Sarah Kirsch

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Ernestine Schlant (review date winter 1977)

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SOURCE: Schlant, Ernestine. Review of Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 51, no. 1 (winter 1977): 86.

[In the following review, Schlant asserts that Kirsch focuses on the personal struggles of women in Die Pantherfrau, as opposed to the ideological conflicts facing East Germany as a whole.]

During the past decade Sarah Kirsch (b. 1935) has established herself as a promising lyrical poet on the East German literary scene. In her poetry and also in her first collection of short narrative pieces, Die ungeheuren bergehohen Wellen auf See (1973), a subjective and impressionistic mood prevails which has been traced to Bobrowski's formative influence.

Die Pantherfrau is Kirsch's second collection of prose writings, published in West Germany in 1975, two years after the East German edition. As the subtitle indicates, the slender volume consists of “five narrations from a tape recorder.” They portray the lives of five contemporary DDR women: an animal trainer (the “panther woman” of the title story), a cadre leader, a delegate, an industrial executive, a worker on the assembly line. Personal background, education and temperament vary from case to case, but the success these women have made of their lives and the satisfaction they have found are in each instance the same (as is the leveling effect of a most unusual tape recorder that nearly manages to standardize the vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax of these women).

On the basis of these reports, historical consciousness does not run much higher in the DDR than in the BRD. The collapse of the Third Reich, the exploitative years of military occupation, the foundation of a new state that called for a complete ideological reorientation are peripheral incidents that gain importance only when personal catastrophe strikes (for instance, when a boy friend leaves for the West). Criticism of a highly bureaucratized state and of the waste inherent in a planned economy transpires at most accidentally in the personal difficulties these women overcome on their jobs and in their dedication to hard work.

The documentary method as a tool of criticism has been used with significant impact in West Germany in the plays of Peter Weiss and Rolf Hochhuth and extends to the industrial reports of Günter Wallraff and the interviews by Erika Runge, with Alexander Kluge's Lernprozesse mit tödlichem Ausgang (1973) being one of the latest examples of a successful amalgamation of documentary information and carefully wrought prose. Sarah Kirsch's use of the tape recorder is more opaque. The women she interviewed undoubtedly provide constructive contributions to an ambitious young society; yet they are clearly motivated by subjective and personal aspirations that ignore the very frame of reference in which their achievements should be viewed as meaningful.

Is Sarah Kirsch's tape recorder revealing political insufficiencies? It is documenting the long road still ahead toward women's de facto equality in an “equal opportunity” society? Is it pointing out a conversion to the prevalent political system, so complete that critical evaluations become superfluous? “Uncoifed” narrations (the term unfrisiert of the original subtitle was omitted from the West German edition) cannot tell the entire story. Kirsch will have to commit herself to a more clearly focused point of view; not surprisingly, her tape recorder would follow suit.

Nicholas Catanoy (review date autumn 1977)

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SOURCE: Catanoy, Nicholas. Review of Rückenwind, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 51, no. 4 (autumn 1977): 613.

[In the following review, Catanoy praises the metaphorical richness and technical prowess of Kirsch's verse in Rückenwind.]

Poets, like photographers, may be divided between those who put sharp edges on life and nature and those who prefer soft focus. Sarah Kirsch belongs with the...

(This entire section contains 376 words.)

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best East German poets—those who view the world as if through an impressionistic eye.

There is a mild elegiac tone in Kirsch's new volume of poetry, Rückenwind, a quality that shapes her sentiments in much the same way that the laws of nature dictate the beauty of crystals. The book includes occasional verses in which Kirsch delights: a meeting with a Yugoslav writer, a summer night in Potsdam, a holiday in Wiepersdorf. Some are simple, at times even stately, like one devoted to the sunset: “Kastanienäste klopfen an die Scheiben / Wovor ein blutiger Himmel schwebt.” Yet despite this, her technique is so flexible, her handling of language so careful and delicate that she is able to give her most elegant poems the air of spontaneity. This is the direct, economical, almost terse Kirsch, the poet in love with the concrete, the firm, the tangible.

