#RivetingReviews: Joseph Dance reviews ÉTUDES and JUST SITTING AROUND HERE GRUESOMELY NOW by Friederike Mayröcker

At the time of her death in June 2021, Friederike Mayröcker had spent more than sixty years as one of Austria’s most fêted authors, producing an impressive body of work including poetry, prose, audio plays, children’s books, and dramatic texts. Though she was linked to the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) in her youth and broadly counted as an avant-garde writer throughout her career, Mayröcker’s densely constructed prose poetry, variously incorporating elements of autofiction and montage, and drawing heavily on classical and modernist references, has always evaded easy categorisation. These ‘proems’, as they are often called, are the subject of these two exciting new translations by Donna Stonecipher and Roslyn Theobald, appearing just over a decade after the original collections were published by Suhrkamp in Mayröcker’s native Austria.

Covering a period of two years, Études is a kaleidoscopic series of date-stamped prose poems composed between December 2010 and 2012. Operating as a deeply lyrical, fragmentary diary, the collection affords an insight into Mayröcker’s mind during this period of her life. Grand themes squat alongside domestic considerations with the past and the present often co-mingling. Memories feel like pulsing, tangible objects for Mayröcker and she deploys them obsessively throughout the text for varying impact, sometimes as baubles reflecting moments of nostalgia, and often as landmines transporting us to points of trauma, such as the death of her long-term partner and fellow poet, Ernst Jandl. Alongside this narrative of recollection, some of the most striking sequences are the poet’s lucid observations and emotional responses to the natural world and the art that inspires her. Early in the text, a March scene explodes with life as ‘the crane’s white feet / little lead the rose’s inflammation, the blushing bloom and how it blazed’. Later, an encounter with a Man Ray photograph elicits a delighted response ‘the shoots, the reddening, I betwitching red in the glass’. Donna Stonecipher’s translation does an admirable job of communicating the playful oscillation of the poet’s thoughts, memories and observations, whilst alo ensuring that Mayröcker’s use of wordplay and repetition, a core component of her work, is faithfully and meaningfully preserved.

Matching the ludic energy of Études, just sitting around here GRUESOMELY now is a stream-of-consciousness prose poem set one stormy summer during which the poet muses to various family members and friends about the minutiae of daily existence, the wax and wane of her writing life, and a myriad of intellectual pursuits and concerns. Thick with structural allusions and stylistic references to the work of Virginia Woolf, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and other modernist and contemporary writers, the piece navigates many of ayröcker’s private and creative obsessions, including questions of memory, mutability, and poetic inspiration. Roslyn Theobald’s translation is witty and profound where it matters, holding the reader in the hallucinatory whirl of a text which can very quickly cross the boundary between reality and nightmare.

Reviewed by Joseph Dance

ÉTUDES and JUST SITTING AROUND HERE GRUESOMELY NOW

By Friederike Mayröcker

Translated by Donna Stonecipher; and Roslyn Theobald 

Published by Seagull Books (2020; 2022)


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Joseph Dance is an archivist, writer and poet. He previously worked as Head Archivist at the Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School and has a BA and MA from the University of Cambridge in English Literature. He is currently working on his first collection of poetry.

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