Dicey Forms: On Durs Grünbein’s “Porcelain”

April 7, 2021   •   By Alexander Wells

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City

Durs Grünbein

All I could say was, “I know, I know, I know.”

— Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

¤

IN A NABOKOV short story from 1945, some cultured English people hobnob about the Dresden bombing at a cocktail party: “‘My Dresden no longer exists,’ said Mrs. Mulberry. ‘Our bombs have destroyed it and everything it meant.’” For Anglo-Americans since World War II, Dresden has become an icon of ruin, first moral then physical — a sensational reminder of the evils of war. Recent histories like Sinclair McKay’s Dresden (2020) tend to conjure the firestorm as an act of sheer destruction, a brutish assault on a culture city that, if you squinted, was comparable to Vienna or Paris. (Such accounts tend to overstate Dresden’s innocence — the city was an important site for industry and transportation.) Heavily bombed during the war, then only haltingly rebuilt by Communist East Germany (GDR), Dresden is now a global symbol for atrocity against the run of play.

For contemporary Germans — and for Dresdeners in particular — it is far harder to talk constructively about the bombing. German wartime suffering remains a thorny moral question, especially for authors like Durs Grünbein, whose poetry collection Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City, originally published in German in 2005, has been translated by Karen Leeder and released roughly to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the bombings. How do you write about the deaths of some 25,000 people, about the firestorms and trauma and homes turned to rubble, without falling into the myths of German victimhood propagated by not only the Nazis but also, to some extent, the GDR regime — not to mention the rogues gallery of far-right agitators currently trying to exploit unprocessed grief? For sensible, progressive modern Germans, the response has tended to include avoiding the topic altogether: far better to focus on the vaster crimes that you and your ancestors did commit than whatever was done unto you in return. Yet such avoidance, famously criticized by W. G. Sebald as a repressed “inability to mourn,” risks leaving the stage to more unsavory actors. Recently, Dresden’s small Baroque downtown has become a flashpoint in ongoing disputes over the legitimacy of German mourning. During last year’s 75th anniversary, a provocative far-right Trauermarsch (“grieving march”) was opposed by a large counter-demonstration; the mayor and Germany’s president joined a now-customary silent human chain around the city. This practice of public silence — the speechless refusal to address Dresden’s historical suffering in terms that might relativize or instrumentalize it — was praised by the local bishop, who called it emboldening. “Perhaps, on this day,” he added, “it also takes courage to be silent.”

But for Grünbein — a confident, prominent, language-mad poet, author of some 26 books — silence will simply not do. When Grünbein published Porcelain in 2005, he was already one of Germany’s most prestigious poets, and certainly one of Dresden’s preeminent sons. Raised in the GDR, his first publication, 1988’s Grauzone Morgens (Mornings in the Gray Zone), was an early attempt to come to terms with his hometown. Here — in raw, sprawling, impressionistic lines — a frustrated young flâneur moves through the ruined landscape of an Industriestadt (mainly Dresden, occasionally East Berlin) suffering late-socialist rot. The past concerns the young poet less than the tangled and toxic frustrations of the present: “So many days and nothing / happening, only / sketchy winter maneuvers.” His generation of GDR authors was known as the hineingeborenen (“born-in”) for their lack of identification with the socialist dream; Grünbein’s poetic persona, suitably, was that of the “endogenous imp,” determined to craft something like poetry from the shoddy materials on hand.

It was in the aftermath of the fall of communism that Grünbein emerged as a literary Wunderkind, a favorite lyric voice for reunified Germany. Grünbein was one of few GDR authors to successfully adapt to the post-Wall landscape, in part because he was too young to seem contaminated by the petty compromises with state power made by even underground writers. Early collections, most notably 1993’s Schädelbasislektion (Skull Base Lesson), established his reputation as an erudite and empirical poeta doctus, with a particular interest in natural science and theories of perception. The shock of reunification was apparent in his work, for those who looked closely, but Grünbein’s hungry cosmopolitanism and outright rejection of GDR nostalgia made him well suited to a Germany searching for a unified national identity. In 1995, he became the youngest-ever winner of the Büchner Prize, the foremost German-language literary award. Later, Grünbein turned his attention toward the Classical world, particularly ancient Rome, in collections such as 1999’s Nach den Satiren (After the Satires). This phase ushered in harsh criticism — one rival described the poems as “sword-and-sandal films from Grünbein Studios.” By the mid-2000s, Grünbein was beginning to fall out of style.

