‘Sometimes a Single Leaf’ Esther Dischereit -Reviewed by Emma Lee

Esther Discherhereit Sometimes a Single Leaf - reviewed by emma lee

‘Sometimes a Single Leaf’

Esther Dischereit

Arc Publications 

ISBN 9781911469704 

£10.99

This is the first book of Esther Dischereit’s poetry in English translation and includes selections from her three poetry collections as well as recent, uncollected poems. Esther Dischereit now lives in Berlin and has written plays for stage and radio, essays, short stories and novels alongside poetry. She is founder of the project WordMusic and has curated sound-installations, ‘Vor den Hohen Feiertagen gab es ein Flästern und Rascheln im Haus’ (2009), ‘Particles of the Child with the Big Fat Face’ (2014) and an opera-project ‘Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena’ (2014). The translator is Scottish poet Iain Galbraith who has won the Stephen Spender Prize, The Popescu Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for poetry in translation. The poems are presented in the original German with the English translation on the facing page so both can be read alongside each other.

Esther Dischereit’s mother and older half-sister survived the Holocaust and the town she grew up in, Heppenheim, was the site of a small Dachau transit camp, now marked by a plaque that also lists the names of those from Heppenheim who lost their lives. The effects of these traumas were both visible and never spoken of. Esther Dischereit struggled with her identities as a German and a Jew, leading her to renew her faith in adulthood. In ‘Thin-walled I stood…’ (not all poems are titled so the first line is used for identification), published in ‘Als mir mein Golem Öffnete’/’When my Golem opened up’ (1996),

‘Dümmwandig stand ich

zwischen denen, die

stehen steißen sich

an mir dann bückten

sie sich und

halfen mir

die Scherben aufzusammeln

Es ist dann kein Gefäß nicht

mehr aus mir geworden

blieb Ausstellungsstück

vergangener Zeit sodas

sie die Schulklassen

zu mir führten ganz dicht’

‘Thin-walled I stood

among those who

stand who knocked

against me then 

bend to

help me

gather the shards

I could never then

not ever become a vessel again

remained an exhibit

of a long, gone time so

they brought their school class

to view me close up’

The poet often uses double negatives to insert a sense of doubt, a moment of resistance against destiny. A child is “thin-walled”, open to influence and instruction and less able to reject corruption because of their lack of experience and knowledge. A resolution of sorts is reached, in ‘I crept beneath Berlin…’

‘Eines Tages krochen wir die Stiege herauf

in mein rasendes Herz

auf die letzten Jahre

und schlug es immermehr laut

raste mir nach in die anderen Länder

bis ich heimkehrte in meinen Keller

und mich entschloss’

‘One day we crept up the staircase

into my frenzied heart

for these last years 

and how much harder it beat

careering after me to other countries

until I came home to my cellar

and was resolved’

Travelling abroad didn’t bring peace but returning home to reach an understanding did. In the title poem from ‘Rauhreifiger Mundo der andere Nachrichten’/’Hoar-Frosted Mouth or Other News’ (2001),

‘Manchmal segelt ein enzelnes Blatt

zu Boden von Luftschlieren gefangen

und wieder freigegeben

ich tanze dem Blatt hinterher

und kann mir die Schritte nicht merken

ich strauchele, ruder emit den Armen

das Blatt wird nicht weider fliegen

wie dies eine Mal

kein Blatt wird fliegen wie dies eine.

Hab ich dir neulich gesagt.’

‘Sometimes a single leaf

sails to the ground, caught

by an air plume and released 

I dance after the leaf

and cannot remember the steps

I falter, arms flailing

the leaf will not fly again

as it did this once

no leaf will fly like this one.

As I recently told you’

The poem raises questions around observation: even if the leaf followed the same path, it will be observed differently because the observer won’t fully remember the steps in the right order. Another leaf following the same path will not look the same.

