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Isn’t That So


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In 1954, the Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker met her life partner, Ernst Jandl, with whom she would live and collaborate for nearly half a century. In the wake of Jandl’s death, in 2000, she wrote a series of books documenting the swirl of her grief. Two of these memoirs have been translated by Alexander Booth and compiled as The Communicating Vessels, which was published by A Public Space Books earlier this month. A selection from one of the books, 2005’s And I Shook Myself a Beloved, appears below.

ernst-and-friederike.jpeg

Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayröcker at a public reading in Vienna, 1974. Photo: Wolfgang H. Wögerer, Wien, Austria. CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

In the end people are unconscious / so : when they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone, so Gertrude Stein, and my maternal grandmother had the habit of not being able to spend a lot of time in one place : at a tavern with her family she wanted to be at home, at home she complained about having to be at home and that no one came to visit, when someone came to visit she yearned to retire to her room or take a walk, I have inherited this unquiet body of hers this character, standing too, leaning against a window or door, standing balancing a bowl from which I’d eaten and drunk while standing, and I can’t spend a lot of time in one place, and whenever I visit someone, walking in, I say I can’t stay long.

I never knew what to say, I was unable to start a discussion or join a discussion because I am unused to being with others, isn’t that so, preferring to talk to myself or reading a book, which, outside of writing and walking, is my favorite activity, etc.

Because my throat, I mean, my throat is tied and making me cry, which is always a sign of having a lot of work to do, isn’t that so, here in these legendary surroundings I am familiar with the sky and whether it has something to say or reveal about the weather to come, which means I am so familiar with the little sheep when they come, and the vapor trails disappearing beneath them, and I have learned that a whirling evening wind means rain the following day and, likewise, when I am in unfamiliar surroundings and unfamiliar with the sky’s signs I just have to let myself be surprised by the weather the following morning, isn’t that so.

But my eyes were more important than my ears, so Gertrude Stein, and it was always polite to be there, at every reading, and walking into the room Ulla said, WE ARE ALWAYS AT WAR and I was surprised, and it was a flurry of thought, and in my lap the scraps of paper warbled, as I write, as I move, and it floraed all around me and I shook myself a beloved, well, now I have a lit. dog, and in the mornings and afternoons I’d go to Drasche Park, and I enjoyed it though my lit. dog did not pay the slightest attention to me as we walked, astonishing, and so up one street with my lit. dog then down another, and that made me happy, and then another lit. dog walked up : namely, EJ called me from Berlin and said, I’ve found a large flat in a beautiful villa, and there’s a neat lit. dog, too, and you’ll like everything, and so we moved to Berlin for a year and met a lot of people and had a lovely time.

I sleep most of the day because of all the medicine, at night I wait for EJ to speak to me in my dreams, I often dream of him, he acts the way he did when he was alive, I have no fixed ideas about the beyond, sometimes I am afraid to imagine it, sometimes I play with the thought of how it might be, sometimes the feeling that there is no beyond, I read a lot, writing’s only possible when I have these wings, that’s my secret, how much longer do I have to live. My wrinkled forehead, until now no serious illnesses found, which means I could be happy, at times I even am. I don’t know if I believe in God, I pray to him, I guess I believe in him, I cross myself before every church but do not go to Sunday Mass, why not, I beg for his blessing, I ask his blessing for writing, for my health, for the well-being of my dead parents, for EJ’s wellbeing, I’ve made a note: The Gout Register, no idea. I hope I have a lot longer to live, there are so many things I still want to do, the sm. Ischl in the Kaiserlichen Park of Bad Ischl, I feel the summer wind on my arms and legs, cheeks and forehead, but from time to time it’s cool, rainy, past the same shopwindows a hundred times, and it all repeats, year after year, but how long will everything keep allowing itself to multiply, I believe very strongly in the Holy Ghost, the wings too, but that’s my secret, etc. I’m listening to the end of Arthur Honegger’s Le roi David oratorio, a powerful composition, I’m in the spheres, no flurry of thought but a vision of light while listening, ravishing music, etc.

