from Kissing Nests

Werner Lutz

It doesn't help but still
I have to dwell on futile things
how it might be how it would be

if the roots
of an ancient oak would grow
through the chambers of my heart
with their narcotic juices
their poison and their
wisdom of the evergreen

I always sleep badly in March
I go to lie under silk paper
and the perfume of distant foreign yearning
lets me breathe quicker

the hours turn
their seductive rounds
and what I think on these nights
is similar to the buds in March

too early too early
too reckless to be viable

Once in summer
when green tendernesses
slept in half shadows

once in autumn
when the pear trees deepened themselves
into their own embers

once in winter
when snow gusts
blanketed the standstill

once in spring
when someone waved goodbye
on a street corner

something black was blooming
on the black briar tree

Like a curse
this evening arrives
over the Rhine

the towers sink
in the muddy light

the sandstone towers
winding staircase towers
the towers
of the forgiving prayers

the cottonwood on the shore
woven with ghosts
made of pleading
begging sounds

the lips taste
like a foreign voice

translated from the German by Marc Vincenz

Read the original in German

Read translator’s note

Werner Lutz was born in Wolfhaden, Switzerland in 1930, and is considered to be one of Switzerland's foremost living lyric poets.  He has been awarded numerous prizes for his work, including the Basel Lyric Prize (2010) and the city of Basel's Literary Prize (1996).  He has published over eight collections of poetry and currently lives in Basel, where he works as a poet, artist and graphic designer. Kissing Nests (2010) is his most recent collection.

Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong to Swiss-British parents. His poems and translations have appeared extensively online and in print, including Washington Square Review, The Bitter Oleander, Canary and Poetry Salzburg ReviewSecret Letter, his translation of Swiss poet, Erika Burkart's poetry collection Geheimbrief, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press in 2013. An English-German bi-lingual collection of his poems Additional Breathing Exercises / Zusätzliche Atemübungen is to be released by Wolfbach, Zurich (2013) and a collection, Mao's Moles, is to be released by NeoPoiesis Press in 2013. Marc is Editor-in-Chief of MadHat Press and Mad Hatters' Review, and divides his time between Reykjavik, Zurich, Berlin and New York City.

Werner Lutz is a formidable character; at his home in Basel we chatter non-stop for 7 hours straight; at 82 years of age he's more alive and sprightly than ever.  "I'm like an old snail. The shell is cracking," he says, "but the heart, the heart goes on forever."

Although Werner once worked as a commercial artist and a painter alongside writing his poetry—in fact many of his earlier books feature both—his eyesight is now failing.  Despite that, he's just completed two new collections of poetry, both of which he's eager for me to get translating tout-de-suite.  He hands me a manuscript full of scribbles, squiggles, arrows, corrections.  "This is >Flusstage< (Riverdays)," he says, "poems that I wrote along the Rhine—as days and years flowed into each other and cheese was maturing.  Keep it, I have another one."

Werner's verse is imbued with an almost casual sense of place in the universe (he calls it a tiny place, but with a cracking bottle of Amarone).  He has a deep affinity with the natural world of the Alps, and yet there's something more here: Werner's razor-sharp, subtle sense of the absurd in the everyday.  "An unlikely Swiss trait," I say, "trying to wind him up."

He laughs. "I'm a country lad," he says. "Working with cows and goats gave me a great sense of the absurd."

On the surface, Werner's poems seem—well, almost—simple.  Yet as each line tiptoes to the next, he gently shuffles us into the playfully circumspect, the absurdly dark, the wistfully awry. Strangely, I don't think I've enjoyed playing poetic hide-and-seek—that ephemeral art of lyrical translation, more with any other poet.  At first Werner's poems slip under your skin unnoticed, then—possibly a moment, possibly an hour later—they boomerang back and tickle you, force you to break out in light sniggers or even hearty guffaws.