Three Poems by Jürgen Becker
translated by Okla Elliott
Jürgen Becker was born in Köln, Germany, in 1932. He is the author of over thirty books—novels, story collections, poetry collections, and plays—all published by Germany’s premier publisher, Suhrkamp. He has won numerous prizes in Germany, including the Heinrich Böll Prize, the Uwe Johnson Prize, and the Hermann Lenz Prize, among others. Becker’s work often deals with his childhood experience of WWII and the political consequences of the postwar division of Germany.
I first discovered his work when I was a student for a year in Germany and only later decided to contact him about translating his work. I can say that spending as much time as I have with his poetry has been hugely rewarding, and there are days when I enjoy being the conduit for his work into English as much as I enjoy doing my own writing. The following three translations have all appeared in print journals (A Public Space, Absinthe, and Indiana Review, respectively). I hope they give some idea of how wide-ranging and engaging Becker’s work is.
In the Wind
Blackbirds, then other voices. It doesn’t stop
when it snows, when with the snow
a newness comes that is
entirely essential this morning. Or how
do you see it? I see the pear tree and how it
(the pear tree) reacts to the wind (to the
wind). This morning, yet again,
the decision fell. War
between magpies and crows, only this war,
no trappings, only this clear understanding.
Yet another voice, the next commentator; it’s all about
(yet again) the whole. Are you standing
in the garden? The you know, tsk tsk, the blackbird
warned above all else, you know, I’ll say it yet
again, in war, in the new snow, in the wind.
Toccata and tango; the afternoon
not bright. One hotel
weathered after another;
postcards of emigrants.
are blown away by the sand,
disappear behind the sand. The calm
of anglers. Invisible England; reports
from the British transmitter, wartime.
with balls, wheels, propellers;
and paratroopers all about.
The camera’s broken? It’s cold out,
and there are crows bigger than crows
usually are, scattering smoothly over there
across the fields.
Nothing over there. Twilight. Gold gray twilight
spreads out. A tree in Poland
is over there the lost barren tree.
Lighted and empty, the bus drives over the levee.
On the riverbank, two men with their backs
to the dam, which neither begins nor ends.
You don’t hear anything. You hear the slippage
of the floe, the circling floe. You hear
for a long time yet, later, in the dark, the drifting ice.
The camera’s broken, else why are the pictures
blurry now? Two men stood on the riverbank.
They came back. They could tell the story.