But there is another Kirsch, Kirsch the politically engaged, and some of her poems in Rückenwind draw the reader into her prevailing thoughts and feelings. Here she commits herself more deeply than she does in many of her private lyrics. The poems are full of metaphoric complexities upon all sorts of things, including her main concern, the tragic division of Germany—a sentiment which appears in different forms throughout Kirsch's volume. The moods range from the bitter wit of “Zu Zweit” (“Lieber zu Zweit verhungern als Einzeln / In goldenen Wagen spazieren fahren”) to the romantic hope of “Datum”: “Herzschöner wollen wir Julia und Romeo sein? / Der Umstand / Ist günstig, wir wohnen / Wohl in der gleichen Stadt, aber die Staaten / Unsere eingetragenen Staaten gebärden sich.”

These are not isolated poetic moments, mere metaphors, but signs of a new attitude. In all its diversity of tone Rückenwind refracts that gem. The book should win Sarah Kirsch some new fans and admirers, especially in the western hemisphere.

Diether H. Haenicke (review date winter 1979)

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SOURCE: Haenicke, Diether H. Review of Landaufenthalt, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 53, no. 1 (winter 1979): 108.

[In the following review, Haenicke discusses how the personal is related to the political in Kirsch's Landaufenthalt.]

Among the relatively few lyrical voices to be heard in East Germany, that of Sarah Kirsch is a particularly powerful one. Her first poems appeared in the late sixties; in the early seventies of her work became known to a broader audience when several of her books of poetry appeared in a West German publishing house. The volume Landaufenthalt is a collection of poems many of which were published before. It comprises the poems of an earlier (1967) East German edition with the same title. Some of the poems were previously published in Kirsch's Gedichte (Langewiesche-Brandt, 1969). Several poems in this latest volume, however, appear for the first time in a West German edition.

All of Sarah Kirsch's poems are characterized by an intimate tone, and they always reflect personal impressions which, however, usually relate to her present-day political experiences and those of the immediate past. Thus the description of a train ride through the countryside will be interwoven with thoughts of the political border that cannot be traversed. The barbed wire which marks this border runs unmistakably across the hills and meadows of her nature poems. The enjoyment of the plush green of the summer forest is spoiled by the knowledge of the American defoliation programs during the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly (Kirsch's maiden name is Sarah Bernstein), images of a Jewish cemetery or a report from the Frankfurt trials against Nazi concentration camp guards often form the basis of her most impressive poems.

In spite of the constantly visible references to the political realities, Kirsch's poems are deeply rooted in the scenic beauty of the East German provinces. The forceful intensity of her oneness with nature is mirrored in the numerous poems which depict the lakes, ponds and rivers of her homeland. The recurring symbol of the fish suggests the poet's total immersion in nature, whereas the other most frequent image of the bird, of flight and of gliding through the skies might be induced by the poet's dream-like desire to negate walls, barbed wire and borders.

The volume contains some love poems which rank among the best in postwar literature. Jubilant and tristful at the same time, they display a spectacular and dazzling imagery which immediately reminds one of Else Lasker-Schüler. Landaufenthalt convincingly reflects Sarah Kirsch's poetic attainment, which assures her a position of high distinction in postwar German poetry.

Ann Clark Fehn (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Fehn, Ann Clark. “Authorial Voice in Sarah Kirsch's Die Pantherfrau.” In Erkennen und Deuten: Essays zur Literatur und Literaturtheorie, edited by Martha Woomansee and Walter F. W. Lohnes, pp. 335-46. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1983.

[In the following essay, Fehn compares Die Pantherfrau with several works of documentary literature by other German feminist writers, drawing attention to the organizational techniques by which Kirsch inserts her own authorial presence in the work.]

