These poems are dedicated to the memory of Dr. Glenn R. Cuomo, Professor of German Studies 1992-2017, New College of Florida, with whom the translator first began work on this project in 1997. Fishily on love & poetry, indeed.
Translator’s Note: I didn’t know how much I loved translation until I did—suddenly—like the Donovan song: “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The poems of this project represent over 22 years worth of labor, and comprise of both new translations of Grass’s original poems, as well as “response poems” to the poems collected in Günter Grass’ The Flounder (1977). The Flounder was Grass’ groundbreaking poetry-prose hybrid, chronicling the war between the sexes, as well as a magical realist re-telling of the Grimm Fairy Tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” through the complicated lens of 20th Century history, and the lingering effects of World War II and the Holocaust. During his lifetime, Grass worked primarily with two translators—one for his prose, and the other for his poetry. Ralph Manheim, his prose translator, produced poetic translations that while literal and functional, did not showcase the artistic ambition of the novel, and so began my 22+ year quest to bring these poems to life in a way that has only been accessible to a reader in the native German text.
These translations (and accompanying original response poems) specifically reference the characters of the narrative of Günter Grass’s novel The Flounder, which contains a hidden collection of poems embedded within the chapters of the novel—Grass’ poems are written from the perspective of Edek, the EveryMan, spirit of history and time. Awa, the EveryWoman spirit of history and time, does not have a voice, except through Edek, who proves himself, throughout The Flounder, to be an unreliable narrator. With these poems, I have attempted to create a dialogue between the characters, instead of just a monologue of one man’s journey through history and patriarchal structures of power.
Wie ich ihr Küchenjunge gewesen bin
Günter Grass, Der Butt (German Edition)
Die Pfanne aus Kupfer blank.
Ihre Frühmorgenstimme. Hier!
rief ich: Hier! und lief auf sie zu, sooft ich versuchte,
ihren Töpfen davonzulaufen.
Auf Ostern habe ich Lämmerzungen — die evangelischen,
die katholischen — wie meine Sünderseele gehäutet.
Und wenn sie im November Gänse gerupft hat,
habe ich Federn, den Flaum geblasen,
damit der Tag in Schwebe blieb.
Sie hatte die Ausmaße der Hauptkirche Sankt Marien,
doch ging nie mystische Zugluft,
war es nie kühl in ihr.
Ach, ihre Schlafkiste,
in der es nach Ziegenmilch roch,
in die Fliegen gefallen waren.
In ihrem Stallgeruch gefangen.
Ihr Schoß war Wiege.
Wann war das?
Unter dem Nonnenrock — Äbtissin war sie —
stand die Zeit nicht still,
fand Geschichte statt,
wurde der Streit um Fleisch und Blut
und Brot und Wein wortlos entschieden.
Solange ich ihr Küchenjunge gewesen bin,
habe ich nie frieren oder mich schämen müssen.
Die dicke Gret: ein halber Kürbis
lacht und spuckt Kerne.
Nur selten sah ich sie
Bier in Brotsuppe rühren;
worauf sie stark pfefferte: ihre Trauer
schmeckte nicht nach.
When I Was Her Kitchen Boy
Translated from Günter Grass
Her shiny copper frying pan.
Her voice, early in the morning.
“Here,” I called out, “Here!” And I ran to her
as often as I would try to escape her and her pots and pans.
On Easter, I held the tongues of lambs—both Protestant and Catholic—and
skinned the sin from my soul as well.
And when in November she plucked the feathers off the geese,
I blew away the feathers and the down, so that
the day might last longer.
She was as big as St. Mary’s church
but never offered the same mythical drink from her cup,
it never felt cool inside her.
Oh, the bed where she slept, whose boxy mattress smelled of goat’s milk,
where flies fell.
I was captivated by that animal scent, the smell of the stables,
When was that?
Beneath the skirts of her nun’s habit—she was the Abbess—time did not
stand still, history was a living thing,
the argument of transubstantiation,
of Flesh and Blood versus bread and wine
was resolved wordlessly.
For as long as I was her kitchen boy,
I was never cold and I had
no reason to feel any shame.
