Translated by James Reidel
Art by Heather M. O’Brien
The selection that follows is taken from Heiner Müller, Waiting on the Opposite Stage: Collected Poems, forthcoming from Seagull Books in May 2020. Heiner Müller (b. 1929) is best known as the most important German dramaturge after Bertolt Brecht. Müller’s plays—the most important being Hamletmaschine—are perfect examples of “sampling” and what Derrida meant by hauntology. Müller’s drama is, as Tony Kushner said, “dialogues with the dead.” In the poems, however, this same dialogue is also conducted with Müller himself, his contemporaries and their Berlin milieu, with classic and German literature, and the cancer that killed him in 1995. Müller identified with Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the painting as the angel of history This gives his poetry its value, for it is a vast historical and social commentary of both the East and the West vis-à-vis the East German experiment in socialism. Read together, the poems range from Müller’s early optimism to his disillusionment that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification.
AND BETWEEN ABC AND ONETIMESONE
We pissed whistling against the schoolhouse wall
The teacher from behind an upraised hand
HAVE YOU NO SENSE OF SHAME. We had none.
With evening we were climbing the tree
From which they cut the dead down by morning. Now
His tree was empty.We said:THAT WAS HIM.
WHERE ARE THE OTHERS? BETWEEN BRANCH AND GROUND IS SPACE.
TALES OF HOMER
The students spoke incessantly and exhaustively with Homer,
Interpreting his work, asking him for a proper interpretation.
For the old man always loved to discover himself anew
And lauded without sparing wine and roasted meat.
The talk came, at the banquet, meat and wine, around to Thersites
The maligned, the unbridled tongue, who stood up at the assembly
Shrewdly exploited the great discord over the greater spoils
spoke: Behold the people’s shepherd, who shears his sheep
And, ever the shepherd, slaughters them, and showed the bloody
Empty hands of soldiers as bloody and empty for the soldiers.
Then the students asked:What is it with this Thersites,
Master? You give him the right words, then you in your own
Words show him in the wrong. This is hard for us to grasp.
Why did you do that? Homer answered: To please the princes.
The students asked: Why do that? The old man: Out of hunger.
Likewise. But he regarded what’s in the cook pot as highly as that on
But among his students, they say, had been this smart
One, a great sceptic. He still questioned every answer
To find nothing more to doubt about it. This pupil now asked,
Sitting with the old man by the river, this question among others
The old man eyed the youth up and down and said, looking at him
Congenially: Truth is an arrow, poisonous to the hasty archer!
The bow drawn back is already enough.The arrow surely remains
To who recovers it in the reeds.The truth, clad in lies, remains truth.
And the bow doesn’t die with the archer. So he spoke and stood up.
NOTE: Thersites, a common Greek soldier in the Iliad who questions how the spoils of the war with Troy will only benefit the Greek kings. The character appears in the writings of Hegel and Marx among others as the archetypal social critic.
THE JOYLESS ANGEL. Behind him the past floats down, debris rains on wings and shoulders with a din, like buried drums, while before him the future gapes, blowing his eyes inward, each eyeball exploding like a star, any word turning into a resounding gag choking him with his own breath. For a while you can still see his beating wings, hear in their rush the rockslides falling behind him, his futile motion becoming louder, evermore violent, sporadic as it becomes slower. Then this blink of an eye closes over him: in that quickly buried standing-room seat the joyless angel comes to rest, waiting on history in a petrification of flight sight breath. Until a renewed rush of mighty wing beats reverberates through the stone and portends his flight.
NOTE: The subject of this ekphrasis is Paul Klee’s monoprint Angelus Novus (1920), or the ‘Angel of History’ as interpreted by its first owner, Walter Benjamin in the ninth thesis of his 1940 essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’.
Heart of Darkness after Joseph Conrad
For Gregor Gysi
A gruesome world a capitalist world
(Gottfried Benn in a radio broadcast with
Johannes R. Becher 1930)
In the valuta bar of the Hotel METROPOL
Berlin capital of the GDR exerts itself
A Polish whore a guest worker
With an old man with a runny nose
Between chapters of his lecture
About freedom in the USA
He blows into his handkerchief and cries out for the waste bin
Still in the grip of commiserating over her difficult work
I listen to two travelling sales reps
Bavarians by the sound
Divvying up Asia: WELL I’D LIKE MALAYSIA
THAILAND TOO THAT INCLUDES KOREA
WELL THE CROSSBAR SYSTEM FOR YEMEN
I’D STILL SET THINGS UP THEN
THAT INCLUDES CHINA TOO
CHINA IS THE ONLY PROJECT THAT’S SOLD
In the S-Bahn ZOOLOGICAL GARDEN FRIEDRICHSTRASSE
I met two East Germans
One of them said My son three weeks old
Was born with a sign on his chest
I WAS IN THE WEST ON THE NINTH OF NOVEMBER
My daughter likewise I have twins
Bears the inscription ME TOO
THE HORROR THE HORROR THE HORROR
NOTE: Gregor Gysi (b. 1948), East Germany’s last communist party leader during the unification period of 1989–90; Gottfried Benn (1886–1956), German physician, poet and essayist, in answering the subject of whether poets could change the world;‘valuta bar’ (literally, value bar) a hotel bar in East Germany that accepted foreign currency and catered to foreign travellers, party officials and privileged clientele, which also served as primary nexus for intelligence gathering; line 18, ‘S-Bahn’, short for Stadtbahn, Berlin’s subway; line 22, ‘NINTH OF NOVEMBER’, 1989, when East Germany lifted travel restrictions to and from West Germany.
SOAP IN BAYREUTH
for Daniel Barenboim
As a child I heard the grownups say:
In the concentration camps soap is made
From Jews. Since then I could no longer
Get used to soap and detested the smell of soap.
now I dwell, since I am directing TRISTAN
In a brand-new apartment in the city of Bayreuth.
The apartment is cleaner than any I have yet seen
everything has its place: The knives the spoons the forks
The pots the pans the dishes the cups the double bed
The shower, MADE IN GERMANY, can wake the dead.
on the walls flowery and alpine kitsch.
Here is order, also the greenery behind the apartment building
In order, the street still, the HYPOBANK on the other side.
When I open the window for the first time: the smell of soap.
The building the garden the city Bayreuth reek of the soap.
Now I know, I tell the silence
What it means to live in hell and
Not to be dead or a murderer. Here
AUSCHWITZ was born in the smell of soap.
15.8.92, when a demonstration for Rudolf Hess was banned in Bayreuth.
NOTE: Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942), the Israeli conductor, served as the music director of Heiner Müller’s 1993 production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; line 13,‘HYPOBANK’ or HypoVereinsbank, is one of Germany’s largest financial institutions;‘demonstration for Rudolf Hess’, the annual Rudolf-Heß-Gedenkmarsch (Rudolf Hess Memorial March), a neo-Nazi demonstration that took place in August to mark the death of the Nazi politician and war criminal.