I could hardly write a thing in Berlin because I’d go on walks with the lit. dog, whose name was Fifi, for hours every day, we lived in the area of Krumme Lanke with its lake and delightful landscape and I would go walking with Fifi, and I see myself, I still see myself the way I do everything and I see myself in moments from long ago, that is, as if I had continuously taken snapshots of myself, I see myself, e.g., at night, after visiting Barbara Frischmuth, stepping out of her house and thinking, I’d be afraid to live in a house all by myself, and as if she’d read my thoughts from my forehead she said, I’m not afraid of living here alone.

On the front side of the shortened tram in huge letters I dream: MISSING CAT, we went into the garage to get the car and once again she said she wasn’t afraid even though her closest neighbor was rather far away, we were in that village world and I dreamed “Ovidian cadences” and whenever we, EJ and I, talked about our trip to America we always had to think of the East Coast first and Washington and as to Washington nothing but our trip to a Laundromat where we were helped by an old white-haired African American, he had large yellowish eyes, and we talked about New York, we talked about how we stayed at the Algonquin and at breakfast ran into Siegfried Lenz, who was waiting for his translator, but he was so lost he barely saw us, and how at first we stayed in a dirty hotel that we left again immediately and how we went walking down Broadway and someone told us always keep a few coins in your pocket, etc., they’d come in handy if we got robbed, but we never got robbed and the coins jingled in our coat pockets on our way back home, and how Boston was the only city in America that seemed completely European, and how our trip out West took us only as far as Bloomington, where EJ had an acquaintance, and south to Miami, which impressed me, what with the Atlantic sloshing up against the hotel window or me at least imagining it did, and the vegetation seemed paradisiacal, the only thing we didn’t like, I said, were the air conditioners as soon as you stepped into a building or a cinema so that, instead of taking off whatever we were wearing on top, as usual, we had to put on everything we had, I froze in all the buildings, and I asked myself why it was so excessive, was it simply fashion or a habit, and the second thing we didn’t like was that, in some hotels, we didn’t receive any breakfast, which meant that first thing in the morning we had to wander the long streets to find a place with coffee and muffins and sit on a barstool, swinging back and forth, what an uncomfortable way to breakfast the Algonquin was the only exception : there we received breakfast, and then I paused, I traced.

And then we began to call each other using only our first names, my editor and I, on the phone, and when we talked about friends in common we only talked about José and Sara and Ulla and Jacqueline and Lutz and Katja and Wolfgang and EDITH, strangely enough, one talks to oneself about chestnuts and walnuts and hazelnuts and beechnuts, one talks to oneself about how many one finds and whether they’ve got worms, one talks to oneself about apples and pears and grapes and the kinds one likes the most, in times of war, one talks to oneself about caterpillars but never about spiders or lizards, one talks to oneself about dogs and cats and rabbits but not about bats or mice or moths, so Gertrude Stein, yes, but I am subjected to a step back, a regression, a mountain station, just like how lit. old ladies begin to get cheeks again, like lit. children, babies at the breast, isn’t that so, and so that late summer afternoon I walked up the Waldstrasze, which isn’t too steep and covered in asphalt, and saw ants in droves at my feet, walking over one another, and all the trees seemed bent some of them stretching their main branches in the same direction, in other words, toward the slope of the meadow, it was the end of August and the trees had already begun to lose their leaves, the evening wind blew from the NW and cooled our cheeks, cozy tears, and there was that bag with the swans.

And the huge stones with hieroglyphs and hearts from the coast of Crete that EDITH had brought me lay at my feet in my writing room, and my feet were naked and I thought about the sea and waves and going under and swimming backstroke, which I wasn’t that good at, and all the while I howled and howled, mornings and evenings I couldn’t stop scribbling and howling, in other words, a regression, a regression into puberty, EJ constantly looking into Lili’s eyes at the pub, yes, literally going under in Lili’s eyes, first her left and then her right, and as if wanting to excuse him she said, it’s because I have a rather peculiar iris, and he could not get enough of her, then suddenly he had to tear himself away from her iris, and she knew how often a clock would strike.