In ‘Ich find das komisch’ ‘I find that kind of funny’ from ‘Im Toaster steckt eine Scheibe Brot’/’There’s a Slice of Bread in the Toaster’ (2007), a child finds a monogrammed spoon,

‘Vom schönen Silber allzumal

ist nur der Kaffeelöffel hier gebleiben

alles, alles, blieb doch drüben

Ich sage, Mama, ach dieser Löffel

mit dem Monogramm HR

wer war den das

ich wüsst’ es gern

Sei still, mein Kind, est ist doch schon

so lange her

und außerdem – und außerdem

erinnere ich mich nicht mehr

Ich find das komisch’

‘A coffee spoon is all that’s left

of our beautiful silverware

the rest had to stay back there

I ask, what of this spoon Mama

the one with the initials HR

who was that

I’d like to know

Be quiet, my child, it really is

so long ago

and anyway – and anyway

I’m sure I no longer know

I find that kind of funny’

How does a child learn who they are when family history is closed? There may have been good reason not to tell the child, but without knowing those reasons, the child feels dismissed and cast adrift.

From the newer poems, ‘1866 Gasthaus Zum Lamm’/’The Lamb Inn, 1866’,  in contemporary times,

‘im Doft nebenan

wartet ein altgewordenes

Goebbels-Kind

Rosa vom Haus hinter den Judgenhäusern

ist die aus Auschwitz

sitzt neben ihm

bei der Kirmes und hebt

ein schäumiges Bier

Die andere auch.

Sie schlürfen und wischen

die weißen Münder ab.

Auf dem Dachlboden liegen

Abgerissene Schulterstücke.’

‘in the neighbouring village

waits an aged

Goebbels-child

sitting next to her 

at the parish fair

Rosa from the house behind the Jews’ houses

is the one from Auschwitz

and raises a foaming glass of beer

as does the other.

They slurp and give

their white lips a wipe.

On the floor of the attic

lie torn-off epaulettes.’

This image of history creeping into the current day and the need to witness recurs in ‘Nachwachsende Zeugen’/‘Renewing Witnesses’

Graue Schlieren

liegen über dem Gras

und auf den ausgebreiteten Röcken

über den Buchseiten

bedecken den Schuh

wenn du hineinschlüpfst

wie feiner Puder

auf Gesicht under Händen

du wäschst sei wieder und wieder

bedeck dich der Staub

der Platz nimmt in deinem Haus

wie ein alter Bekannter

und bleibt.’

‘Grey streaks

lie across the grass

and on our outspread skirts

on the pages of books

covering your shoe

when you slip it on

like a fine powder

on your face and hands

which you wash again and again

the dust covers you 

it settles in your house

like an old familiar

and stays.’

The dust settles, you can chose to ignore it, but it remains and needs you to take action.

Throughout this selection of poems the theme of observation and witness recurs. At face value, there’s a sense of bliss in ignorance. The elderly woman raising a beer to her Jewish neighbour choses to remain in the moment of two women acknowledging each other. The Jewish neighbour, however, is forced into a choice, to partake in the moment’s civil charade or be seen as the unfriendly, unreasonable one who reminds the other woman that this veneer of civility is hammered over a past of conflict and trauma. The German woman may not have directly take part, but her comfort is at odds with the inherited trauma of her Jewish neighbour. In her one line poem, ‘Ich geh und lasse meine Splitter leigen’, ‘I go, leaving my splinters behind me’, the image raises the question of whether the speaker is shaking off deadwood and allowing herself renewal or whether those splinters are still part of her and in shedding them is she leaving part of herself behind?

My German is rusty but good enough to know Iain Galbraith has gone beyond the literal translation and brought consideration of the poet’s intention into his translations. The literal translation of ‘Ich geh under lasse meine Splitter leigen’ is ‘I go and leave my splinters to lie’ but ‘lie’ in English can be read ambiguously and introduce an idea not in the original, so ‘I go, leaving my splinters behind me’ is closer to intention and makes the act of leaving active rather than passive. Elsewhere, ‘komisch’ is translated as ‘funny’ rather than ‘comical’ and ‘funny’ is the better word because it is comical that a girl wants to get the family tree to find the origins of a monogram on a spoon but it’s also strange or odd that the family don’t want to comply, so funny is the better fit. In Iain Galbraith, Esther Dischereit has found an ideal translator.

The Blue Nib Reviews Editor Emma Lee

Emma Lee is the recipient of the 2019 and 2020 Best Reviewer Saboteur Award. Her publications include ‘The Significance of a Dress’ (Arachne, 2020) and ‘Ghosts in the Desert’ (IDP, 2015). She co-edited ‘Over Land, Over Sea’, (Five Leaves, 2015). As well as curating the Critical Nib, Emma reviews for a number of magazines.