Featured Selection: No Small Wonder: Klaus Merz

Translated and with an Introduction by Marc Vincenz

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“And if you have an eye for it, you’ll discover the expansive in the minuscule, and vice versa…. That is the vision that I have attempted to develop an entire lifetime.  Or rather, [to seek] worldliness when urbanity requires it. It is imperative to embrace both close proximity and limitless distance, to edge in closer in order to be able to push away forcefully again.”

—Klaus Merz, in an interview with Swiss national television

Throughout his career, Klaus Merz has been praised as an artisan of the understatement, as a craftsman of finely tuned precision. He has been called the watchmaker of contemporary Swiss literature, a sublime, mindful thinker, and a visionary of clarity and concision.  Merz’s subjects are the purveyors and instruments of the small worlds he has grown old in: the cornfields and the streams, the forests and the pastures—but also the miniature bustle of the Swiss city and the machinations of her teachers, her farmers, her bakers, her train conductors.

Merz draws much of his imagery from the Wynental valley, his home in Aargau, Switzerland. In an interview, he mentions how during filming of Merzluft (a new documentary about Merz’s life and work), while motoring along a road that stretches into the distance, the silhouette of a horse and rider appeared on the horizon, and almost as it did in the movie Paris, Texas, the landscape was immediately transformed: “Suddenly, in Wynental there were these wide North American expanses.”  These are the inspirational moments when something everyday reinvents itself in the canny eye.

In his poetry, Merz also drifts wider afield—to present-day Italy or Austria, to the USA, but also to 17th-century Japan or to Homer’s Greece—and despite these occasional wanderings, his keen powers of observation and thought still commence in the cogs and wheels, in the jewels and the springs, before ringing out into deep time. It is precisely in these smallest of details that the great unexpected has the potential to be illuminated.

“The poetry,” Merz says, “nudges toward at a secret, hopefully without ostentation, rather through the power of its own alphabet. And it anagrammatizes; no, extrapolates life out of the mist—and fibs too—and, it makes things more visible.”

It is no small wonder that Merz has a strong affinity for the short form.

 

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Even in Merz’s earliest work (his first poems were published when he was 18) one senses the heavy thinking underlying the word choices, the turning and beveling, the hewing and the fine-grinding, until, eventually the words shine through in their own unique light. This holds true of his poetry as well as his fiction.

His bestselling novella, Jakob schläft: Eigentlich ein Roman (Jacob Asleep), loosely autobiographical, was the work that won him the Hölderlin Prize presented by the German city of Bad Homburg. The novella, which spans an entire lifetime in the countryside of Merz’s youth in poignant, polished sentences, runs a mere 76 pages. And is, for all intents and purposes, a novel written in such a condensed and poetic prose that it may as well be a novel-in-verse.

Although a fiction writer, an essayist, a dramatist and a screenwriter, Merz is first and foremost a poet—and he describes himself as such too: “Words reach behind objects, they create connections to the inaudible and invisible, they reach into our history, down into our deepest personal and communal layers, build bridges with our closest neighbors and to ourselves.”

As Merz’s translator my own visions have been greatly enhanced by his short journeys that begin in simple, almost incidental moments—the frost on the windowpane, the glow of a cigarette against the night, the antlers of a deer creeping over the ridge—and then whisk you on powerful sojourns into the vast distances of language, history and philosophy. I am continuously reminded of the thoughtful, gentle approach of the Zen poets, of the even-footed humor of the Chinese Tang poets, Li Po and Du Fu—and, aside from their compact forms, these are surely more than echoes in Merz’s work.  Here, the poem, “Bonsai”:

 

Looming over his forehead
Hokusai’s wave
went gray for him.
Carrying a blooming date-
palm in his hands,
he passes by.

 

Here, in the sometime-tongue-in-cheek manner of the Taoists, Merz pokes a little fun at Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa. Or, take the poem “Campaign,” from Merz’s previous collection, Out of the Dust, where after spending time on the Thracian battlefield, he brings his favorite Zen poet straight into the conversation:

 

The summer grasses
of all the proud warriors
the residue of the dream
—Matsuo Basho scribbled on
the field at Hiraizumi.

 

Surely, Merz is hinting at what Basho himself believed, that writing poetry and making art is a way of life.  Toward the end of his own life, Basho adopted the principle of karumi or “lightness,” an approach to embracing the mundane world.

Perhaps it is from Basho that Merz learned the art of taking pause.  Most certainly, he enters Basho’s domain of the familiar. When cast in Merz’s voice, the shuffle and tremble of the image coming into focus rematerializes in an altered state. Intensely wrought, transmuted from simple materials freely available to all, the poems become intricate in their simplicity, crafted with ease, resonating with the fine detail and balance of a miniature Bonsai tree.

Like Basho, and as it was written, Merz’s work is to be devoured slowly, to be savored for its every syllable—and it needs to be re-read many times.  From the translator’s perspective, despite the deceptively simple language, Merz’s turn of phrase is extremely specific. Oftentimes the original line-structure cannot be reproduced faithfully in the English;  it proves quite a challenge to find le mot juste. It’s as if each of Merz’s words have been hand-weighed to a fine hair for inference or layers of meaning.  Merz himself says that in the early days he would write pages, then prune and refine, edit and edit, until all he was left with was the kernel. These days, he weighs the words as he writes—sometimes so exceedingly slowly, the world almost comes to a complete halt.  Merz’s son tells of watching his father bobbing his head back and forth as he bounces through word choices.

