For this, our first instalment of Trafika Europe Corner on European Literature Network, we’re pleased to announce the release of our latest journal issue, free online:
This special journal issue is devoted entirely to contemporary Swiss voices, showing the variety of native and non-native German, as well as French, Italian, Romansch, and Yenish writers: with fiction and poetry by Michael Fehr, Max Lobe, Leta Semadeni, Ilma Rakusa, Odiel Cornuz, Michel Layaz, Klaus Merz, Noëlle Revaz, Mariella Mehr, Frédéric Pajak, Dana Grigorcea, and Matteo Terzaghi, striking photo compositions by Jules Spinatsch … and much more.
Keeping with our Swiss theme, we’re happy to share a few poems here, by Alexander Xaver Gwerder, newly translated from German by Marc Vincenz, who has also provided the brief bio following the poems. Thanks so much to ELN for this new forum!
There are fields now where the shadow blooms
whose source is not a light;
and what casts it is melted darkly
from within and blazes in the dusk.
Maybe it’s evening. A lost child
amazed at finding its way home—
guided by the wind which begins with the ancestors
and the star’s half-extinguished murmurs.
Maybe it’s morning and a bird soars
over a sprawling forest
where a stillness thrives between two trunks
who believe they are lovers—
Now, as in a dream, the hour will decide
whether earth or sky weighs more.
I am filled with the burden of both,
and to each I owe my voice.
It Was Just the Lantern …
A day in February and snow falls,
clouds in slivers and clumps—
deadly desire; when snow falls
you think of a sanguine death.
To live once more and write
about everything that descends silently—
driven under the eaves
and disguised as grinning melancholy.
It will be evening very soon and then
the snow-maiden will entice you outside.
She speaks in a strange incantation:
you no longer find your way home.
You follow her electric trail,
can’t fathom that driving force …
Ah, it was just the lantern—
yet within: what a captivating light!
The whole city full of gardens!
Perhaps you’ve finally succeeded?
You find yourself over the tracks,
bent over, to decipher this dream—
The air is full of crazy songs.
But we barely listen
one hour after midnight—
For example the esteemed pilot’s voices
and the crew left behind when he departed,
who shouted and jeered he wouldn’t return
while he floated on the stewardess’ smile—
But have no fear,
life is irredeemable!
And that same song that ends in a wail,
sometimes isn’t true.
Alexander Xaver Gwerder was born in 1923 to a Swiss working-class family. He trained as a printer’s apprentice. Shortly thereafter, he completed his obligatory military training and active service, which was extremely traumatic for him. In 1944, he married Gertrud Wälti and moved to Zurich with their two children, Urban and Heidi, where he worked as a printer.
Gwerder had begun writing poems when he was sixteen. In 1949, a few of his poems were published in the Zurich newspaper, Die Tat. His talents were recognized by a handful of Swiss editors. Gwerder refused to continue his obligatory military service—this culminated, in 1951, in a series of letters with the Head of the Military Department of the Swiss Confederate. In 1952 he was openly criticized as anti-establishment in the Swiss newspapers. This series of incidents sent him into bouts of deep depression, finally culminating in a nervous breakdown. Frustrated, he left his wife and children for his nineteen-year-old mistress, Salomé Dürrenberger. In September 1952, on the trail of the spirit of Vincent van Gogh, Alexander and Salomé set off to Arles, France. Their plan: to commit suicide together. Salomé survived the double-suicide attempt; Alexander did not. He was just 29 years old.
Most of Gwerder’s work was published posthumously. He was clearly influenced by Gottfried Benn and Rainer Maria Rilke. Alexander’s poems are highly imagistic, written in a rhythmic language and infused with the Swiss dialect of his childhood. Alexander is highly critical of the bourgeoisie and the conservative institutions of Swiss government and the military. During his lifetime he was a complete outsider to the Swiss literary establishment and little-acknowledged for his poignant and stirring visions. It was only 45 years after his tragic death that Gwerder’s collected and uncollected poems were released, and his extraordinary talent finally brought to critical attention. Upon release, the reaction was immediate. The German newspaper, Die Zeit, hailed Gwerder as a new Rilke. The Swiss daily, Tages-Anzeiger, found Gwerder’s poems, “[s]huddering: as if staring into the heart of a storm.”