Implacable: Thomas Bernhard: Collected Poems, translated by James Reidel

Jeffrey Brown
| Reviews

Thomas Bernhard: Collected Poems, translated by James Reidel (Seagull Books, 2017).
Thomas Bernhard’s prose has an implacable forward motion, driven by repetition and elaboration. A sentence in his final novel, Extinction, is structured in the same way as the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor. “They don’t understand you, they understand nothing, they understand absolutely nothing, I told myself,” Bernhard’s narrator says: a statement, the same statement at a higher pitch, an elaboration on and closing of the first statement. At other times, a single word will underpin a passage like a pedal point in Bach. The narrator’s family in Extinction has been killed in a grisly car crash: “Hideous, isn’t it, was the only remark I made to my brother-in-law as he sat absorbed in the newspapers. I said hideous twice, a word that numbers among my favorites when I’m talking about something like the newspaper reports about the accident, hideous is the word that’s best suited to these situations, I use it often, too often.” This is a great sentence of prose. The repetition lends momentum, propelling the reader forward while revealing the narrator’s frayed, hectic grief.

The requirements of poetry—elusiveness, layered meaning, words chosen for maximum depth—are so different that it’s hard to imagine the writer of Extinction working as a poet. In fact, poetry was Bernhard’s earliest literary passion. “My World Play” was his first piece of writing to be published, in a Munich newspaper, when he was twenty-one. It rhymes, and is pleasantly naive, but hints of the later Bernhard are there: “A wagon creeps, an old man stands / and waits for his day to pass by.” Death was on the young man’s mind. Though Bernhard stopped publishing new poems by 1963, his work contains all the elements that would later make him Austria’s greatest twentieth-century writer.

An early example of Bernhard’s penchant for repetition in his poetry—not only for momentum, but as a device to wear readers down, submitting them to the force of the poet’s conviction—is present in his early poem, “Song for Young Males,” which Reidel’s translation renders with a finely tuned sense of euphemism. The poem describes a group of young men who give in to their hedonism: they eat pork, get blackout drunk, and have sex with each other. Every stanza begins and ends with the phrase “tonight, tomorrow morning,” while the activities described in the middle progress from innocuous to pornographic: “We want to cheat on our flesh / and go ploughing the red furrows…” The second-to-last stanza reads,

        Tonight, tomorrow morning
        We want to forget our women
        And the ones we will never have…
        Tonight, tomorrow morning
The young men are talking about something they are doing, not something they are. They don’t define themselves as gay: they convince themselves that they are having sex with one another out of a kind of temporary madness or desperation. Bernhard, by having the men repeat their exhortation over and over, shows us that they believe their own lies.

Jeffrey Brown is the editor of VAN Magazine. His work has also appeared in Slate, INTO, and Electric Literature. He lives in Berlin with his husband.

Hand in Hand: No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin