Seeing Vienna: Poems Inspired by Christine de Grancy’s Photographs

December 8, 2021

The poems in Maja Haderlap’s “Seeing Vienna” cycle were inspired by the black-and-white photographs of Vienna taken by the noted photographer Christine de Grancy, whose pictures recall Yvon’s Paris. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1942, de Grancy discovered photography in 1965. Starting in 1975, she regularly clambered over the roofs of Vienna for a bird’s-eye-view of the city. Her work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna, the Photography Biennale Torino in Italy, the Museum of Modern Art in Passau, the WestLicht/Leica Gallery in Vienna and many other galleries. In honor of de Grancy’s 80th birthday, photographs from her four-decade long portrait of Vienna were collected into the volume Über die Welt und den Zeiten (On the World and Times) along with responses in verse and prose by fourteen renowned Mitteleuropean authors. My translation of a selection of Haderlap’s poems, distant transit, will be out with Archipelago next February.

— Tess Lewis

¤

 

I

My thoughts, laden with light
and forgetting, do they push forward in time
or just backward to the outer edge of the picture?
Do they bore more deeply in the silt
to that submerged place, dive down into
the constellations of the deep where a reflection swims,
a veduta drifts? Seen from this angle, the city thinks
and imagines itself. Under the open sky,
beneath bursting clouds, it swells. The eye
of the diver who raised it has been wept dry. Vienna.
Nonsensical Vienna! Titans tap on your roofs in the dark.

 

II

All those gods who watch over you are blind.
They believed you immortal, lashed by
rainstorms, inundated by the Danube’s floods.
They loved your illusion, as did all who came
and stayed and left. Countless bell towers
rang their hours of reckoning. The expiration date
of each eternity had run out before it began.
From the ground I gather up the splinters
of my attempts at love. Congealed sparks of light,
great promises, airy fluff. Fortuna’s shadow
falls across my face, at random, a punch line.

 

III

Riders galloping out of earlier ages.
Above glistening squares heroes and warriors,
enthroned, alternate with nymphs and korai.
White horses dance ballet, a Slovenian lout
swindles salt from the emperor’s pocket.
A bee colony flees under the empress’ skirts.
Just bees, Slovenians, who swarm and surge.
A visionary invents the Living Wheel in outer space.
His observatory glows. A censor chastens
and forges the neighbors’ languages,
a poet flees from the seamstress who feeds him,
a prisoner recapitulates his novel in his cell.
The empress’s rustling skirts over the gravel.
The nautilus lies in the watery depths. Its chambers are empty.
Its chambers are black. The empress lifts off into space.

 

IV

The city divided into internal and external, into visible
and invisible, on their boundaries I lived. Neither
at home nor abroad, neither arrived
nor departed. Each withered cactus in a
neglected display case, each dusty window
in the side streets where I lived was as familiar
as the name of a body part and just as strange.
Beautiful residence! Lavish, in any case, with the embellishment
of its history, the old palaces fossilized
into casings once the mollusks had moved out.
Their former subjects now populate them
as guests. They stroll along the Ring, as if awakening,
lethargically, in the eiderdown of their losses. What elsewhere
would be a catastrophe and spark protests
is peacefully tolerated here, Milena writes.
She knows that Vienna is on the last legs of its glory.
It will reinvent itself one day when only
the name, Milena, will survive it. Everything will be
freshly priced, offered and contrived as myth.

 

V

Idols with resonant names and a blood-soaked
history attached spent their temporary exile
on roofs and facades.
Sentenced to silence, they paused
in summoning the oceans. In the battle
against the eternal enemy, their lethal
victory signs froze. The fanfares from above — who
followed their call? Even the goddess Fama could no longer
understand the chatter that hummed
on all sides. Full of melancholy, the thinkers lay
their weighty heads under the pigeons’
feet. The globe no longer rolled,
it stayed in place. In the timberwork
of a city that engulfed it.

 

VI

I recently dreamt of city built
upon sleeping sand. When I awoke
it strewed sand, fine-grained, in my eyes.
It trickled into me or did I sink into it
in the estuary of those student days
that flowed into the past never to return?
The report of moments arrayed in pictures
that tell a fleeting story yet conceal
everything that actually happened.
The spines of books on shelves, the chink of light,
rich with dust, in the reading room of a library,
the chair legs scraping against the parquet.
The screeching and pounding of the tramcar
in the curve at the outlet of an alley,
the streaks of water on a coffee tray,
the barely visible, barely audible flotsam of those days.
Ever since the gleaming city at the foot of the Nußberg
disappeared in my lens and sank within me,
I have been searching for it, holding its
reflection, myself, as I saw it then.

¤

Maja Haderlap was born into the Slovenian-speaking minority of Carinthia, Austria. She writes in German, and was awarded the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis and the Rauriser Literaturpreis for her novel Engel des Vergessens, which was published in Tess Lewis’s English translation as Angel of Oblivion in 2016. In 2018, Haderlap was awarded the Max Frisch Prize of the City of Zurich. The jury wrote that her “poetry and prose combine poetic brilliance with explosive political power.” In 2021, she was awarded the Christine Lavant Prize.

Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Walter Benjamin, H. M. Enzensberger, Christine Angot, and Philippe Jaccottet. She was awarded the 2017 PEN Translation Prize for Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion and her translation of Lukas Bärfuss’s One Hundred Days was shortlisted for the Oxford/Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She is an advisory editor for TheHudson Review.

All photographs © Christine de Grancy.