A striking feature of feminist literature in the two Germanies is its emphasis on documentary reports as a supplement to theoretical writings and as a means of providing information concerning the situation and attitudes of women in various social strata. Of particular significance in this regard is the appearance within the past decade of four works consisting entirely or in large part of transcribed interviews. The model for these documentaries was set in 1970 by Erika Runge, who, using a procedure she had developed in her Bottroper Protokolle of 1968, published protocols of her conversations with seventeen FRG women under the title Frauen: Versuche zur Emanzipation.1 Her work was followed in 1973 by Sarah Kirsch's Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassettenrecorder.2 1975 and 1977, respectively, saw the publication of Der “kleine Unterschied” und seine groβen Folgen: Frauen über sich: Beginn einer Befreiung by Alice Schwarzer, editor of the West German feminist periodical Emma, and Guten Morgen du Schöne: Protokolle nach Tonband by Maxie Wander, who lived in the German Democratic Republic until her death in 1977.3

Among these works, Kirsch's Die Pantherfrau stands out, not so much as a contribution to the women's movement (in several respects it is less feminist than the other three works), but with regard to its techniques. In the following I shall describe Die Pantherfrau in some detail and by comparison with the texts of Runge, Schwarzer and Wander. Part of my purpose will be to examine the perspective of these works toward women in the two German states. My main goal, however, will be to show that by means partly those of the editor but more significantly those of the writer of fiction, Sarah Kirsch establishes an ironic perspective and controls the texts to such an extent as to become in a sense the narrator of “her” stories. In so doing she not only justifies her name in the author's position on the title page, but also enriches documentary literature with a new set of techniques.

Die Pantherfrau is a collection of five tape-recorded interviews with GDR women. Like other documentary writers, Kirsch has abandoned claim here to the traditional poetic liberty of the author to invent characters and situations, and to alter historical events for reasons of form or idea. Moreover, the text of the work consists of the words of other people. Kirsch does not even include the questions she, as interviewer, asked her subjects; the interviews appear as five continuous monologues. Nevertheless, her function in this book is not limited to transcription. Although her subjects tell their own stories, their words reflect the presence of an organizing consciousness. A first sign of this presence, and of Kirsch's use of the methods of fiction, can be seen in the title of the work. The main title, preceded by Kirsch's name, suggests fiction. Taken alone, the word “Erzählungen” in the subtitle would support the idea of fictionality, but Kirsch plays on the double meaning of the word by referring to “tales from the cassette recorder”. The non-fictional character of the narratives is reinforced in the East German edition by the word “unfrisiert”.

The play between fact and fiction in Kirsch's title continues on the page of editorial comments that follows the interviews in the GDR edition of the work (pp. 133-134). Here Kirsch refers to her five narratives as “extracts from novels”. Although she could have written “conventional portraits”, she explains, she finds transcription in this case to be “more intensive” and “more realistic”. (The GDR tradition of socialist realism heightens the ambiguity of fiction and non-fiction in this comment.) Kirsch compares her own contribution to this “collective product of seven women (and one man)” to that of a film cutter. Her role, she emphasizes, was by no means purely objective or mechanical: “Nicht umsonst steht auf dem Vorspann eines Films, wer den Schnitt geleistet hat” (p. 133).

In her afterword Kirsch makes no attempt to interpret the interviews or to furnish a framework of concepts that might reduce them to illustrative examples of her own opinions. In the sense that she thereby declines to assert her voice in the space traditionally reserved for the editor, her comparison of herself to a film cutter rather than an editor is appropriate. Neither term, however, acknowledges the two features of Die Pantherfrau where Kirsch's shaping hand is most evident: the titles she gives to the portraits and the “summaries” or “epilogues” with which each concludes. The titles each point to an event or characteristic of central importance to the speaker. The concluding paragraphs consist of sentences taken from the speakers' narratives and brought together to form a new context. Together with the titles, these “epilogues” direct the attention of the reader to features that might otherwise be overlooked.

