Dark Soliloquy: The Selected Poems of Gertrud Kolmar (Das Lyrische Werk)

views updated


Collection of Poems by Gertrud Kolmar, 1955

Dark Soliloquy provides in side-by-side German original and English translation a panoramic selection from Gertrud Kolmar's lyrical work from roughly 1928 to 1937. It contains material from the poem cycles "Image of Woman," "Animal Dreams," "Rose Sonnets," "Prussian Coats of Arms," and "Worlds." With the exception of "Worlds," in which Kolmar abandoned her otherwise consistent adherence to strict forms, Kolmar's poems show a conservative approach to form (strictly maintained common meters, end rhyme, and consistent verse and stanza length). What is striking and innovative about Kolmar's formally traditional poetry are her exceedingly rich and sensual language, her daring portrayals of female sexuality, and her ability to identify with and give voice to the mute or marginalized through a vast array of lyrical personae, including social outcasts (primarily women), children, animals, and plants. None of the poems collected in Dark Soliloquy address explicitly the Holocaust or the persecution of Jews and other groups in Germany under National Socialism. Many of these poems, however, were clearly influenced by Kolmar's experiences during this time as a member of multiple marginalized and persecuted groups (as a Jew, a woman, and an artist). The collection was originally published as Das lyrische Werk in 1955, and the English translation appeared in 1975

The lyrical "I" of "The Troglodyte" is a cave-dwelling, animal-like woman, at once sexual predator and mother. The troglodyte, in heat, lies in wait for a lost wanderer, whom she rapes (the translator misleadingly renders this clearly sexual passage as a hunt for food). After the attack she returns to her cave where both child and bat hang on her "swollen udders." Through her association with bats, as well as with other despised animals (vipers, snails, and toads), she resembles a she-vampire, a common stereotype of female Jewish sexuality (Kolmar employs similar imagery in "Metamorphoses"). Kolmar's portrayal, however, is not without compassion for the troglodyte, who herself fears the dark forest and its creatures and is not only the hunter but also the hunted (gehetzt ).

In "The Toad" the lyrical "I" assumes the persona of a toad, a lowly despised animal, a Jew among animals. The toad is depicted as a soulful creature who loves the sunset, stars, and "whispering of the night." Cognizant of man's disdain for her, the toad nonetheless confidently asserts her self-worth, "Come and kill me! Though to you I'm but a [disgusting] pest: I am the toad, and wear a precious jewel." Unlike many contemporaneous poets (Rainer Maria Rilke, for example), Kolmar does not simply use animals as metaphors but is interested in the animals themselves. In "Judgement Day, Held by Animals Tortured to Death" (not included in Dark Soliloquy ), Kolmar condemns humans' use of animals for food, clothing, and luxury goods, as well as the capture of zoo animals and animal testing. Dagmar Lorenz suggests in her book Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins that Kolmar, like other Jewish authors, such as Elias Canetti, sought to reevaluate the hierarchical categories of man versus animal, recognizing that the degradation of animals was the first step in the degradation of human beings, "open[ing] the door to the extermination of lives 'unworthy of living."'

In a 1 October 1939 letter to her sister, Kolmar reports that the "events of the world" no longer "moved" her as before. The poem "Asia" is reflective of Kolmar's withdrawal from the harsh realities of everyday life into an inner world where she is transported to "exotic" locales far from Europe. The idealization of Asia in particular can be attributed to her sympathy for Zionism. In a 13 May 1939 letter to her sister, Kolmar describes herself as a "hindered Asian." Although she never seriously considered emigration, in another letter (24 November 1940) she rejects America as a potential destination, explaining, "My face looks Eastward, Southeast." The poem "Asia" positions Asia as homeland: "Mother, Mine before my own had held me, I am going home." Corresponding to the German designations of Europe as "Eveningland" and Asia as "Morningland," Europe appears in the poem as a jealous old maid, "She mimics you … this gray maid, and mocks your movements and your words." The same Zionist yearning is expressed in "The Jewish Woman." The lyrical "I" expresses feelings of alienation in her present surroundings, "I am a stranger," and the wish to "mount an expedition into my [own] ancient land." The journey is clearly not aliyah but travel inward. From within the locked towers that gird her, she explores her people's distant past, returning to sites of Jewish history and reuniting with the Jewish matriarchs.

In "We Jews" the lyrical "I" embraces the suffering of her people, celebrating martyrdom as the hallmark of Jewish identity, "The gallows and torture wheel made us what we are" (translation by Elizabeth Loentz). She welcomes her destiny, "When the bitter hour strikes I want to rise up, like all of you did, and be a triumphal arch through which suffering will march" (translation by Loentz). The willingness to accept fate is echoed in the poem "The Sacrifice" and in Kolmar's 24 January 1943 letter to her sister, where she reports that she has learned amor fati. This seeming passivity does not preclude the poet's wish to be a voice for her people. Although her "lips are sealed in glowing wax," the poet "I" longs to "be the voice that echoes down the shaft of all eternity" and "raise [her] voice to be a blazing torch … and thunder: Justice! Justice! Justice."

—Elizabeth Loentz