The Possible Is Monstrous: A Book Review
by Okla Elliott
[The following review originally appeared in The Southeast Review.]
The Possible Is Monstrous
by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (translated by Daniele Pantano)
Black Lawrence Press, 2010
Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in 1921 and died in 1990, meaning he saw WWII, its direct aftermath, the entire Cold War, and the advent of post-modernism. His work can generally be described as experimental, philosophical, and political, with themes that reflect the major world events and European cultural concerns during his lifetime. Dürrenmatt is best known as a playwright and a novelist, but his nonfiction and poetry are equally impressive. Unfortunately, Dürrenmatt’s poetry, which incorporates the historical events of his lifetime as well as philosophical meditations on those events, has been largely unavailable to English speakers—until now, that is.
Given its relative obscurity, most non-German speakers are unfamiliar with Dürrenmatt’s poetry. He is a frequent practitioner of the longer poem, and The Impossible Is Monstrous offers us a sizable sampling of these. What is most impressive about Dürrenmatt’s longer poems is how he maintains movement and breath in a way that makes the poems feel much shorter, despite their weighty subject matter and length. He writes occasionally in rhyme and meter, with the majority of his poems being in free verse. A shorter poem exemplary of his overall style is “Dramaturgic Advice,” reproduced here in its entirety:
Don’t give us any profound talk
Don’t add to the mystery
It’s not the word
Create a shape
Three men at a table
What they say is not important
They want to do right
But the dice are cast
Who boards the wrong train
May run back in it
But arrives where he didn’t
want to go
Here we have the lyric-philosophic tone Dürrenmatt uses in several other poems in the book. We also find another common theme in the book—theatre. Several of the poems are choruses from plays that can be read as stand-alone works, and Dürrenmatt discusses theatre as an art and his own particular theatrical works. Done differently, this could be a weakness, but the way Dürrenmatt handles it only adds to the reader’s pleasure. As we see in “Dramaturgic Advice,” the poem is not limited by its interest in theatre but rather made larger and more interesting, made to carry extra meaning(s) because of it. It is a poem about life, but with that title, it becomes a poem about art, representation, and meaning-making as well.
Dürrenmatt’s free verse poems—their tone, underlying music, and content—come across wonderfully in Pantano’s translations. Pantano also solidly handles the much more difficult task of translating formal verse. For example, in “O World of Men and Murders” (a 50-line poem), the first four lines “O Welt der Männer und der Morde, / Voll Schmach, voll Haß, voll grauser Tat, / Hinunter schlingt jetzt deine Horde / Der Hölle Maul samt deiner Saat” become in English “O world of men and murders, / Shameful, hateful, full of grisly deeds, / Hell consumes your hordes / Along with your seed.” Pantano has changed the rhyme from ABAB to ABCB, which is a good compromise between doing excessive violence to the content in order to retain all of the form or getting rid of the formal aspects entirely and merely doing a prose translation. After those opening four lines, he abandons this tactic for most of the poem (though there is an occasional off-rhyme), and then ends the translation with the same rhyme replacement move. He therefore begins and ends with strong hints of the rhyme in the original and has occasional reminders throughout the poem, yet he does not lose anything by way of content. In another poem, “To Unchain Man’s Chains,” Pantano cleverly orders the syntax of his English so as to have the word “chain” (or some variation on it) end seven of the twelve lines of the poem. Dürrenmatt’s original has six of the twelve lines end with the German equivalent of variations on “chain,” though his poem is more structured and every line has a rhyme (in the pattern ABAB ACAC ADAD). Pantano has, therefore, more or less used the same tactic here again. He retained the word repetition/rhyme so as to reproduce the general effect of the poem, but he didn’t slavishly chain himself, as it were, to the poem’s form, thus allowing him also to reproduce the content more faithfully. And since it is a dual-language book, if you can even just sound out the noises of the German, you can get the exact original music from the German, and then you have the English for the literal meaning.
The inclusion of the German alongside the English also increases the book’s value as a scholarly text, and that’s not the only aspect that makes it useful in this respect. The Possible Is Monstrous also includes a short scholarly essay by Peter Rüedi (also translated by Pantano) on Dürrenmatt’s poetry, as well as a longish editor’s note on his poetry. There are also three pages of end notes to help readers not familiar with German or Swiss literary figures, works, cities, etc. All of these scholarly aspects, none of which are intrusive on the reading of the poems themselves, make the book ideal for the classroom or for research on Dürrenmatt’s poetry (of which, thanks to this volume, there can be much more).
In the final analysis, Pantano has done both scholars and lovers of poetry alike a service with this (long overdue) selection of Dürrenmatt’s best poetry, and his translations are accurate, generally excellent, and, I predict, destined to become the standard English versions. The book is well designed and printed, adding another nice book (as object and as cultural product) to Black Lawrence Press’s growing list. The Possible Is Monstrous is worthy of serious attention and should be in every academic library and on every poet’s bookshelf.