The penultimate poem in Monika Rinck's to refrain from embracing (zum fernbleiben der umarmung, 2007) is crucial and brief; I quote it in full:
my thinking today, around lunchtime, I saw my thinking,
it was a meadow, grazed bare, with hummocks. though
it could have been foothills of moss-covered mountains,
the kind of fuzzy green carpet fed on by reindeer.
no, just a busily bulging landscape beyond
the tree line, and it sure was close-cropped.
the thoughts passed over it, a little light-headed,
like currents of air made visible, no, more
like a fleet of immaterial hovercrafts. they used
the hummocks as ramps.
A poem as short as this and placed right before the final poem in a book could very well be ignored. But it isn't - it shouldn't be. Because here we get the poet filming her own mind and projecting it on a screen for us: a landscape emerges, and with it the uncertainty of inward travel, the pleasure of it, and a touch of self-deprecating humour from the "little light-headed" thoughts. The indecisiveness in lines 8 and 9 describes not only the act of thinking, but also the quality of these thoughts. Unlike "air made visible," they move like "a fleet of immaterial hovercrafts," suggesting a militaristic aggression, as well as lightness (I take "immaterial" to mean both "trivial" and "lacking material or physical form") and ease, the exhilaration of speed. In the very last line, the type of leaping exhibited by Rinck's thinking is enacted by white space - and it is true that this poet's mind leaps about, from the Psalms to Surrealism to German Romantic landscape painting, and returns magnificently with a poem on the page.
Moving from this penultimate poem to the ultimate - a tour de force titled 'tour de trance' -, one is witness to another tremendous leap, from a description of the poet's mind to what seems to be a description of the world at large. Everything, in fact, is at stake. The poem begins:
how everything turned, repeated, expanded
and rotated, heat was a space so vast,
so disastrously large, was an arena
in which the wreckage of objects drifted
Here too is a filmic landscape, but massive and apocalyptic. It is "as if/ time, torrential space, were being precisely and/ tenderly poisoned," and the turning, slowly and surely, stops.
The second poem in the book is the title poem. Its third stanza, quoting American poet Richard Wilbur, brings the knowing reader to his 'Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,' a poem that owes itself to St Augustine, who in 'Book X' of his Confessions wrote:
Too late loved I Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all. Thou calledst, and shoutedst, and burstest my deafness. Thou flashedst, shonest, and scatteredst my blindness. Thou breathedst odours, and I drew in breath and panted for Thee. I tasted, and hunger and thirst. Thou touchedst me, and I burned for Thy peace.
(Trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey, taken from Project Gutenberg)
Wilbur's poem is a celebration of the world, an embracing of sensuality. It begins at the moment when a human figure wakes up, his soul separate from his body. Outside the window fresh laundry moves on the line like angels, "conveying the terrible speed of their omnipresence" - and "[the] soul shrinks// From all that it is about to remember," yearning for "nothing on earth but laundry," nothing but angels. But the soul cannot stay in this mood and finally "descends . . . in bitter love/ to accept the waking body." Love, like a bird to its mate, calls the soul back into the body; in so doing the soul is called to experience the body's wakefulness in the world of things. In Rinck's poem the question is the opposite: "what calls us away from [the things of the world]?" What makes us refrain from embracing?
"To refrain from embracing" (a phrase which comes from Ecclesiastes 3:5) seems to be the principal gesture of many of Rinck's poems. In the title poem this gesture is articulated as an argument with the same metaphysical distancing that concerns Wilbur, but in the opposite direction. Wilful estrangement seems preferable to sensual return. By the end of the poem the reason to stay is not love, but loss: "you did stay,/ to lose again, that's why you stayed."
Elsewhere, the act of refraining manifests as a rejection of the world, a fundamental dissatisfaction with the way things work or are said to work:
(in 'the opposite of seduction')
all of us rise again into an age now obsolete, where we don't sow, don't reap, just bide our time in the opposite of seduction. they all say: i'll bring some peat tomorrow. the morrow comes. no one brings peat.
