NOVEMBERLAND: SELECTED POEMS, 1956-1993 represents selections of the work of Gunter Grass over four decades, and provides a true sampling of his myriad styles. His world is a surreal postwar Europe, with echoes of sinister children’s games providing backdrop to a disconnected present, a land of November in which the coming of Christmas is more threat than promise. The devastated landscapes are both inner and outer. Ruins, in fact, dominate the scene, ruins of Berlin, of flowers, of marriages, of religious belief, of innocence, of national integrity. The rubblewomen (or Trummerfrauen) of “The Great Rubblewoman Speaks” might be the muse of an epic of historical tragedy. The themes expressed in Grass’s novels THE TIN DRUM (1961) and CAT AND MOUSE (1963) here find fragmentary, evocative form. The dark humor of these novels provides black sparkles throughout the poems also.
The last section of the book, a group of sonnets, persuasively portrays a particularly bleak landscape. These poems show that Grass’s genius is still fully operative as he approaches his eighth decade. This selection as a whole shows Grass’s control of both traditional patterned verse and free verse rhythms.
NOVEMBERLAND is a bilingual book, providing the German poems face to face with their English translations. This placement allows appreciation of the German wordplay and comparison of English and German. Michael Hamburger, normally an excellent translator, has compromised too much on a few of these, occasionally providing a translation that is neither rhythmically like the original nor exact. For the most part, though, the rhymes as well as the meanings of the German poems are approximated in a satisfying way.