And I said to EJ, I can learn a lot from my old doctor, I could learn a lot about life, I say, especially as far as discretion’s concerned, she is the most discreet person and was unable to stand one of her chauffeurs because, as she said, he had no discretion, she always said, he is not discreet, everything he should keep to himself just comes right on out, etc., my old doctor especially reminds me of the figure of Gertrude Stein and I admire her immensely, she is very cultured, she likes to laugh, but she can also take command or be jealous, this arm of blooms.

And over and over we told each other how much we had liked Boston, yes, that it was basically our favorite because it seemed so European, and whenever EJ and I talked about our trip to America we affirmed to each other how much we had liked Boston, indeed, it was our favorite and we repeated ourselves constantly until all we could do was laugh whenever one of us began to speak about Boston, and because everywhere and, most of all to my friends, I said, ach, I’d like to write ONE more big book before I have to go, now I’m afraid, I mean, even more afraid that everything could turn out to be true, I mean, now I’m more afraid of dying than ever before, while my old doctor, to whom I also said, I want to write ONE more book before I die, just smiled and said, I am not afraid of dying whatsoever, I am ready to die at any moment, namely, prepared.

And Elisabeth von Samsonow wrote me a guardian angel for the throat and a dress into which the soul too can climb, and that certain South American doctors can lure the soul back to its ancestral home by waving clothes at that very place where a patient is scared… you’re no doubt out and about a lot and incubating a new book, a bit like Paracelsus writes : “the generation of things with sensation in the soul,” it was gorgeous and the whole day glowed with the beautiful feeling of friendship, etc., then stay healthy while you work, my old doctor said to me on the phone and I write everything down on back of all the fax paper I’ve received from Mario, and my blood pressure was up because, in my head, I was writing and writing constantly while Elisabeth von Samsonow had written me a double-sided letter I really loved and kept with me at all times, I ate a fig and said to EJ, I have to buy Bach’s complete works, I need the complete works because on the radio only the tiniest of tastes, etc., only ever Mozart… (“go for a walk down the beach today like Ely…”). Back then, I say to EJ, back when the RADIOPLAYDAYS were beginning, I didn’t trust myself to ask Paul to house Ely and me together in the same youth hostel so I could be near him day and night and so instead I struggled but did not waste a single opportunity to escape to meet him, to talk with him, to seek contact, and so, being with Ely the whole time, that was the story with Ely but it’s been over a long time now, I say to EJ, and it floraed all around me and I shook myself a beloved—

I am ablaze, I say to EDITH, but I am not allowed to talk about it at all, I am not allowed to accept it at all or it won’t continue, I say to EDITH, I didn’t hear a thing, EDITH says, just reswallow the fire like the fire-eater does, EDITH says, the light was flickering in the other room and it’s like a bat twitching over our heads as evening breaks it’s like lightning, and I am in another world, I say to EDITH, and I don’t understand that it won’t always be this way, and in the morning I ran into a man with a white turban who looked at me, I was in another world, namely, on one day I am different than the day before, thus when on Tuesday I can write on Wednesday I can’t and have no idea how I could do so the day before, etc., on Wednesday, e.g., I was so far gone I felt like I had never written a thing, isn’t that so, and I was amazed that I’d been able to write anything at all because on Wednesday the thought of ever having written had completely vanished, was utterly unimaginable, as when someone who had never written hears something about being able to write—it was completely UNREAL / UNEARTHLY.

*

And whenever the fax bell rings I think and hope it’s you, I say to EJ, and that you’ll tell me about your world, how exciting it would be to hear your voice telling me how you are, what you’re up to, whether you listen to music or the nature of the fires you’ve been making your way through, in other words, from one fire to the next, and do you still think about me?

—Translated from the German by Alexander Booth

 

Friederike Mayröcker was born in 1924 in Vienna. One of the leading figures of German literature, she is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Georg Büchner Prize. Among her books to have been translated into English are brütt, or The Sighing Gardens and Scardanelli.

Alexander Booth is a writer and translator who, after many years in Rome, at present lives in Berlin. His work has appeared in numerous print and online journals and he is the recipient of a 2012 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translations of the poetry of Lutz Seiler.

Excerpted from The Communicating Vessels, by Friederike Mayröcker, published by A Public Space Books. Copyright © 2005 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. English translation copyright © 2021 by Alexander Booth. Reprinted by permission of A Public Space Books.

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