Animal Dreams

Gertrud Kolmar

Mourning Play

The tiger treads his long diurnal way
Across the leagues.
By night, in foreign stays,
He sometimes feeds.

Behind the iron bars: things slide and splinter
Depart, are seamed,
Are scream and stitch and frosted-fallow winter
And only dreamed.

And home he glides: by now unlearning
His mother’s speech.
The cage, it stutters, scents his yearning,
Extends its reach.

From blinding ache his flickers brighten,
His ache unnamed.
A candle only, soot-soiled, golden,
A glimmer burning out its flame.

The Whale

You. I wanted to snatch you from heaven,
And drag you deep into this life of mine;
The day just fell into splintered ruin,
The sun trickling, now even sweeter wine.
My clad hand fades
In whiter shades
It veils like old maid’s lace, this opaque shine.

You. You graze in distant, cooler haunts,
Foam glass acres, diluvian pastures,
Transfigured now to a floating giant,
Resting among the mothers of azure.
Fields of ice flow
Silent pillows
Their blood streams for you, pure and silver.

All that you sensed as nectar, as swelling,
All that you thought and you longed in the light
Throws from your head a towering wellspring:
A gushing sword dancing into the night.
Sea fleurs-de-lis
Bloom fatally:
A soul devoured in waves infinite.

Were you ever that strong, that muteness and rune?
Was ever your breath that whisperingly vast?
Does my profanity disturb your harpoon,
Pains give chase, can you wrench yourself past?
In foreign climes,
Weightless in time,

There reels an empty and upside-down craft.


The Dragon

Thus will I lie—as my hand stills,
As now a cup towards me spills
And from it drops a single pearl
And with the pearl: the hallowed world
Of silence.

It swells, resolves; its form appears:
The eye that gleams one thousand years,
And on it frayed and brown wings grow,
Its tail rings aspen stars, aglow
I know this.

It creeps on, hunched, with brass-bronze scales,
Its clubfoot swiped my quilt with nails;
In its horse-nostril, swollen round,
Dance flaming scythes, that mow dreams down
And reap in swathes.

Words menace from its yawning maw,
And when it speaks, my head lifts, awed;
For what it knows is strange and keen,
Is clear as moons, in dead frost sheened,
And shining.

“They have now cast me from the pits,
They’ve branded me with books of wit,
Set their white light in darkened pots;
It feeds my gleam and it will not
Destroy me.

Of use I’m not, like desk or chair
Still less than beast of sea or air  
But I’m the cape, where your raft sunders
Though you’ll deny it, till you go under
In tempests

You name the islands: im- and mortal,
D’you hear the life stones caterwaul?
D’you see the writhing face of dust?
Far off the void—here’s grace, you trust.
I am a third.”


A Dragon Speaks

Hurtling out of the neck
I’m yoked to earth and tide,
Still spilling golden spikes
From a yawning shell’s insides
Forged of song and clamour
In the furnaces’ great roar,
Between liberty and war
As if between two elms.

Once brought to light in stories
My tale is now unknown
My eyrie’s ’neath the seas
And ide gild red my throne,
But once my crow’s nest tore
Out of the wood’s uproar,
And rode a hackled boar
Into the bogs and thickets.

This refuge rent in twain,
Combed down to remnants, splintered,
From me was torn the chain,
My crown cast down and mired;
It glistens in the evenings
Like all girls’ braids went drifting
From pike of green and sterling
Over towards the shore.


Good Night

For you, beloved man, I’ll fold my hands,
I’ll sit in bed and pray for you.
For whom, my black cohosh . . . then dreamlands

Of countless white heath asters I picked back
In morning’s dew—and rummaging around
I put them all away with bric-a-brac

There with your photograph: their tangled frame
And with a fan of golden butterflies
With wings that bloom and set a wreath aflame.

And twilight passed then, greying still and cool.
Just one so small it lacks all glint or sheen
Unfurls itself in time across my brew.

translated from the German by Anna Henke and Julia Gutterman