Grimm by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated from the German by Karen Leeder, Hurst Street Press
“Is someone shaking the stories”, asks the narrator in the penultimate poem from Grimm, the new collection by the German poet and performance artist Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by the German scholar Karen Leeder and published by the Oxford-based Hurst Street Press. The collection’s slant retelling of the Grimm tales, considered integral to the German psyche, belies a significant project: to rethink the world within a time of political and economic crisis, wherein the female body is particularly precarious.
Myth, legend, and folklore provide frameworks to writers and readers across all languages and cultures within which they can understand and contextualise crises, serving also as survival strategies for everyday existence and persistence. Grimm focuses on concerns that are central, yet which are by no means exclusive, to Germany, including, the rise of the far-right, misogyny and patriarchy, and the refugee crisis. The collection’s success is that by presenting itself as a poetic cycle, and by its use of language, it suggests that all these phenomena are related. Moreover, if the Grimm tales represent the collective German imagination (indeed, according to the critic Jack Zipes, the Brothers Grimm collected their tales in order to uncover the linguistic “truths” that formed the German people), Sandig reveals its violent, misogynistic, and patriarchal dark side, connecting the tales to the fascism, patriarchy, and racism of the German present and past. If, as Leeder notes, the collection directs a “rage” at this collective consciousness and the injustices it undergirds (‘Grimm’ also means ‘rage’), this rage is inscribed within the broken language of the women to whom Sandig’s retellings give voice.
We can see this at work in the poem “Fitcher’s Bird”, taken from the tale of the same name where a young girl is kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her against her will. During her confinement, the girl discovers the mutilated bodies of her sisters who had previously disappeared from the village. She brings them back to life, escapes disguised as a bird, and then musters the village to exact vengeance on her kidnapper. In the poem, the girl is multiply alienated from herself. Not only does her confinement alienate her from her body and the outside world, so does her disguise as her friends no longer recognise her: “I am an odd/ bird, nobody/ knows me, I/ scarcely know/ myself.” Crucially, this alienation is rendered linguistically. Her imprisonment and her kidnapper’s mutilation of her sisters confine her voice in short, staccato lines, of which the protagonist is well aware: “a globe is/ stuck in my throat/ that I can’t get down […] the beautiful bodies/ of my sisters are/ piled inside.” At the poem’s end, the girl resolves to “make/ all those anew, all those/ who were butchered overnight”, intimating how Grimm in its entirety interrogates the conservative, sexist didacticism inherent in the Grimm tales by exclusively representing female characters that resist patriarchy and sexism.
The collection’s opening poem, ‘Grimm’, connects the girl’s linguistic crisis with a political crisis. Two characters write messages on eggs which smash due to the urgency of their communication, their need to express their concerns. Then, most unnervingly, they “raised [their] sticky arms/ in salute and waved in greeting. then/ lowered [their] heads to a well-nigh limitless/ supply of fragments and rage most grim.” Their rage at the status quo, their political impotence, has broken their language, their selves, and their world-view. In the poem, the girls’ rage, their inability to express their needs or have their voices democratically represented has been misdirected to support the far-right, half-concealed here in the Nazi salute. All they are left within this tragedy are the broken eggshells of their words and a right-wing anger that, thanks to Leeder’s wordplay, is ‘grim’: both evil and implicated within the German cultural consciousness synecdochically represented by the Grimm tales.
The Nazi past resurges in Grimm through the women’s nightmares of the pater familias (“she dreamed he wore a pointed hat and wanted/ to cleanse his country before he went to sleep”) that forms both a repressed cultural unconscious and a family history. The cycle constantly juxtaposes the Nazi past with the contemporary German far-Right, as in the “Tale of the Land of Milk and Honey” which refers to the nationalist response to the refugee crisis: “my homeland is not only the cities and villages…/ it’s also the doorman before them. […] say it three times over: you’re not getting in,/ you’re not getting in, you’re–”. When we reach the poem entitled “The Girl who went forth to find out what Fear was”, Grimm condemns the West for being complicit in causing the refugee crisis due to their involvement in the Syrian War, with the collection viscerally exploiting the innocence implied by the fairy tale genre to represent how conflict destroys childhood. At the collection’s climax, Grimm privileges this lost innocence in a curious way. With slogans like “no fairy tales now”, “forget the real”, and “it is all real and is tumbling towards the pair of us./ and now join in and tumble too,” the final two poems rupture the fantasy world that the previous poems had evoked, suspend reality, and present childlike innocence as an alternative, empathetic political mentality to our current predicament.
Grimm was first published as a pamphlet but was later rendered into a performance piece, and Leeder’s translation successfully exhibits a pleasing tension between the formal influences of performance and the page: slam-like rhythms and internal rhymes, married with Jackson Mac Low-esque stutters, punctuate the poems’ experimental formatting on the page. In one instance, Leeder’s typographical interventions expand the female (self-)censorship that Sandig’s poems perform in German. In “Hans In Luck”, based on the eponymous tale wherein a character named Lucky Hans returns home to his mother blissfully ignorant of how the strangers he meets exploit him, Hans’ mother’s speech is constantly abbreviated. She mimics the “mechanical” voice of a dove at the window, a figure of the outside world from which her domestic imprisonment bars her: “I’m writing just t let you know I hv/ all I need. this i my hand,/ this i my arm…”. Leeder emphasises this female ‘unfreedom’ with an exceptional cultural substitution. In the English, the dove repeats the Shakespearean line “tothineownselfbet’ ru ru”, replacing a line from Goethe in the original, “Über allen Wipfelen ist Ruh” (“Above all the treetops is peace”). This adds an acerbic existential dimension that is less pronounced in the German text. Firstly, it allows for Hans’ mother to play on words when she asks him ‘where r u? ru ru’, making him seem even more lost, and her more alone. Secondly, the injunction ‘to thine own self be true’ added in translation seems tragically impossible for the mother, seeing as her language is so stifled that she cannot even understand herself: “I’m signing off. can scarcely understand a wd I say/ w all this absence.” Above all, the penultimate poem in the collection, “let’s forget the far side of the moon”, really showcases Leeder’s attention to poetic form. Here her English translation successfully replicates the formatting of the German text, which can be read both as one unitary poem that traverses the page divide, and as two separate poems, yielding a rich multiplicity of interpretations.
Grimm clearly makes inventive contributions at a time when both authors and readers feel the need to revisit the foundational narratives of our cultures, nations, and worldviews. In Sandig’s hands, the fairy tale acquires the potency to explore the tragedy of being expelled from a state of innocence due to war and conflict, and thrust into the bitter world of experience. Her choice to retell the Grimm tales is apt because it allows the collection to invite often uncomfortable parallels between a culture’s common imagination and what ethnic and gender identities are disadvantaged within that imagination. Her poetry connects fascism with misogyny through the haunting figure of the pater familias, and it embodies the consequent violence and anger that the oppressed female subject feels within their ruptured language. Indeed, the families in Grimm often resemble that of the Greek film Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009), with their dictatorial fathers, imprisonment, violence, and rebellious, stammering daughters. While this stuttering voice seems to offer an identitarian platform to women, Sandig’s poems carefully highlight that this very anti-establishment feeling can also mutate, often without us realising it, into a right-wing sentiment. In a time where the German extreme-right wing party Alternative für Deutschland is gaining support, and similar right-wing, populist movements are consolidating power across the world (for example in Hungary, Turkey, the US, or even more recently in Brazil), such a warning seems like an apt, yet tragic, cultural diagnosis of our current global political climate. Grimm’s translation, therefore, can nuance our own global contemporary concerns in dialogue with literary retellings of myth and legend in other languages, defending innocence as a form of political empathy. Leeder’s translations are the lodestone of this collection, providing playful rewritings that work synergistically with the political project that emerges at the heart of Grimm.
Elliot Koubis is a poet and translator from French and Greek with a Masters in Modern Greek Literature from the University of Oxford. For Ampersand Publishing, he has translated Bombardement by Henri Barbusse, The Stories and Adventures of the Baron d’Ormesan by Guillaume Apollinaire (in collaboration with Iris Colomb), and wrote his debut poetry collection, Echoing. His writing has appeared in The Oxonian Review, The OCCT Review, and GUG Press’s London Spoken Word Anthology. He lives in Croydon and is currently working on his second collection.
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