By Monika Rinck, trans. Alistair Noon
Barque Press; 2009
Paperback; 32 pages
ISBN: 978 1 90348 871 3;
‘A round-up of poets currently writing in German would seem to me to be selectively defective if it hadn’t got wind of Monika Rinck’s work’, translator Alistair Noon writes in his foreword to this edition of her poetry. For those not familiar with the German poetry scene, Rinck may seem to come out of the blue – indeed, Sixteen Poems is the first English translation of her work – yet her reputation has been growing steadily in her homeland for some years, and she now has three volumes of poetry to her name.
Noon has lived in Berlin since the early nineties and published several volumes, both of his own work and translations into English. He describes his philosophy as ‘mak[ing] poetry translation independent enough of the original that the reader isn’t left feeling that it’s more translation than poetry’. Noon does concede, however, that the translation can never truly stand apart from the original text. In this edition by Barque Press, the poems are presented in parallel, allowing one to simply read them in English or judge for oneself how ‘independent’ Noon has been with his translation.
Alongside her poetry, Rinck has been working for over ten years on Begriffsstudio, a website on which she collates quotations into a sort of online dictionary; many of these have been collected into a book (Begriffsstudio 1996-2001). A similar process of scavenging can be seen in her poetry: in a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, Rinck underlines her belief in ‘the value of broken pieces of thought’, the fragments that are yoked together throughout her work.
Throughout Sixteen Poems, the reader senses these ‘broken pieces’ in ‘semantic drift’, the playful clash of different lexis. In ‘spending a fortnight in a diving bell’, colloquial intimacy is juxtaposed with scientific exactitude:
slapping down cards in the chamber of snap reactions,
then booting a ball around, boomadiboom, the fittings
make one enormous clatter. all our bloodstreams
saturated with nitrogen. to decompress safely
is a daily trial. whole families doze in neoprene
The playful ‘boomadiboom’ of the ball and ‘slapping down [of] cards’ is teasingly counterbalanced by the scientific ‘neoprene’ in which ‘whole families doze’, a synecdoche for wetsuit. These oppositions held in tension instil a sense of flux in the poem’s semantics, much like the ‘corresponding shifts’ it goes on to discuss.
In her interview with 3:AM Magazine, Rinck mentions many poetic influences, including Frank O’Hara’s Personism: A Manifesto. O’Hara is an interesting poet to consider in relation to Rinck, whose influence can be felt in ‘a mess of walnuts’, which chronicles a dinner party:
how dearly I’d have liked to leave
taxi! the city at that moment
but the dishes from the night before
were good dishes and deserved
the washing-up water.
The poem takes in a discussion of neuroscience deriving from a ‘walnut mousse’ -‘“looks like a brain” said someone’- and playfully describes the particulars of the dinner party with a similar spontaneity to O’Hara. Its closing lines, printed above, ground themselves in minutiae – for example, ‘good dishes’ – which eschew logic yet sound reassuring compared to the sense of anxiety that lingers on the poem’s edge -‘how dearly I’d have liked to leave’. It reminds one of an aphorism of O’Hara’s in Personism: ‘pain always produces logic’.
This playfulness is important for understanding Rinck’s style of poetry because hers is a work that is teasing and contradictory. In Sixteen Poems, the reader is offered a brief but tantalising glimpse of this that will surely encourage many to pursue her further.