by Peter Huchel
translated from the German by Joel Spector
Into the low scrub of winter I came like the snow
and followed the deathcart.
Of justice and mercy
there was none upon this earth.
As if the Lombard dusk had raised aloft
one last sign,
there, overhead, in the coarse tangle of boughs,
against the whiteness of the sky,
pinned to that barrenness,
the empty bird’s nest,
had come to roost.
And beyond the flat-bottomed boats in the canal,
the city of robe and horoscope
with its adepts at alchemy,
its damp dungeons
and torture chambers.
O, malevolent dream,
where the blood, ill-used,
dripped from beams,
the people cringing
in the abbey’s entryway
beneath the wind gusts from the catapult.
Through the reddish haze of Padua’s churches and towers
an angel plummeted,
fell headlong through the stanchions
and came to rest, shoulder crushed,
before a horizon of halberds,
his look extinct.
City of Marsilius,
of the prophet
in the white fire of the snows—
three men rode past the cart in silence,
the Cardinal’s envoys; no hoofprint there,
that would ever lead to peace.
Lord, thy secret is great,
captive to the stillness of the rocks;
I am but dust,
a loose brick in the wall.
Darkness lopped off treetops,
the gabion sank.
The dead still lay in the open field.
The infantry cut wood,
lime ovens billowed smoke.
I walked through tangled undergrowth, I pushed the cart,
condemned to watch,
past what the senses could endure,
the misery of the ages.
Peter Huchel was born in Lichterfelde, near Berlin, in 1903, and died at Staufen, in 1981. Following his release from a Soviet war prison he returned to East Germany, where he served as editor of Sinn und Form until forced to resign by the East German authorities for his objections to party interference in editorial policy. Thereafter, he lived under house arrest, unable to work or publish in his own country, until he was allowed to emigrate to the West in 1971. One of twentieth-century Germany’s greatest poets, the author of verse plays and the recipient of many honors, he is not well known in the United States. (10/2004)
Joel Spector has translated the work of Peter Huchel, Yvan Goll, and other modern German poets for over twenty years. He is currently finishing a selection of Huchel’s later poetry and is at work on a translation of the poems of Johannes Bobrowski’s Wetterzeichen. He is a rare book and paper conservator living in Portland, Maine. (10/2004)