Grünbein’s polyphonic collection Porcelain addresses Dresden’s thorny history through the leitmotif of porcelain, the “white gold” of Meissen whose discovery catapulted Saxony and its capital to considerable prestige in the 18th century — although much of it suffered considerable damage in the Allied bombing. The 50 poems that make up the cycle probe deeply the history of Dresden, adopting then discarding allusive threads to explore the ruin of the city. For Grünbein, Dresden’s genius loci reveals itself in the fragments of broken porcelain in the rubble, which represent destruction by the Allies and Germany’s atrocities:

Porcelain, endless porcelain was ground to dust,
crockery, cups and figurines: whitest Meissen gold.
But not just that. Ach, once upon a time—the finest
tinkling, then across the crime scene the thunder rolled.

The language of fragments offers a model for Grünbein’s wandering series of incomplete snapshots that document the effects of the bombing. Translator Leeder, an Oxford professor of Modern German Literature, succeeds remarkably at following Grünbein’s voice as it makes use of folksy exclamations, self-effacing sarcasm, and high-cultural references — all within the form of irregularly rhymed, largely trochaic six- and seven-meter lines. This lyric persona is highly citational, occasionally frustrating, and acutely aware of his intrusion on events that Grünbein, born in 1962, was not alive to experience firsthand. As the opening lines attest, including a little pun on the author’s name (green-leg in German):

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, my son.
And, as your name suggests, you’re too quick for it, too green.

Porcelain began in 1992 as a personal ritual on Grünbein’s part, sitting down every year to mark the anniversary of the bombings with an attempt at a poem. Eventually it grew into a coherent work, partly motivated by a desire to reject the far-right’s instrumentalization of Dresden as an icon of suffering. Indeed, whenever the poems permit the “distant Lorelei call” of revisionism to conjure indulgent fantasies of “the city was it was,” the lyric self is alert to reprimand such childish Kopfkino: “No, memory, the store of myth is dry, those legends / long run out, your every homecoming hell-bent.” Yet the cycle also warns against silence, which is not only unacceptable because it threatens the national-poet industry, but also because it lets nostalgia bloom.

Grünbein remembers growing up in a Dresden filled with the bombing’s traces — the ruins and empty lots of a half-rebuilt cityscape, the “phantom pain” transmitted through family whispers. Porcelain’s lyric persona is acutely aware of being a latecomer, someone engaged in post-memorial writing; but he would rather be an interloper than a passive inheritor, those “shadows regurgitating schoolbooks” and “postwar zombies” of complacent memory culture. For Grünbein, active engagement means remaining articulate. Understanding Dresden in context does not just mean insisting on the greater weight of Nazi crimes, or on the broader historical path that saw Germany embrace fascism. It means reintroducing the atrocity to language — particularly the German language, where its memory lives on, unaddressed.

Throughout his career, from the early flâneurie through his empirical and Classical fascinations, Grünbein has tended toward a poetics in which past and present coexist: they are experienced simultaneously in the mind of the poet. Porcelain’s 20th poem explicitly returns to this question of perception: “And by sense of place,” he writes, “we mean: / that this is where it’s at, inside your head and not out there: / that’s to say what comes and goes in here is mémoire involuntaire.” Coinciding images recur throughout the cycle, from archive films to retinal visions:

A clearing lost in time, in pittura metafiscia,
as if in its own praise the landscape had sung a hymn.
Taken together here, a city shows itself as One,
an ensemble, psychotropic, to its late-born son.

