Largely unknown outside her native Austria, it is hoped the publication of this bilingual edition of Christine Lavant’s selected poetry and letters by Austrian-born poet and translator David Chorlton will go some way to giving Lavant the English-language audience she deserves.
Chorlton’s thoughtful selection brings together for the first time poems from four of Lavant’s key collections: Die Bettlerschale (‘The Begging Bowl’), Spindel im Mond (‘Spindle in the Moon’), Der Pfauenschrei (‘The Peacock’s Cry’), and Kunst wie meine ist nur verstümmeltes Leben (‘Art like mine is only stunted life’), as well as a number of insightful letters touching on her art and personal life which Lavant wrote to her friends and publisher later in her literary career.
Born into poverty in 1915 in a socially conservative corner of Southern Austria, Christine Lavant produced a small yet powerful body of poetry and prose which stands as a deeply lyrical testament to her struggles with illness and religious belief. Influenced by the work of Rainer Maria Rilke and the teachings and imagery of traditional Christianity, the poetry in this collection demonstrates Lavant’s talent for speaking passionately about elevated religious subjects such as grace and sacrifice, in a down-to-earth, rustic language, no less affecting for its directness and simple diction. As the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet once commented, Lavant’s poetry is ‘as beautiful as the old crucifixes in country churches, like old cloth, coarse and rough’.
In her debut collection, Die Bettlerschale, Lavant’s world is one of depression and physical illness in the wake of God’s silence. ‘Even as a child, I never trusted you’, Lavant admits, with her God often portrayed as a fickle, imperfect creator who fails to keep his promises or intercede when Lavant regularly cries out in pain, her body broken, her eyes ‘two columns of fire’. Lavant’s distrust of the divine continues throughout her later collections, Spindel im Mond and Der Pfauenschrei, which depict the poet’s long night of the soul where traditional Christian symbols of hope and steadfastness, like the dove of peace and the guiding Dog Star, are subverted and ‘now indicate a death year / and illness, enmity, worry’. But alongside this despair there is a growing acceptance of the limits of God’s love and life lived in an imperfect mortal body with the poet gradually coming to terms with her particular circumstances. These two central collections contain some of Lavant’s most striking imagery (‘my heart is a patchwork igloo / where a wolf eats the son’, ‘the suspension bridge of my brooding’), which Chorlton’s nuanced translation deftly captures without capsizing the pathos and tension of the original text.
Emerging from her purgatory, whilst the poems in the last collection fail to provide any sort of straightforward spiritual resolution, they do give tentative voice to an emerging religious pragmatism on the part of the poet, one which recognises ‘for creatures of my kind it is a long way to God’s heart’. As Chorlton aptly concludes in his introduction to this much-welcomed collection, despite an unorthodox approach to her faith, in her poetry at least, Lavant ‘found her way between blasphemy and belief’.
Reviewed by Joseph Dance
SHATTER THE BELL IN MY EAR: SELECTED POEMS
by Christine Lavant
Translated by David Chorlton
Published by The Bitter Oleander Press (2017)
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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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