Fat Gret: half of a pumpkin,
laughing and spitting out seeds.
Only rarely did I ever see her
stirring beer into the bread soup,
but then again, she had a heavy hand with pepper:
the black veil of her mourning
never had an aftertaste.
Fat Gret’s Kitchen Lessons
(Original response poem)
Every morning before dawn,
I ushered you into wakefulness
by clanging my frying pans together, their shine
the same bright copper as the newly risen sun.
Though this was our daily ritual,
you ran into the courtyard chasing after goosefeathers
as often as you came to me in the kitchen.
But it was November, then. You were young.
On Easter Sunday, while dressing lamb’s tongues for supper,
I allowed you to leave the preparations to me
& let you run. I didn’t begrudge you those hours of carelessness—
after all, you had your entire manhood in front of you to keep to schedules,
a lifetime’s worth of feathers drifting on the air
that would be trailed after by the new kitchen boys who would replace you
after you came of age.
My quarters were convenient to the kitchen & the stables,
& the gamey smells of cooked onions & sour milk
saturated the sheets, drawing flies to your back as though you were
part of the livestock: like a goat, hungry for salt,
you lapped at my chalice, drunk on our own animal smell braided into
the other honest smells of the room; hay & manure, sweat & soup.
Do you remember those nights, now carried away like your goosefeathers?
I felt no insult when you told me that my ass was as vast as St. Mary’s Church,
because I knew that like a parishioner, it was the place where you
came to worship & receive the blessing of communion.
When you knelt beneath the skirts of my habit,
you said that time did not stand still—but it did.
It wasn’t history that was a living thing, but salvation.
When you took my body into your mouth,
there were no unanswered questions
about the holiness of the body
or its power to triumph over sin.
When you were still innocent—my kitchen boy—
I kept you warm in your soul
& washed away the shame that the world of men
was eager to burden you with.
You called me Fat Gret, & I was every bit
as hardy & nourishing as any of the winter gourds
that kept us fed through the narrows of winter.
When the root cellar turned Spartan, & our suppers
became endless bowls of bread soup,
I never once allowed you to bear witness
to the salt of tears I knew I must be stronger than,
stirred with beer into the kettle.
I was as generous with pepper as I was with my love.
All I wanted for you was to temper your palate, so
that you would know the particular flavor of freedom.
Grief, it is known, leaves an aftertaste.
Bei Kochfisch Agnes erinnert
Günter Grass, Der Butt (German Edition)
Auf den Kabeljau heute,
den ich in Weißwein und Gedanken an Dorsch,
als er noch billig — Pomuchel! Pomuchel! —
auf schwacher Hitze gekocht habe, l
egte ich, als sein Auge schon milchig
und Fischaugen weiß dem fiebrigen Opitz
übers leere Papier rollten,
grüne Gurken in Streifen geschnitten,
dann, von der Hitze genommen, Dill in den Sud.
Über den Kochfisch streute ich Krabbenschwänze,
die unsere Gäste — zwei Herren, die sich nicht kannten —,
während der Kabeljau garte, gesprächig
und um die Zukunft besorgt,
mit Fingern gepult hatten.
Ach Köchin, du schaust mir zu,
wenn ich mit flachem Löffel
dem zarten Fleisch helfe: willig gibt es die Gräte auf
und will erinnert, Agnes, erinnert werden.
Nun kannten die Gäste sich besser.
Ich sagte, Opitz, in unserem Alter, starb an der Pest.
Wir sprachen über Künste und Preise.
Politisch regte nichts auf.
Suppe von sauren Kirschen danach.
Mitgezählt wurden frühere Kerne:
als wir noch Edelmann Bettelmann Bauer Pastor…
Remembering Agnes Over Boiled Cod
translated from Günter Grass
Over the codfish,
which today I simmered in white wine
and thought about the days
when Baltic cod was still cheap—
Fresh cod! Fresh cod! Straight from the Baltic!—
I laid the fish in the pan, lowered the heat, and cooked it
until the fish eyes went milky and white, rolling backwards
and empty like scrolls of paper from the fever-ridden Opitz:
bright green gherkins, cut into tidy strips,
then, pulling the broth from the heat,
finish the dish with dill.
I season the poached cod with shrimp tails,
which our dinner guests—two men, strangers to each other—
had worried between their fingers while the fish was cooking,
through small talk and their anxiety about the future.
Oh, my cook, how you look over me,
watching as I flake the tender meat of the fish with a flat spoon,
helping it to give up its bones,
remembering you, Agnes,
By this time, our dinner guests
have gotten acquainted,
and I tell them,
When Opitz was our age, he died of the plague.
We talk about art
and the price of codfish.
No stirrings of politics.
After supper, there is sour cherry soup.
Back in the old days,
we counted out our lots with the cherry stones:
rich man beggar man working man priest
My Epitaph, Written in Sprigs of Dill
(Original response poem)
Remember me, over plates of boiled codfish,
write my epitaph in sprigs of fresh dill
when you finish the dish to serve up to your dinner guests.
when you cut the gherkins to accent the meal:
the salt of my sorrow, the bitter vinegar of my lot.
When you visit the fishmonger, remember me.
The common-law wife you never made into an honest woman.
Remember my un-common recipes, cooked for you,
back in the days when fish fresh from the Baltic
wasn’t priced beyond the means of a poet,
when artists weren’t expected to starve.
Remember me, in the empty whites of fish eyes.
Remember yourself, as Opitz:
remember your fevered brow and empty pages,
remember both afflictions cured by my cooking.
While your guests make nervous small talk,
rolling decorative shrimp tails between their fingers,
Feel my echo as it moves
through the decorative fan of the shells,
through their hands and out their mouths as a conversation
about their masculine anxieties, their trepidation at the young boys
nipping at their heels, eager to take up the reigns of politics.
Remember how ill-served I was by all the good intentions of men.
When you use a flat spoon—just like I taught you,
when this kitchen was still mine—
when you flake the tender fish away from its spine and bones,
feel my echo again, at your elbow,
making sure not only is the dish prepared precisely as I taught you,
but that you’ve cooked me into it.
Making sure you’re remembering me,
as you stand over the steaming pan.
When you bring the course to the table,
make sure that your guests have stopped talking politics.
They’ve had more than enough time
to argue their tired platforms while you cooked.
Change the subject to art, or the rising cost of codfish,
once the working man’s staple, now a weekend luxury
reserved for dinner parties.
Remind them they’re living on borrowed time,
in debt to progress and scientific advances—
after all, Opitz had already died of the plague
when he was your age.
Feel my echo, as I watch you all take stock
of what you’ve accomplished in your lifetimes.
Remember me again over dessert,
bowls of sour cherry soup.
Remember how the lots you used to count out in cherry pits
on the verses of a nursery rhyme
each used me to their own sweet end,
like the dessert that completes a man’s supper.
Remember my life,
thrown away like those stones—the fruit of my flesh
swallowed down their greedy gullets:
the rich men, the poor men, the working men, the priests.
Crack your tooth on a cherry stone and split it,
spit it out in a napkin of blood and cherries.
Remember me, oh, remember me.
Worüber ich schreibe
Günter Grass, Der Butt (German Edition)
Über das Essen, den Nachgeschmack.
Nachträglich über Gäste, die ungeladen
oder ein knappes Jahrhundert zu spät kamen.
Über den Wunsch der Makrele nach gepreßter Zitrone.
Vor allen Fischen schreibe ich über den Butt.
Ich schreibe über den Überfluß.
Über das Fasten und warum es die Prasser erfunden haben.
Über den Nährwert der Rinden vom Tisch der Reichen.
Über das Fett und den Kot und das Salz und den Mangel.
Wie der Geist gallebitter
und der Bauch geisteskrank wurden,
werde ich — mitten im Hirseberg —
Ich schreibe über die Brust.
Über Ilsebill schwanger (die Sauregurkengier)
werde ich schreiben, solange das dauert.
Über den letzten Bissen geteilt,
die Stunde mit einem Freund
bei Brot, Käse, Nüssen und Wein.
