Oskar Pastior: Many Glove Compartments


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Unlike Adam (“the old Stalin of language”), Pastior is not out to name animals or anything else. “Talking about things is not possible. Language, the text, speaks itself-this is the great dilemma to which theories of realism close their eyes.” For Pastior, language itself is the stuff of life, a metabolism where not only words, but even concepts are made flesh. He explores it through puns, lists, strings, heaps, fields, dictionaries, alphabets, collage, montage, potpourris in orgiastic expansion, “thought-music as a leaping perspective.”

Critics have praised his “sublime lack of seriousness,” his “paradisal language,” his “commonsense and commonscythe,” his “revenge against logic.” Only a fraction of Pastior’s poems are translatable. But the translators hope that their versions will at least approximate the pleasure of Pastior’s texts.

Oskar Pastior was born in 1927 in Hermannstadt, in Siebenbürgen, the German-speaking part of Romania. After the war he (along with other young Romanian-Germans) spent 5 years in a Soviet Labor Camp as part of Romania’s reparation for having sided with Hitler. This experience, Pastior says, provided him with his thematic tonic: “the small – yet vast – space of play between freedom and determinism.” Then, after taking a university degree and working for the Bukarest radio, in 1969, he managed to come to Berlin where he has gained a considerable reputation as a poet, performer and the only German member of OULIPO.

Beside poems, he has written radio plays and translated Khlebnikov and many Romanian writers into German. His honors include the Peter-Huchel-Prize (2001), Hugo-Ball-Prize (1990) and Ernst-Meister-Prize (1986), a stay at the Villa Massimo in Rome (1984) and an honorary doctorate from the Lucian-Blaga-University in Hermannstadt (2001).

Knowing the originals, and the apparent imposibility of translating them, I am amazed at the wonderful outcome here. Obviously it helps when your translators are writers as good as these three, but it also helps when it appears they’ve had fun doing it…If you like the playful end of the avant-garde (think Jandl, early Raworth, among others) you’ll love this. Sometimes spectacular re-creations rather than translations per se, but Pastior has been wonderfully well-served here. At $10 it’s a snip, quite frankly, and I think you should all go out and buy it.

–Tony Frazer, Shearsman

Pastior says translation is simply not possible -“the wrong word for a process that does not exist…” Nonetheless, the translators have gamely tried to recrete the mad, witty wordplay of Pastior’s German poetry in this volume. Palindromes, anagrams, puns, “sonnetburgers” and exuberant nonsense…prevail as Pastior, who is the only german member of Oulipo and who will be 75 this year, tinkers with the smallest units of language and the oldest of lyric forms.

Publishers Weekly

The manic and disruptive energy of this selection from the opus of the only German Oulipean — in which words such as “budgerigarlic,” “kunigundulate,” “instrumentirritation,” and “catchascatcher” whirl through sonnets, sestinas, palindromic poems, and other forms — may alienate fans of narrative, confessional, and otherwise tranquil(ized) verse. However, Pastior’s linguistic sensitivity and secretly methodical approach could grow on anyone. As far-reaching as their verbal cartwheels and juggernauts might be, the poems always return to an exploration of the ways in which humans both express themselves and block statement — sometimes in the same breath…. Although Pastior’s dizzying, repetitive style often muddies the waters of understanding, a matter-of-fact core invites us to follow each work’s logical progression to its natural end — miraculous, given that this sort of logic might becalm (or beach) other poems…. Pastior states, “What poetry is I do not know,” bespeaking the sincerity and beauty of his mission, which is to make a latticework of pure thought, threading through it the most beautiful words he can invent.

–Max Winter, Boston Review (Dec. 2002/Jan.2003)