 

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In his acceptance speech for the Hölderlin Prize, Merz said: “… the roots of all the ‘new’ masters whom I turned to, reached back to the old masters—and down deep into the existential fundament of their poetic creation.”  Here, Merz is referring to Günter Eich as his ‘new’ master and to Hölderlin and Georg Trakl as his old.  But surely also, the old master of the short form—the form that Merz has adopted and adapted as his own—Basho chimes in here too.  The second stanza (and Merz’s favorite) of the Günter Eich poem, “Inventur” (“Inventory”) resonates in Merz’s own work. Here, Eich:

 

My pencil lead
I loved the most,
by days she wrote the verses
that, during nights, I dreamed up. (MV)

And here, from Merz’s own inventory, “Delicate Game”:

 

Nights, I am a child
and old as the world.

Days, I play a game,
and unlearn my final exams:

What is the name
of that river everyone
traverses just the once?

 

Or, from Out of the Dust, the 4-line poem “Biography,” which almost might be the next stanza of the Günter Eich poem:

 

In the passing of time,
became a pencil myself,
a pencil that also remains a pencil
when it doesn’t write.

 

This is Merz at his most contrapuntal, but once again, a vision of the Zen principle of weighed harmony glimmers through: a sense of the closing of an open loop, that the poem may once again begin where it ended, where the minute becomes the expansive and the expansive the minute. In his last two known lines (which could well have been wrought by the watchmaker himself), Basho writes: “my dream goes on wandering / over a field of dried grass.”

 

—Marc Vincenz, Williamstown, Massachusetts, June 2017

 

Im rückwärtigen Raum

Was alles so wächst
in uns und um uns:

Einsicht und Ekel
mit Glück auch die Liebe
noch vor den Tumoren.

Die Enkel wachsen, die
Lichtung im Haar und
hinter den Fußballtoren
der unendliche Raum.

Für M.W.

 

In the Backward Chamber

Everything that grows
within us and about us:

discernment and disgust
and, with any luck, also love
before tumors arise.

The grandchildren grow, the
glade in my hair and,
behind the soccer goals,
unending space.

For M.W.

 

Regelwerk

Wir haben die Forschung
auf die Nacht verlegt.
Zwischen zwei und vier
in der Frühe passiert’s.
Tagsüber ruht der Betrieb.

 

Regulations

We put off the research
until nighttime.
Between two and four
in the morning, a breakthrough.
During the day the office remains shut.

 

Hotel Tirol

Erstes Licht auf den Graten.
Das Hirschgeweih unterm First
liegt noch im Schatten: Ein
Junglenker röhrt durch den Ort.

Die Hauptjahreszeit hier sei
der Winter, erklärt die Begleiterin.
Zwei Thüringer kratzen das Eis
von der Windschutzscheibe.
Und weiter geht’s. Im Akkord.

 

Hotel Tirol

First light on the ridges,
the deer antlers under the rise
still linger in shadows: a
youthful driver roars through the scene.

The main season here would be
winter, explains my wingwoman.
Two Hungarians scratch the ice
from their windshield. And
we’re off. In complete agreement.

 

Garderobe

Sah mein leeres
Hemd am Haken.
Und fürchtete
mich nicht.

 

Wardrobe

Saw my empty
shirt on a hook.
And was not
afraid.

 

Leichtes Spiel

Nachts bin ich ein Kind
und alt wie die Welt.

Tags leg ich im Spiel
letzte Prüfungen ab:

Wie heißt der Fluss
über den jeder
nur einmal fährt?

 

Delicate Game

Nights, I am a child
and old as the world.

Days, I play a game,
and unlearn my final exams:

What is the name
of that river everyone
traverses just the once?

 

Helios Transport

Mit wankendem Wagen
befuhr Helios die Strassen
der frühen Fünfzigerjahre:
Lasten, Transporte aller Art.

Noch heute zuweilen
beliefert er meine Träume
bringt Licht in die hintersten
Räume meiner Kreidezeit.

 

What Helios Hauls

With a rickety cart,
Helios cruised the streets
of the early fifties:
encumbrances, all manner of haulage.

Still today, from time to time,
he delivers my dreams,
brings light into the rearmost
rooms of my cretaceous period.

 

Heilige Nacht

Abstossen, kräftig
vom Zeitungsrand
und hinausfahren
auf die offene See
eines unbeschriebenen
Tages: Vom jenseitigen
Ufer grüssen Kinder
herüber; sie balancieren
eine gläserne Kugel
auf ihrer Hand, rufen:
Schaut, wie es schneit!

 

Holy Night

To push off, forcefully
from the newspaper’s edge
and sail out
upon the open waters
of an unwritten
day:  from across
the shore, children
wave: they balance
a glass ball
in their hands, calling:
Look how it’s snowing!