(Wir sprachen gaumig über Gott und die Welt
und über das Fressen, das auch nur Angst ist.)
Ich schreibe über den Hunger, wie er beschrieben
und schriftlich verbreitet wurde.
Über Gewürze (als Vasco da Gama und ich
den Pfeffer billiger machten)
will ich unterwegs nach Kalkutta schreiben.
Fleisch: roh und gekocht,
lappt, fasert, schrumpft und zergeht.
Den täglichen Brei,
was sonst noch vorgekaut wurde: datierte Geschichte,
das Schlachten bei Tannenberg Wittstock Kolin,
was übrigbleibt, schreibe ich auf:
Knochen, Schlauben, Gekröse und Wurst.
Über den Ekel vor vollem Teller,
über den guten Geschmack,
über die Milch (wie sie glumsig wird),
über die Rübe, den Kohl, den Sieg der Kartoffel
schreibe ich morgen
oder nachdem die Reste von gestern
versteinert von heute sind.
Worüber ich schreibe: über das Ei.
Kummer und Speck, verzehrende Liebe, Nagel und Strick,
Streit um das Haar und das Wort in der Suppe zuviel.
Tiefkühltruhen, wie ihnen geschah,
als Strom nicht mehr kam.
Über uns alle am leergegessenen Tisch
werde ich schreiben;
auch über dich und mich und die Gräte im Hals.
What I Write About
translated from Günter Grass
I write about the meal at our dinner party, and how its flavor lingers afterwards
I write about our guests, the ones who came without an invitation
or who arrived fashionably late, by a scant century
I write about the mackerel, and how I wished for a wedge of lemon for it.
But when it comes to writing about fish,
I really only write about the flounder.
I write about gluttony.
I write about fasting
and why it was invented by people who love to eat.
I tally up the nutritional value
of table scraps, about the fat and the shit, about the salt and the guilt
Over your heaping plate of millet
I’ll give you an education about
how empires are created and nations are conquered
a brief history on how our hearts came to be bitter as bile and our bellies went mad
I write about breasts.
I write about Ilsebill’s pregnancy in grocery lists
(her cravings for sour gherkins)
I’ll write for as long as I can, for as long as the moment lasts
I’ll write a secret journal entry about how I escaped for an hour and met up with a friend for lunch
over bread, cheese, nuts and wine
We cleansed our palates with debates about politics and religion, those mouthfuls of “God” and “The World”, even if it was only gluttony and our most deeply held fears that were leading the conversation
I write about famine and how history
is written down and spread as truth
I write about spices and how to use them, and how writing can make the writer’s version of events become the official history
I write the narratives of spices (like how I helped Vasco de Gama figure out a way to drive down the price of pepper) –that one, I’ll write on the plane, when I finally take that trip to Calcutta.
Meat: raw and cooked,
shrinks as it roasts, boiled limp, until it simmers down to nothing and shreds along the muscle fibers.
Those old histories again: boring and bland as everyday porridge, or all the other leftovers that no one wants to eat
another massacre at Tannenbergii Wittstockiiii Koliniii.iii
I label the leftovers: bones, gristle, skin, and the unnamable bits of meat that get ground up for sausage.
I write about the nausea of gorging on an overly full plate,
of eating just because it tastes good
about milk (and how it curdles)
about beets, about cabbage
and about how the potato won a war.
Tomorrow, I’ll write down everything, after yesterday’s leftovers have turned into today’s fossils, forgotten in the fridge.
Whatever I write: it’s about the egg.
About gobbling up the sorrow with your bacon, swallowing down the love with a nail and a rope,
bickering over too many words, like hair, in the soup.
About the deep freeze, another ice age, and what happens when the river stops flowing and is no more.