The title of the first interview, “Die Pantherfrau”, is one of two that Sarah Kirsch does not take directly from the words of the speaker. It describes a woman for whom taming wild animals is not merely an occupation, but the only life she can imagine. The centrality of her profession is reflected in the “epilogue” to her narrative. Here, three general, matter-of-fact statements dealing with the demands and pleasures of circus life are followed by a similarly-constructed, equally matter-of-fact, but very personal expression of commitment: “Wenn wir nicht den Kopf unterm Arm tragen, arbeiten wir. Wenn man Lust hat zum Reiten, muβ man auch reiten. Was man einmal erlernt hat, das sitzt. Wenn ich plötzlich zu Hause bleiben müβte, mir würde die Decke auf den Kopf fallen!” (p. 22). Also evident in the “epilogue” is the combination of unassuming courage and love of life that characterizes the “panther woman”: Wenn ein Reiter noch nicht vom Pferd gefallen ist, so ist es kein Reiter … Wenn man Lust hat zum Reiten, muβ man auch reiten” (p. 22).

The second narrative is that of an old-time political activist, a woman who knew everyone and who herself occupies a high position in the SED hierarchy. The title, “Bewegte Jahre”, is drawn from a sentence in which the woman speaks of the period of turmoil before Hitler came to power. These years—her best years, she says—began when she met her future husband and through him became politically conscious. As the “epilogue” paragraph indicates, the title is equally descriptive of her later life. “Bewegt” is almost synonymous with “schön” for her, and she looks back with pleasure and pride on the years of purposeful activity that have given her life meaning:

Ich glaube … daβ ich eine gute Kaderleiterin war … Ich gehöre zu den Tausenden Frauen, die für den Staat eine bestimmte Arbeit geleistet haben.

(p. 46)

With some concern, she speaks of the elan that characterized the work of her generation and notes that it is no longer so strong:

ab 1946 habe ich dann richtig gearbeitet. Alles war herrlich und klingt heute ein biβchen unwahrscheinlich … Ich glaube, ich habe Tag und Nacht gearbeitet und mit einer unerhörten Begeisterung. Mit einer Begeisterung, weiβt du, die wir später leider ein biβchen verloren haben.

(p. 37)

(Only the second of these sentences is included in the “epilogue”.)

As in the case of the first two narratives, the title of the fifth, “Zwillinge”, is rather straightforward. The speaker is a young, semi-skilled worker who, because of her lack of training, has had considerable difficulty finding a job that pays adequately without overtaxing her strength. In contrast, her husband and her twin daughters are a continuing source of pleasure and renewal for her. The central place of family in her life and her contentment with her domestic situation can be seen not only in the title of the narrative, but also in the last sentences of the “epilogue”: “Unser Mittagessen am Sonntag ist eine Zeremonie. Besser kann es keinem gehn” (p. 111).

In contrast to the titles of these three narratives, those of the third and fourth demand some explanation. Sarah Kirsch's pointing finger is correspondingly a little more visible here. The third narrative bears the title “Eine Badewanne voll Schlagsahne”. The woman interviewed is a professor of history and member of a provincial assembly. Despite her prominence, she lists among the high points of her life such moments as her first glimpse through a telescope and her first flight. The title image is a metaphor for the clouds one sees from an airplane. Its naiveté contrasts sharply with the technical language of such sentences as the following (all of which appear consecutively in the “epilogue”):

Der groβe Platz führt nicht zur Kollektivbildung. Die Kinder müssen von klein auf lernen, welchen Wert Eigentum and Produktionsmitteln hat. Demokratie besteht nicht darin, allgemeine ungezielte Initiativen auszulösen.

(p. 67)

Together, the title and the sentences from the concluding paragraph neatly characterize the speaker. Not only do they mark the singular blend of artlessness and conceptuality in the personality of this scholar and politician, they also direct attention to the relation between her own delight in childish pleasures and her political goal of establishing a pleasant environment for others, particularly children. In addition, the linguistic contrast between title and “epilogue” establishes an ironic frame for the narrative of a woman who, although her life is oriented toward the future, tends to think of happiness in terms of her past. Her ideal of collective life is the carefree circle of friends with whom she studied. Similarly, she delights in being able to experience with her daughter the pleasures she did not herself enjoy as a child.

