Dover

Ilse Aichinger

Illustration by Michela Caputo

Werld would be better than world. Less useful, less skilled. Orth better than earth. But this is the way it is now. Normandie is called Normandie and nothing else. The rest as well. Everything is connected. To everything else, as one says. And as one sees. And doesn't see, either. Only Dover is impossible to improve. Dover is called exactly what it is. All the names and what they designate are easily unhinged from this (as many people claim) place of little importance. Delft, Hindustan, also beyond. Even though beyond is not a place. Or most likely not. But Dover, persistent and close to the edge, doesn't use its power. That's its unique quality. Whoever embarks or disembarks there looks around briefly and doesn't notice anything. Dover, incorruptible and quiet between the pitfalls and inaccuracies, doesn't call attention to itself. Chalk cliffs and one or two lullabies from one or two wars: you can't be more modest than that.

To perish in Dover is almost as easy as perishing in Calcutta with its pestilence and its badly chosen name, its hot smoke. In Dover one can learn to walk hunched over, learn to rage, learn to hop, same as anywhere else. But only because of Dover does everything remain utterly clear to the one who learns it. He can later move away, operate merry-go-rounds, furnish offices—what he picked up in Dover he'll never lose, what he became in Dover, a humpback, a madman, a clown, will make him invincible. Annie for example only learned how to drool in Dover because she moved away early, and she was still skilled at it in Denver where at age ninety she landed in a madhouse, to such a degree that the nurses shivered with envy and furious admiration when they moved her from one bed to another. And even when they shivered they noticed that their shivering only corresponded to its drab designation and not to what it was. None of them had learned it in Dover. At the very least they got an inkling. Thus Dover promotes precise inklings. Neither air nor water can prevent this, much less the earth. And nor can its own chalk. Dover can respond to moods without being harmed by them. To little white cribs. With Jonnys in them, with red-cheeked Marys, Dawns, Deans. With everything in anticipation of beyond, or even of colors in general, however few that exist. But Dover doesn't promote color theory, or knowledge. The nurses in Denver will never discover what made them shiver. The few sailors who run aground in Dover don't realize, when they later become stranded in more distant and more likely places, why they deserve the desparate admiration of their comrades.

Whoever on a dull Sunday would like to chat with Marlowe, step on Wilde's lyre, or make a life-size sketch of a house in Tudor style, should instantly focus on Dover. He will not meet Marlowe there, not find Wilde's lyre, and he will soon consider Tudor style irrelevant. He will quickly and precisely sum up his wishes, he will want to play with pebbles, will build a pebble playground fairly high up, near the cliffs, it will take a while, but he will learn like no one else how to play with pebbles, to handle them with his fingers and feet, tame them. He will become the most famous pebble player in the world. Even before Annie in Denver, he will become invincible. We might say Dover has realized his wishes, as if they were its own. Or put them to rest. Pebble to pebble. Look at him up there, how he bends down to them, gentle as no other. He's right.

Besides, everybody understands that you get to know the world in chalk stores. This is said as an aside, but even speaking aside needs to be learned. And whoever has not learned it in Dover will have a hard time learning it later. Despite all efforts he will fall back again and again onto primary things and this will depress him. Then he will meet the one who was asked to give a speech for King Arthur's roundtable at the cliff school in Dover and who failed to do it—who was never asked again and therefore started to speak in asides. About interstices, hat strings, uninteresting stuff. This person will defeat him for good. But at the very least they engage with each other. Dover stays in the game.

Why do we observe our moments, if not in Dover? Why do we value them highly or not at all, allow them to be stolen from us, or not? And how? How do you overcome a moment which is still ahead of you but is nevertheless lost, once and for all? Never mind the ones we won and which lie behind us. How do we unlearn the ways of saying recently and later, just now and soon? How if not here? Everything in Dover. Dover knows the variety of disciplines which serve the moments. In the swirling air above the cliffs university departments grow, swaying, the front and rear entrances, towers and low buildings, camps, hide-outs, escape plans. Here one can drag one's dreams in and out of school and let them drown in wells dug only for that purpose. Here one knows that whatever is being attacked is always the moment. The connections between walking bent over, walking upright, and walking away are correctly established. Do you want more?

No, no, this shouldn't be a third lullaby on Dover. That always led to the hecatombs, and Dover omits hecatombs. It relies on lesser amounts, on the least, the quick deprecations.

And what of the friendships made in Dover? Do they survive or do they dissolve when confronted with known measures? It's either this way or that. Dover doesn't rely on friendships. It has its droolers, rope-jumpers, pebble-players and rarely stranded sailors. It's either this way or that with friendships in Dover, you have to live with it. And if it's either way, Dover will plead for us: Denver, Trouville, and Bilbao. It will entreat the places of the world for us with its soft gaze. It will keep an eye on the madhouse of Privas and the other madhouses, too. It will not omit whatever doesn't measure up to it, it will draw on its weaknesses and its weakness. It will also not forget industry, diligence, naïveté, and that everything will be over soon. It will not shove aside our wrecked desperation. Not Dover.

translated from the German by Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf



Read translator’s note

Ilse Aichinger (1921-) is considered one of the most important writers of postwar German literature. Her innovative and often radical body of work—including short stories, poems, radio plays, dialogues, aphorisms, essays, prose poems and one novel—has been awarded more than twenty prizes, including the Georg Trakl Prize (1979), the Franz Kafka Prize (1983), the Austrian State Prize (1995), and the Joseph Breitenbach Prize (together with W.G. Sebald and Markus Werner, 2000). "Dover" is included in her 1976 collection Schlechte Wörter (Bad words).

Christian Hawkey has written two full-length poetry collections, four chapbooks, and the cross-genre book Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). A new book, SONNE FROM ORT, a bi-lingual collaborative erasure made with the German poet Uljana Wolf, has just been published (kookbooks Verlag, Berlin, 2012).

Uljana Wolf is a poet and translator based in Brooklyn and Berlin. She has published two volumes of poetry with kookbooks, kochanie ich habe brot gekauft and falsche freunde, as well as a book of collaborative erasures SONNE FROM ORT. false friends, a chapbook translated by Susan Bernofsky, appeared from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2011. She translates numerous poets into German, among them Matthea Harvey, Erín Moure, and Cole Swensen.


"Dover" is a text from Ilse Aichinger's short prose collection Schlechte Wörter, published in 1976. It experiments with what she described, in the title text from this same collection, as a new aesthetic of only "the second-best words." In this way her later work might be seen as deploying an aesthetic of failed translation.


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