The German Riveter: POEMS by Jan Wagner from SELF-PORTRAIT WITH A SWARM OF BEES, translated by Iain Galbraith (Arc Publications, 2015)

 self-portrait with a swarm of bees

a moment ago i wore at best a fuzz
around my chin and lips; but now my beard
is growing and seething i might even pass
for magdalena: all my face hirsute

with bees. how they come buzzing from every side,
and, ounce by ounce, how a person’s being
slowly but steadily gains in weight and spread
to become the stone-still centre of song ...

my arms outstretched i bear a resemblance
to some ancient knight whom bustling varlets help
to fit his suit of armour, piece by piece –
first the helmet, then the harness, arms, legs, nape,

until he can barely move – who does not tread,
just stands there gleaming, with barely a hint
of wind behind the lustre, lingering breath,
and only vanishing becomes distinct.

 an essay on midges

as if all the letters had suddenly
floated free of a paper
and formed a swarm in the air;

they form a swarm in the air,
of all that bad news telling us
nothing, those skimpy muses, wispy

pegasuses, only abuzz with the hum
of themselves, made from the last twist
of smoke as the candle is snuffed,

so light you can hardly say: they are –
looking more like shadows, umbrae
jettisoned by another world

to enter our own, they dance, their legs
finer than anything pencil can draw,
with their miniscule sphinx-like bodies;

the rosetta stone, without the stone.

 quinces

when october hung them among the leaves, those
bulging lanterns, then it was time: we picked ripe
quinces, lugged the baskets of yellow bounty
into the kitchen,

soused the fruits in water. the pears and apples
grew towards their names, to a simple sweetness –
unlike quinces, clinging to branches in some
shadowy border’s

alphabet, obscure in the garden’s latin,
tough and foreign in their aroma. we cut,
quartered, cored the flesh (we were four adult hands,
two somewhat smaller),

veiled by clouds of steam from the blender, poured in
sugar, heat and effort to something that – raw –
made our palates baulk. but then who could, who would
hope to explain them:

quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on
shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for
harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they
shone, are still shining.

By Jan Wagner

Translated by Iain Galbraith

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.


Jan Wagner is a poet, essayist and translator from English. He has received many awards for his work, including the Anna Seghers Prize, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize and the Georg Büchner Prize. He is a member of the PEN Centre Darmstadt.


Iain Galbraith was born in Glasgow and grew up in Arrochar. He is a translator and editor, and has previously edited works by such major Scottish authors as Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott for a German Classics series.

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