Mudlark No. 69 (2020)

Mad for Years
Poems from Four Decades
by Franz Werfel
Translated by James Reidel

Front Cover of Mudlark No. 69 (2020)

Red Werfel by James Reidel, 2020

Translator’s Note: This is the second group of poems by Franz Werfel to be published by Mudlark. They are recent translations but represent a long line of work going back to the 1990s. Then I worked as an editor for a legal publisher and we had just moved into a new office space. The suite had been the law office of the late Reuvan Katz, who represented Pete Rose when he was banned from baseball. Perhaps Katz—or someone in his office—had a subscription to the monthly East German literary magazine that our receptionist tossed on my desk since its postage wouldn’t cover forwarding it. Each issue featured a poem by a poet representing Eastern European German writers and the first poem that caught my eye was titled “Hekuba” by Franz Werfel. With my high school German and a dictionary, I learned to translate it for myself. From then on, I stayed with Werfel and branched out to other poets over time, including Georg Trakl and Thomas Bernhard.

Despite Werfel’s international reputation during the first half of the twentieth century for such novels as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and The Song of Bernadette, his work and legacy were of little interest to post-modern tastes and criticism. A selection of his poems in English was published by Princeton University Press in 1946 and then nothing for the next half century. This surprised me. While Werfel lacks the allusive and illusive furor poeticus of his contemporary and fellow Expressionist Georg Trakl, in which one can make a career of being lost, Werfel expresses another poetic—or rather existential—madness of being what he called “the unsustainable person.” Werfel, as an assimilated Jew sympathetic to beliefs that ranged—sometimes simultaneously—from socialism to Catholicism to Sufi Islam to the Egyptian Book of the Dead and classical paganism, has always been hard to accept without reservations. But maybe what Martin Buber said of him will work for us too. “Since I was first moved by his poems,” the philosopher wrote in 1917, “I have opened (knowing well, I should say, that it is a problem) the gates of my invisible garden to him, and now he can do nothing for all eternity that would bring me to banish him from it.”

N.B. The following poems, in approximate chronological order, are renderings of Franz Werfel’s poetry from the German. They evince a kind of unter vier Augen, in that I exchanged my Werfel drafts with another translator, Daniele Pantano. He, in turn, exchanged drafts from his manuscript of poems by Werfel’s contemporary, Robert Walser.

— James Reidel, June 2020

Sterben im Walde > Dying in the Forest
Weib am Tod > Woman at Death
Die Kinderkrankheit > Childhood Illness
Einer Chansonette > To a Chansonette
Hohe Gemeinschaft > High Company
Dämonen > Demons
Ruths Worte > Ruth’s Word
Der Kuß > The Kiss
Erster Frühling > First Spring
Der neue Stadtteil > The New Part of the City
Ruhe > Quiet
Viele Welten gibt es > There Are Many Worlds
Mann und Selbstmörderin > Husband and Suicide
Elegie an einen Jugendgefährten > Elegy to a Boyhood Companion
Eurhythmie des Schneefalls > The Eurythmics of Falling Snow
Der Tänzer Nijinski, seit Jahren wahnsinnig > The Dancer Nijinsky, Mad for Years
Ein besonderer Wind > A Special Wind
Streng persönlich > Strictly Confidential

JAMES REIDEL has published poems in many journals, including The New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and American Poetry Review. He is the author of two collections of verse, Jim’s Book (2014) and My Window Seat for Arlena Twigg (2006). His most recent work has appeared in Poetry, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Hawai’i Review, Outsider, Fiction Southwest, The Flexible Persona, The Wax Paper, and elsewhere—including The Best Small Fictions 2016. He is also the biographer of the poet Weldon Kees and a translator, whose latest books include Comedies by Robert Walser (2018, with Daniele Pantano), Goethe Dies (2016), a collection of short stories by Thomas Bernhard, The Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard (2017), and A Skeleton Plays Violin (2017), book three of the Our Trakl series. In 2013, he was a James Merrill House fellow. Currently, he is preparing a forthcoming biography of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler and the stepdaughter of Franz Werfel, and a translation of the collected poems of the German playwright Heiner Müller.

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