Applied to history, this simultaneity allows Grünbein to conjure a multiperspectival account of the bombing, one that resists the simple dichotomy of victims and villains as well as the glib equivalence of violence on both sides. The Allied attack, the rise of Nazism, the greater arc of Saxon (or German) grandiosity and collapse — these are arranged in constellation, not causation. What results is a pattern of showing and distancing, as Grünbein’s lyric persona guides the reader around (“Repeat after me…”) before retreating from whichever snapshot of imagery or language he has drawn (the arriving English bombers, a sparrow among the statues, a word-archive of war, recent memorialization discourse). The poet’s slippery voice might briefly entertain a nostalgic tone, an antiquated form, a gory detail, or an inappropriate analogy — and then discard it, often with a scolding interruption: “What’s that? Innocent? Disgrace came long ago!” For Porcelain’s lyric guide, these threads are dangerous to follow. And yet he cannot help himself, driven on by righteous determination to break the silence, sensual fascination, or some mixture of the two:

Now watch your step! warns the realist, the inner voice,
those who play with china shards may end up getting hurt
And does it even cross your mind you’ve gone too far?

The text’s frequent citations and references, many of them local in nature, provide a challenge for the translator. Leeder’s in-poem solutions are generally excellent, and they are aided by the inclusion of a glossary and explanatory notes. Her introduction provides an insightful defense against the book’s various German critics from 2005, many of whom seemed overly eager to problematize a lyrical engagement with Germany’s past (and who perhaps took joy in laying a boot into the national poet). In particular, Grünbein was taken to task for forcing unspeakable history into the reassuring — if imperfectly executed — form of Classical(ish) verse. But, as Leeder forcefully argues, the doomed desire for form is a theme, not a flaw, of Grünbein’s collection. The cycle’s many slips in meter and half-rhymes, its sudden shifts in tone and perspective, represent a working-through of aestheticizing impulses rather than a voluntary surrender to them. The penultimate poem connects the “dicey forms” of intentionally failed poetry with the collection’s central image of broken china:

Porcelain — most fragile thing. Were these dicey forms
always doomed? What’s all this for? — Someone’s
listening to hear the daughters of Mnemosyne dictating.
Changing places, times, dimensions as he goes — goes on — creating.

Here, porcelain represents the fragility of past glory; it also offers Grünbein a model for the presence of the past, and for his collection itself. In light of this multivalent symbol, the poems can be read as shards of language, splinters of speech; each evokes a whole that it will never reconstruct. Goethe, Canaletto, Grünbein. Dresden’s “late-born son” joins a long chain of European luminaries in portraiting the city, but there is a divide between him and them — the Holocaust — that he can never cross. He can never innocently admire the beauty of the porcelain, the Baroque accomplishments of Augustus the Strong, the verse of the Romantics. “Were these dicey forms always doomed?” In the original German, the phrase for “always doomed” was früh verloren (literally, “early / long lost”). For Grünbein the late-born Wunderkind, who arrives after history has already damned utopian dreams, the very forms available to him are eternally out of date. This, perhaps, is the advantage of his aesthetic of belatedness: its political safety valve. If you’re a Johnny-come-lately, born too late, then you — unlike the neo-Nazis and nostalgists — know you can never go back.

But belatedness comes with a cost. Dresden today is a peculiar, charming, and challenging place — not only for its past but for its present as well. Beyond the elegantly restored Baroque city center, whose reconstruction was a priority for the conservative government of newly reunified Germany, lies a complicated cityscape with dramatic traces of a difficult transition from late communism to late capitalism. It is not Grünbein’s job to write about urban poverty, nostalgia for communism, or the “alternativeless” mass sell-off of industry and public housing in the 1990s; nor is he responsible for interrogating the effects of Germany’s tabooification of GDR memory. (He also doesn’t need to worry about all this, since he has lived between Berlin and Rome since the Wall fell.) One does, however, wonder whether his eager historicization — his embrace of chronological outsiderness — makes the city’s difficult present fade away. When it comes to the poesis of Dresden, it might well be that Grünbein levels the wrong accusation at himself. The problem’s not that he arrived too late — it’s that he left too early. As he and his friends knew back in the 1980s, it isn’t just the past you have to come to terms with, but the present, as well.

¤

Alexander Wells is a writer living in Berlin. His work has been published by History TodayMeanjin, and the Mekong Review among others.