A Fortnightly Review.
By Nathaniel Tarn
By ANTHONY RUDOLF.
Und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit? What use are poets in perilous times? – Hölderlin
THIS IS A demanding book, with a great interrogatory charge upon the reader. The poet’s chosen form requires a permanent double take. I found myself reading the sequence horizontally as a narrative centred on the life of one of the greatest poets in world literature, “the poet of poets”. At the same time, a vertical take was imposed by the power of the author’s vision: the highly personal stanzaic poem, each stanza “pneumatic” (as Celan would say), requires a deep breath and a plunge, as we take in the truth that the book is not only about Hölderlin but also about Tarn. So the poem slowed me down and, simultaneously, the narrative speeded me up. Reading this master work has been a vertiginous experience, and I assume that writing it was too.
The Hölderliniae is one of Tarn’s most important books, perhaps the most important. It demands and deserves the closest attention. It is a truly major work in which poet, anthropologist, translator and literary critic come together. The intensity and power, the imbrication and musicality, the driving rhythm and complex syntax, in short the poet’s brain work and heart work, generate a singular and beautiful book. A thousand years old, working among his books and memories, in the company of a loved one (unlike the heroic H.), he has dug deep and raised this material to the surface whence we in turn go deep. The “boue” is “gold” as in the cancelled line from Les Fleurs de Mal.
Finally, an admission: the poet is a friend of mine. He and I are the last survivors of those who performed at the inaugural Poetry International in London in 1967. Everyone else has “left the conversation”, to use the phrase of one of the performers, Yves Bonnefoy. I, a boy at the time, owe Nathaniel Tarn a great debt of gratitude for god-fathering my earliest Bonnefoy translations. He did not ask me to write a note on his book, but the book itself did.
The Hölderliniae 1
It is a question of a murder: a man is murdered wishing
to live a life He’s not allowed to lead over two hundred
years ago. He wished to be a poet. His folks wanted a
clergyman. He fought long, hard and, at the end, He lost
his mind. A question then of being murdered, of being
slowly murdered. By life which turns to death as birds
drop sky to ground, at faint of gnat biting your cheek.
While sky falls into trees, trees fall to ground, ground
falls to lake and lake into the deepest ocean, for which
the gods — those mirrors of our fates decked out in blue
evaporating coral — will never raise themselves to gather
back the sky. And/Und & But/Aber: impossible to see,
to witness gods in high sky shining down on where
one lives because that domicile is being murdered also.
In sleepless nights before dead fires, assassinated fires:
no coming up for air, no pass from worm to fish, from
fish to ape, from ape to —— what! this thing is human?
this thing debased, massacred, gassed and paralyzed,
ghost-like legions of murdered men: when wars decide
never to end, never to terminate, when wars begin again
at cap drop, enter our lungs: we can no longer breathe.
It is a question of being murdered day by day, night after
night with not a single breathing space between a sleep
and sleep, become the one escape, the only right royal
residence left in the universe — and sleep turns into death
without a warning. Which hey! is being murdered, ended
just like He was by loss of sanity, by loss of mind, by
golden girl dying of death: what else — the bitter husband?
Among great Hymns, Odes, Elegies, and Fragments: He
spoke it first, wrote of it first, “Mich reizt der Lorbeer. Ruhe
beglückt mich nicht” / “It is the laurel that I want, not peace
and quiet.” Singer of rivers reversing time: if there’s a single
drop of life left in this man, this man is being slowly murdered:
it is become of him, because he lived and died among the dying
peoples, the deaf, the paralyzed, the gods.
Death has a thousand cards to play. Life only one.
—Nathaniel Tarn, from The Hölderliniae.
Anthony Rudolf is author of Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life (Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press, 2013), European Hours: Collected Poems (Carcanet Press, 2017) and the translator of Yesterday’s Wilderness Kingdom by Yves Bonnefoy (MPT Books, 2003).
Additional comment by Norman Finkelstein/Poetry in Review
Note: Edited 30 Mar 2021 to correct an editing error.