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Durs Grünbein on Porcelain, his poetry cycle on the fragmented history of Dresden

Büchner Prize-winning poet and essayist Durs Grünbein spoke with us about Dresden and the nature of violence.

Photo: Fokus_Ly

Durs Grünbein has been a star of German poetry ever since 1988, when his debut collection Grauzone Morgens catapulted him to Wunderkind status. The Dresden-born author later won Germany’s highest literary honour, the Büchner Prize, at the tender age of 33; since then he has consolidated his reputation as one of Germany’s most prolific and original poets. In 2020, his poetry cycle Porcelain – a highly personal coming to terms with the allied bombing of Dresden – was released in Karen Leeder’s award-winning translation. Grünbein is also a fine prose writer, as attested by his recent essay collection For the Dying Calves, originally a series of lectures he gave on the relationship between language, literature and Germany’s unspeakable past. Having spent much of the 1980s in Prenzlauer Berg, Grünbein now lives between Berlin and Rome. We caught up with him in a Charlottenburg café.

You were born in 1962 in Dresden, a city totally destroyed in WW2. In your essays, you write that history always catches up with everyone. When did it in your case?

The question of how I came to be an author has a lot to do with my thinking about our history. Some of the research about my family I began while preparing for another book – a childhood memoir. I was just trying to tell the story of my childhood, but I was suddenly right there in the middle of German history: my grandmother narrowly survived the bombings, my mother and aunt were there too. It was always a topic of conversation. When I was growing up in Dresden, there was still plenty of rubble left: even the Frauenkirche had been left in ruins. All throughout my work, there’s this motif of destruction – and of a catastrophic history, of which we are all the result.

Does the shadow of the past also reside in the German language itself?

The language is, fundamentally, infected with history. In the essays, I write about the novelist and philologist Victor Klemperer, a Jewish Dresdner who just survived the war, and who wrote one of the most interesting diaries from the period. He also published a study of the language of the Third Reich, which was very eye-opening for me. Regardless of the time period you’re in, even now, the language is corrupt, contaminated. And that’s a constraint on literature itself. An author can never be free of it – instead, they have to perform their own analysis of how power and language interact in their time.

All throughout my work, there’s this motif of destruction – and of a catastrophic history.

You are an outspoken critic of the far right in Germany. Does that movement also have a language?

Yes. There is a specific language there, with its own terminology. And by critically engaging with that, we can become sensitive to it. I strongly believe that major acts of violence have the way paved for them by language. Under National Socialism, that was absolutely the case – first there was the language, and then came the atrocities. There’s always advance warning, in the language, about what acts of violence, what wars even, might be about to take place. What poets can do is draw attention to this.

Your Dresden poetry cycle, Porcelain, has a unique form. The poems are like fragments of speech – they are constantly breaking off, switching perspective, sometimes even self-criticising. Is this a way to wrestle with Germany’s historical and linguistic baggage?

Porcelain was the expression of a particular crisis. At the very root of western poetry is the elegy – but to write an elegy about the downfall of Dresden, well… that’s dicey. So I had to search for the right way to speak. The destruction of Dresden is the result of all the destruction that preceded it; there’s a clear line from the burning of synagogues to the burning city. To portray all of that, in its proper context, is a great challenge. And I feel somewhat abandoned, in this, because my generation never really thought about this question.

You’ve said you started Porcelain by sitting down to write on the anniversary of the bombings each year. It’s a controversial anniversary: far-right groups have gathered in Dresden for “grieving marches” on that day, arguing the case for German victimhood, while others have organised left-wing counter-protests…

Yes, it was my little memorial ritual. Every year, on 13 February, the topic comes up. There are always articles in the newspaper and so on. It’s interesting to see how the commemorations have changed over the decades. In the GDR, it was always seen as an antifascist occasion. Since reunification, it has increasingly become a date for the revisionists. It has long been a battlefield, and it still is. I try to engage with that in the poems as well.

The Dresden bombing is a part of German history that has never been laid to rest. When I started writing, at first, they were elegiac lines that just came to me. Later, when I began collecting them, a real inner dialogue emerged: all these different voices started to speak, the various lines of verse began interrupting each other – it was a real drama.

Does this multiplicity – the voices, the interruptions, the irony – have a particular power when it comes to dealing with the dicey issue of Dresden? Is there an advantage to synthesising many points of view, here?

Sure, synthesis, or rather, the principle of collage – a collage of different narrative voices, quotations, historical facts. I’m strongly influenced by collage, as we know it from Surrealism, and particularly Max Ernst. There is a phrase that has been used about Friedrich Hölderlin, which is the “principle of parataxis”. Texts of this kind are made up of individual splinters and shards, which then have to be pieced together: it doesn’t just go from A to B, you have a series of fragments. And my subject, Dresden, is something that has only been preserved in fragments.

Rubble, ruins, remnants: all these things play a major role in the book, and the way I wrote began to resemble them. Picasso once described his paintings by saying it’s all just a heap of destruction – but still there’s a painting there. That is how I see these poems.