(in 'california dreaming')
. . . even non-being adorns itself with tassels
and on the way down into the abyss
the anxious one plunges past appliquéd flowers.
which goes to show: everything, truly everything is vain.
And in 'my poetic persona,' the distancing is between the self and the poetic self:
we came upon my brutal double? I have.
monika, you've done that. have i? you have.
The power of Monika Rinck's poetry proceeds from her aggressive lyricism, shot with a worldly, trenchant humour, a pointed anger at the systems within which we sometimes unquestioningly live. One of my favourite lines is the casual admission of the speaker in 'WHAT DO WOMEN DO ON SUNDAY?'; it goes: "by the way, i'm developing a malevolent streak."
This voice is matched with a rhythmic and syntactic fierceness present everywhere in the book:
(in 'pray how does getting ready work?') pray how does getting ready work? how do fake tans and hair-washing work? these are age-old questions, like standing on a landing stage and eating canapés on someone's engagement day, and a band plays, and over and over bottles are emptied and glasses filled.
(in 'what hearts learn')
what a lot i cope with. what a lot. i cope with.
(in 'angst and champagne for ever and ever')
in all due form — an especially memorable horniness
like an incline, a twine (greenish, I'd say) in a closed shape,
little escapes. The paradox of a good poetry translation is that it renders the unfamiliar language into a familiar one while still retaining the unfamiliar pleasures of the source. For one who knows no German, the translation must somehow evoke German, and these poems of Monika Rinck translated by Nicholas Grindell certainly do. One easily admires the phonic patterning of lines like "standing on a/ landing stage and eating canapés"; the halting heaviness of difficult speech in 'what hearts can learn'; the constantly twisting syntax that enacts the complexity of its meaning in 'angst and champagne for ever and ever.'
The triumph of this book is also in Rinck's delicious, yet vicious, wit - a wit that amuses even as it provokes. In 'the trophy sheep,' we see the sheep as machine: "the sheep as it produces surplus value by the minute./ [the] sheep après, on its way to supersheepdom." The "trophy sheep" proliferate like factory products until "finally, blinking, very tired," we get "the sheep of reason." The pun on Francisco Goya's phrase "sleep of reason" is ingenious, for the entire sentence goes "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters." The echo of that word "monsters" is a provocative element of the allusion. One is left thinking of the strange, disease-like spread of sheep, and one is held accountable.
For every reference one does unearth and pick at, there are at least seven others one does not necessarily know or remember to follow. Rinck's range of poetic allusions is manifold and various: there is Caspar David, Theodor Adorno, Immanuel Kant, Greek mythology, Italian advertising, Bob Dylan lyrics, and even a section titled 'counter-constellations' consisting of a set of five poems based on the French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue's poem 'Encore à cet astre' ('Once More to This Star'), printed in French at the start of the series. Laforgue's poem is acknowledged as Marcel Duchamp's inspiration for a drawing of the same title as well as his famous painting, Nu descendant un escalier (Nude Descending a Staircase), which is also evoked by Rinck as the title of the fourth poem in this series. Each poem is a "variation" of Laforgue's, riffing on its portrayed animosity between the sun ('this star') and humankind. The question is: what will happen when the sun no longer shines on humankind, providing light and warmth? Who or what will survive? The fifth poem, 'to you I write, oh star,' describing the sun's cooling off into "a ribbon of gas," ends:
far far far away, someone stands at a telescope
and uses your demise to calculate the distance
to faraway galaxies, while you, as a supernova,
enter a vortex where no light is, where nothing is,
no escape either, nor dreams no more,
how shall i, i ask you, how shall i, shall i then
The question cannot truly be asked, but its potential is extant. Whether or not one follows these strands in the work, they contribute to its overall intelligence and urbane playfulness. Monika Rinck is a powerful contemporary voice; her poems display the thrilling speed of a mind able to wander far off and come back laden with difficult, puzzling questions about the world we live in, expressed in a language that enacts these mysteries in a dizzying and deeply pleasurable way.