“Flotsam” By Agnes Vojta



I shipped my past to this continent
in a box I open rarely. In it,

my mother’s amber necklace
and my grandmother’s silver cross,

a dried flower from my prom bouquet,
ribboned letters from old lovers,

notebooks with poems written
thirty years ago in another tongue,

a brass key that opens no lock I know,
a photograph of the house on the hill

that stands now empty, where my voice
still echoes, unheard,
five thousand miles away.


About the Author: Agnes Vojta grew up in Germany and now lives in Rolla, Missouri where she teaches physics at Missouri S&T. She is the author of Porous Land (Spartan Press, 2019). Her poems recently appeared in Gasconade Review, Thimble Literary Magazine, Trailer Park Quarterly, Poetry Quarterly, and elsewhere.


Image Credit: Marion Post Wolcott “Child bringing home suitcase on sled, Franconia, New Hampshire” (1939) The Library of Congress

The Possible Is Monstrous: A Book Review

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
ISBN 978-0-9826228-1-0

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.



Three Poems by Jürgen Becker

translated by Okla Elliott

Jürgen Becker was born in Köln, Germany, in 1932. He is the author of over thirty books—novels, story collections, poetry collections, and plays—all published by Germany’s premier publisher, Suhrkamp. He has won numerous prizes in Germany, including the Heinrich Böll Prize, the Uwe Johnson Prize, and the Hermann Lenz Prize, among others. Becker’s work often deals with his childhood experience of WWII and the political consequences of the postwar division of Germany.

I first discovered his work when I was a student for a year in Germany and only later decided to contact him about translating his work. I can say that spending as much time as I have with his poetry has been hugely rewarding, and there are days when I enjoy being the conduit for his work into English as much as I enjoy doing my own writing. The following three translations have all appeared in print journals (A Public Space, Absinthe, and Indiana Review, respectively). I hope they give some idea of how wide-ranging and engaging Becker’s work is.


In the Wind

Blackbirds, then other voices. It doesn’t stop
when it snows, when with the snow
a newness comes that is
entirely essential this morning. Or how
do you see it? I see the pear tree and how it
(the pear tree) reacts to the wind (to the
wind). This morning, yet again,
the decision fell. War
between magpies and crows, only this war,
no trappings, only this clear understanding.
Yet another voice, the next commentator; it’s all about
(yet again) the whole. Are you standing
in the garden? The you know, tsk tsk, the blackbird
warned above all else, you know, I’ll say it yet
again, in war, in the new snow, in the wind.


Belgian Coast

Toccata and tango; the afternoon
not bright. One hotel
weathered after another;
postcards of emigrants.
Doors, doors
are blown away by the sand,
disappear behind the sand. The calm
of anglers. Invisible England; reports
from the British transmitter, wartime.
Children run
with balls, wheels, propellers;
and paratroopers all about.



The camera’s broken? It’s cold out,
and there are crows bigger than crows
usually are, scattering smoothly over there
across the fields.
Nothing over there. Twilight. Gold gray twilight
spreads out. A tree in Poland
is over there the lost barren tree.
Lighted and empty, the bus drives over the levee.
On the riverbank, two men with their backs
to the dam, which neither begins nor ends.
You don’t hear anything. You hear the slippage
of the floe, the circling floe. You hear
for a long time yet, later, in the dark, the drifting ice.
The camera’s broken, else why are the pictures
blurry now? Two men stood on the riverbank.

They came back. They could tell the story.