About all of us at a table we’ve eaten empty,
and also about you and I, and the spiny fishbones caught up in our throats.
i The 1st Battle of Tannenberg [Battle of Grunwald] was one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe, regarded as the most significant victory in the history of Poland. Tannenberg is a cultural source of romantic legends and nationalistic propaganda and became a larger symbol of struggle against invaders, as well as a source of national pride. The 2nd Battle of Tannenberg, fought during WWI between Germany and Russia, was not fought at the same location, but named to harness the cultural pride that Tannenberg inspired in the people. The second battle of Tannenberg was a major victory for Germany that resulted in the nearly complete destruction of the Russian army. During the 20th century, the second battle of Tannenberg was used in Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns to build momentum for the political movement.
ii Battle of Wittstock, which took place during the Thirty Years War. This battle was waged against The Saxon Holy Roman Empire by Sweden for control of northern Germany, and resulted in a decisive victory for Sweden, with major casualties and prisoners of war in the Saxon forces.
iii Battle of the Seven Years war, where Prussia, under Frederick the Great, was defeated by Austria at a tremendous loss.
What I Think About When You Write
(Original response poem)
I think about the dinner party that you forgot to tell me about
until the day before all the guests showed up on our doorstep,
bringing only their empty bellies or bottles of wine,
none of which paired up with fish
I think about how you didn’t thank me for cooking,
you only told me that the mackerel needed lemon
I think about hunger; how ravenous I am,
while you’re locked up in your office night after night
gorging on words and musing about how I’m growing fatter and fatter everyday
keeping score of my calories in the margin of your notebook
and giving me a history lecture that I never asked for
I spoon leftovers cold from the fridge.
I could write a novel
about my bile-riddled heart and how it got that way
or how this insatiable hunger is driving me crazy.
I think about you, behind those glasses,
lamenting the fact that even knocked up, I still can’t manage to grow back that third tit,
writing down grocery lists to try to bring it back, as though sour pickles and a baby
can make me forget that you lied just to get away from me for an hour,
went to lunch with a friend to get into hot debates over religion and politics
when what you really want to tell him is that you’re terrified to become a father
and you think you’re starting to hate me
That—you chewed up with the bread and cheese, and swallowed it down with the wine
but I could smell it on your breath when you came home
I think about how I can never stop being hungry anymore,
and how the longest five minutes in history
were spent waiting for two blue lines to appear on a plastic stick
and started writing our history in reverse, and how when we reach the end of it, we’ll be strangers.
I think about the ticket to Calcutta that I found in the drawer, how I knew that you planned on leaving me,
but I got pregnant and you stayed anyway, justifying your moodiness with the fact that
you’re doing the right thing by me
and how I was so grateful to you for staying, that I cooked you dish after dish of curries,
each of them spiked with pepper, and pretended to listen
while you said something about Vasco de Gama
I think about how meat revolts me now,
organ meat shrinking as it sizzles in the pan,
boiled sausages that grow limp as your cock has grown for me,
the muscles that held us together, shredded down to the fibers
and congealing under a waxy skin of fat in the Tupperware:
being married to me is as boring as eating oatmeal for breakfast
or eating leftovers, when there’s so much else in the fridge
another shooting spree in the papers: Columbine Aurora Sandy Hook
I fantasize about miscarriage and clean out the fridge: the desiccated bones of a rotisserie chicken,
not all that much larger than the baby in my belly.
I think about morning sickness and heartburn,
of always being ravenous and queasy,
of hunching over the toilet bowl
vomiting food back up as quickly as I gobble it down
about how milk always tastes sour to me now,
how I can’t get enough pickled beets or boiled cabbage
and how mashed potatoes at midnight is the only thing holding our marriage together anymore.
Tomorrow, when you’re holed up in your study writing,
I’ll throw out all the leftovers and go shopping again
Whatever you’re writing about, I’m thinking about an egg,
the pill I forgot to swallow down with breakfast, how a baby
makes me terrified of the world around me, and the love I should be feeling
is knotted up in ropes and run through with a nail
because we fight about our fighting, ready to throw away whole bowls full of soup
over one stray hair floating on the surface
I think about how our bed has turned into winter, and how the river between us is iced over.
I think about you scribbling away in your notebook, sucking the meat off of a chicken wing,
and how when you offered me the other end of the wishbone,
it snapped asymmetrically,
with me holding only the tiniest splinter of it
between my thumb and forefinger