Reading: To the barbarian by Elke Lasker-Schüler

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) lived a bohemian life and is famous for her love poetry. So let’s read a love poem by her hand today. I found some nice English translations by Johannes Beilharz:

To the barbarian
I cover your face
With my body and soul at night.

I plant cedars and almond trees
On the steppe of your body.

Tirelessly I search your chest
For Pharaoh’s golden treasures.

But your lips are heavy,
My miracles cannot redeem them.

Why won’t you lift your snowy skies
From my soul –

Your diamond dreams
Are cutting my veins.

I am Joseph wearing a sweet belt
Around my gaudy skin.

You are delighted by my sea shell’s
Frightened sound.

But your heart no longer
Lets the sea come in.

Lasker-Schüler’s imagery reminds me of poets like Plath or Brodsky, but still rather firmly with one foot in the nineteenth century. The translator added the ‘body and soul’ here to the original that is more powerful: Ich liege in den Nächten / Auf deinem Angesicht.” The evocation of ‘soul’ is more powerful when you use ellipse and don’t mention that word, imho.

The tree planting scheme on the steppe of his body is sexy; We could add some citrus trees and perhaps a strong oak youknowwhere. Then the steppe becomes a desert and she searches for Pharaoh’s golden treasures (‘Freuden’ says the original, delights). At that point the poet is really saying something: Your lips are heavy, you don’t talk lightly, despite of the ‘miracles’ that is her imaginative caressing. He doesn’t allow for clear skies and sorrowless nights –

Follows a hardcore metaphor of dreams made from the hardest material that kills her. Now she is Joseph, vizier of Egypt with a sweet belt around her gaudy skin (bunte Haut). Perhaps now she can force him to show the Pharao’s treasures? And how shall we read the closing lines, about the sea shells (the German ‘Muscheln’ sounds much more erotic)? Dein Herz läßt keine Meere mehr ein – But your heart no longer lets the seas come in (the plural is essential). He keeps his distance, in delight of the shivering and incertain woman in front of him, refusing to be awash in her mighty fantasies.

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