What sort of poem? This sort.
This little book has made a deep impression on me. I picked it up many years ago, well used, in the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. Why? I had never heard of the author, and only barely read a little German, but the little I could make out spoke to me. Perhaps part of my impulse came from the portrait of the writer on the cover, a pencil drawing by David Hockney (who must have been a personal friend), showing a seated thin, bald man with glasses and beard, holding in his lap a copy of T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” and looking at us questioningly, inviting our questions. Another part of the impulse was also my long desire to learn German and to comprehend how such a polished civilization, land of a good portion of my ancestors, could commit such horrors as those Bienek depicts, chillingly, in such poems as “Baracke Deutschland”.
By working my way through these poems with my Wörterbuch, and memorizing some of them, I am learning a little more German and also storing phrases and images that will continue to resound in me. As he says in the title poem, “Was ist das für ein Gedicht, das zu uns spricht, wenn es vergessen ist?” What sort of poem is it, that speaks to us after it is forgotten? These are that sort of poems.
I now want to read his novels, about Gleiwitz, the Silesian town he was torn from at the end of the war when he was 15, and his experiences in East Germany and then in a Soviet gulag, before finding himself alone once again in West Germany — alone but with good friends, in a world where, he felt after seeing so much suffering, a man begins to live only when he is dead (eine Welt, in der ein Mensch erst lebt, wenn er tot ist).