 

Gedenkstätte

Eine Wasserlilie erinnert
an den gestrengen Vater.
Grün und messerscharf
ragt ihr Schaft aus seinem
selbst gebaggerten Biotop.
Schneidet Töchtern und
Söhnen auch die spätesten
Klagen noch ab vom Mund.

 

Memorial

A water lily reminds us
of our stern father.
Green and razor sharp
its shaft juts out of its
own scooped-out habitat.
It even cuts off its daughters’
and sons’ most recent
complaints straight at the mouth.

 

In der Dämmerung

Wir schauten
vom Balkon hinab
in Herrn Bonsais Garten
ins grüne Rapunzelreich
eines alten Hexers:
Es gelüstet mich
sagtest du.


In the Dusk

We looked down
from the balcony
into Mister Bonsai’s garden,
into an old wizard’s
green Rapunzel-realm:
It makes me horny,
you said.

 

Gebrauchsanweisung

Zur Straffung der Haut
las ich auf dem Flakon:

Der Satz musste sich
gegen die Haut richten

die ich eben noch
liebkost hatte.

 

Instructions for Use

To tighten the skin
I read on the bottle:

The sentence went
against the skin

I had only just
caressed.

 

Launiger Februar

Zwei frühe Falter
gaukeln uns Frühling vor.
Die Schneeglocken läuten.
Auf der Parkbank schmilzt
ein Rentner dahin.

 

Moody February

Two early butterflies
deceive us that spring is arriving.
The snowbells tinkle.
On the park bench
a pensioner melts away.

 

Von Pol zu Pol

Ging lebenslang
auf kalten Füssen
durch den langen
Tag.
Erst nächtens wurden
mir die Sohlen
weich und warm. Und
meine Haut ein weisses
heisses Bärenfell.

 

 

From Pole to Pole

Walked lifelong
on cold feet
through the lingering day.
Not until nighttime
did my soles become
soft and warm, and
my skin, a white
hot bearskin.

 

Widerlager

Gross erhebt sich
am Kiesgrubenrand
das Mauerfragment.
Ein wildes Auge ziert
seinen schroffsten Stein:

Zyklopen des Unnützen
müssen hier nachts
am Werk gewesen sein.
Zu ihrer, zu unserer
Erbauung.

 

Abutment

The wall fragments
stretch along the edge
of the looming gravel pit.
A wily eye adorns
its craggiest stone:

Perhaps the Cyclopes of Futility
have been here
at the plant during the night—
for their, for our
edification.

 

Migration

An seinen Fingern
zählt der Enkel
die Planeten ab.

Saturn wollen wir
bewohnen, er dient
uns auch als Karussell.

Grau und geringelt züngelt
unser Haar durchs All
wir schauen mild

zurück auf unsere
enge Heimat, halten
einander bei der Hand.

 

Migration

On his fingers,
my grandson
counts the planets.

We want to live
on Saturn, it also
serves as a carousel.

Gray and curled our hair
flickers through space.
Meekly we look

back at our
cramped home, grasp
each other by the hand.

 

About the Author

 

Klaus Merz was born in 1945 in Aarau and lives in Unterkulm, Switzerland. He has won many literary awards including the Hermann Hesse Prize for Literature, the Swiss Schiller Foundation Poetry Prize, the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in 2012 and the Rainer-Malkowski-Preis in 2016. He has published over 35 works of poetry and fiction. His latest novel is The Argentinian (Der Argentine, Haymon, 2009) and his recent collections of verse are Out of the Dust (Aus dem Staub, Haymon, 2010), Unexpected Development (Unerwarteter Verlauf, Haymon, 2013) and What Helios Hauls (Helios Transport, Haymon 2016).  Innsbruck’s Haymon Verlag has published his complete works in seven volumes (2352 pages), featuring all his work in poetry and prose (collected and uncollected) from 1963 through 2014.  Merzluft (Breathing Merz), a feature-length documentary by Heinz Bütler about Klaus Merz and his work was released in 2015.

 

 

About the Translator

 

Born in Hong Kong, Marc Vincenz is British-Swiss and is the author of ten books of poetry; his latest are Becoming the Sound of Bees (Ampersand Books, 2015), Sibylline (Ampersand Books, 2016) and The Syndicate of Water & Light (Station Hill, 2018). His novella, Three Taos of T’ao, or How to Catch a White Elephant is to be released by Spuyten Duyvil in late 2017. He is the translator of many contemporary German- French- and Romanian-language poets. His translation work has received fellowships and grants from the Swiss Arts Council and the Literary Colloquium Berlin.  His recent publications, include The Nation, Ploughshares, The Common, Solstice, Raritan, Notre Dame Review and World Literature Today.  He is International Editor of Plume, publisher and editor of MadHat Press and Plume Editions, and lives and writes in Western Massachusetts.

 

Spuyten Duyvil released Marc Vincenz’s translation of Klaus Merz’s collection Out of the Dust in 2014. His translation of Merz’s Unexpected Development was a finalist for the 2016 Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation and is to be released by White Pine Press in March 2018. Vincenz is currently translating Merz’s selected poems (1963 – 2016), An Audible Blue.

 

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