
du könntest dreimal noch erscheinen
hab keine sorgen mehr
hier ist es wirklich
wirklich gut ..
und musstest selber dabei lachen
weil das wie grimm auf valium klingt.

ich bin nicht aufgewacht
hab nur deinen satz am nächsten tag
wie diamant im kopf gehabt, noch wochenlang
noch monate, ein jahr .. doch jetzt:
wie blech ist er geworden, hohler klang
von einem selfie-traum .. besuch von dir?
wohl kaum. mach dich nicht lächerlich
du hast dich selbst besucht
geschminkt als er
 
hab ich zu oft gedacht gedacht gedacht ..

ich hab mir selbst den traum zerhackt
hab kein sor
hier ist es wirk
wirk ut

 

Translator’s Note:

Carl-Christian Elze began writing poems as a way to deal with bouts of anxiety that began unexpectedly in college and often prevented him from going to class. He discovered that forming his thoughts into musical, poetic structures was both soothing and empowering. In a sense, he sang songs with the ghostly voices in his imagination so they’d become harmonious. As we grow older, we gather more and more specters: parents and friends die, we start families, past selves emerge as experience changes us. When Elze’s childhood best friend committed suicide by drowning, he sat down to write his fifth book, diese kleinen, in der luft hängenden, bergpredigenden gebilde (Berlin: Verlagshaus Berlin, 2016), an exploration of what it means to live in the face of death. Who are we in relation to the ones we love? In relation to the universe? How should we live? Where do we go wrong in our attempt? In the book these poems come from, Elze talks it out with a good number of his ghosts as conversation partners.

A sense of openness, and even more so, the ability to marvel are the keys to Elze’s world—I aspire to make them mine also. Perhaps this is why I was attracted to this book and these poems to begin with. The voice shifts from chapter to chapter, much as the style and content of our conversation changes depending on who we are talking to. When speaking with the deceased friend, the poems mimic the disjunction in their relationship. Other poems in the book sound like a Sunday afternoon phone call with a parent. Elze speaks anxiously to himself at times, and at other times, the poems seem to come from the universe itself to remind us of our sense of wonder. Throughout the work, however, Elze’s poet voice presses through, and I have worked carefully to listen, convey, and respond.

I have my own accumulation of ghosts that I speak with often, and now I can add Elze to their numbers as one who rises up through the page. What translator hasn’t tried out a phrase and then thought, Oh, they would never say that, and deleted it? Falling into each of Elze’s modalities as his translator has been like finding new ones in myself, new ways of speaking where it’s not distinguishable anymore who is doing the talking. Me? Elze? Or perhaps, only a collective conversation on a universal piece of paper and “nothing more—”


Special Guest Judge, Tiffany Higgins:

In “you’ve been dead three weeks,” Caroline Wilcox Reul maintains the speaker’s consistently casual, sometimes humorous tone when addressing the person who’s come back from the dead to speak: “you sound like / the brothers grimm on valium.” A succession of metaphors is rendered rhythmically: “your words were… / like diamonds…but now / they’re tin, with the hollow ring / of a selfie-dream.” I love that the poet and translator have brought into English this concept of a selfie-dream. Throughout [her] translations of Carl-Christian Elze’s poems, Reul keeps us in this quirky, ghostly world. There’s comedy in the last stanza, when the speaker has to “tear up” this intrusive visitation; the first stanza’s reassuring statement gets slurred and shredded: “don’t wor/ it’s rea/ rea ood.” 

 

–Tiffany Higgins is the author of And Aeneas Stares into Her Helmet, selected by Evie Shockley for the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Prize; The Apparition at Fort Bragg, selected by Camille Dungy for the Iron Horse Literary Review contest; and Tail of the Whale (Toad Press, 2016), translations from the Portuguese of Rio poet Alice Sant’Anna. Her poems appear in Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She’s translating the work of Brazilian writers, including Itamar Vieira Junior and Lívia Natália. Her article of narrative journalism, “Brazil’s Munduruku Mark out Their Territory When the Government Won’t,” is forthcoming in Granta’s May 2018 online issue.

 

Caroline Wilcox Reul is a freelance lexicographer and translator. She has a MA in computational linguistics and German language and literature from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. She is the translator of Wer lebt / Who Lives by Elisabeth Borchers (Tavern Books, 2017) and co-editor of the poetry anthology, Over Land and Rising (9 Bridges, 2017). She is currently the poetry editor for the Timberline Review. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in the PEN Poetry Series, the Broadsided PressLyriklineTupelo Quarterly, and Poetry International.

Photo Credit: Nina Johnson Photography

Carl-Christian Elze lives in Leipzig and writes poems, short stories, plays, and libretti. Recent awards for his work include residencies at the Künstlerhaus Edenkoben (2017) and the Deutsche Studienzentrum in Venice (2016), as well as the Joachim-Ringelnatz Prize (2015). His most recent books include langsames ermatten im labyrinth: poems (Verlagshaus Berlin, forthcoming in 2018), diese kleinen, in der luft hängenden, bergpredigenden gebilde: poems (Verlagshaus Berlin, 2016), and Oda und der ausgestopfte Vater (kreuzerbooks, 2018), a book of short stories about growing up with the animals at the Leipzig Zoo where his father was head veterinarian.

Photo Credit: Sascha Kokot