The fourth narrative is spoken by a woman who at thirty-three is already a director of one of the largest industrial concerns in Berlin. The title, “Staffelschwimmen”, refers to her interest in competitive swimming, and to the influence she feels the sport has had on her life. An interesting detail, however, is that the speaker in her interview usually talks simply of swimming and only briefly mentions relays (p. 71). As a glance at the “epilogue” paragraph indicates, team spirit is not one of her virtues. In fact, her remarks suggest that she has some difficulty relating to other people. The pronoun “ich” occurs twenty-four times in the concluding paragraph (as opposed to one to five times in the corresponding paragraphs of the other interviews). Furthermore, as three consecutive sentences in the paragraph confirm, she maintains that she has earned the trust of her co-workers, but also believes that they criticize her behind her back: “Die Leute können sofort mit mir tauschen. Ich bin bereit, dann auch auf sie so zu schimpfen. Ich habe mir Vertrauen erarbeitet” (p. 98). Here, in other words, Kirsch uses the title to describe a quality her subject does not have and the “epilogue” to emphasize its absence. In the GDR, with its ideal of the collective, this emphasis represents significant social comment.

Besides calling attention to various aspects of the narratives by her choice of titles and “epilogue” sentences, Kirsch also controls them in a more direct way. In her editorial comments she asserts that she took care to preserve the colloquial flavor of the interviews, since the spoken language “permits associations and leaves room for the unconscious” (GDR edition, p. 134). (This comment echoes a similar remark by Erika Runge and may be a sign of Kirsch's familiarity with Frauen.) A closer look at the text reveals that the statement is true, but at times somewhat misleading. As a characterization of her role as transcriber, it describes the pains Kirsch took to let her subjects speak with their own voices. One should not forget, though, a second function she exercised—that of interviewer. Because the narratives represent responses to interview questions, associations that seem spontaneous may not be. Paradoxically, the very feature that would appear to be Kirsch's most radical device for letting the texts speak for themselves—the omission of the questions she asked during the interviews—in fact increases her control.

An examination of the text for evidence of such management shows several sudden changes of direction in the flow of the monologues. Two such changes occur near the end of the third interview and approximately at the same places in the fourth. In the third narrative the professor of history suddenly switches from a description of her political activity to an evaluation of her own efficiency, phrased as the answer to a question: “Wenn Sie mich fragen, wie ich mit meinen vielen Aufgaben fertig werde, bin ich erst mal geneigt zu antworten: Schlecht” (p. 65). In the fourth interview, the young executive abruptly ends an account of an unhappy love affair with the remark: “Ich arbeite sehr gern, wir haben auch viel geschafft. Wir haben den Plan erfüllt, keine Vertragsstrafen mehr bezahlt, und daran war ich beteiligt” (p. 92). (I am proceeding here on the somewhat shaky assumption that Kirsch has not altered the narrative at this point.) It seems likely that Kirsch asked different questions of her subjects here, but that in both cases the questions concerned the subjects' attitudes toward their work and their own effectiveness.

The second two breaks in the narratives appear to represent answers to a general question by Kirsch as to whether her subjects are satisfied with their lives. Both women's answers suggest that they are lonely, and that they desire a male companion. “Wofür ich den kleinen Finger meiner linken Hand gäbe?” asks the history professor:

Persönlich würde ich mir fast was wünschen. Denn ich habe immer den Vorteil der Entfernung. Wenn ich alle sechs Jahre mal einen Mann kennenlerne, dann ist es bestimmt ein Ausländer, und den verliere ich so sanft wieder, wie ich ihn schnell gewonnen habe.

(p. 66 f.)

For the fourth woman, finding a man is interwoven with career plans:

Ja, doch, einen Wunsch hätte ich schon. Der Junge ist jetzt neun Jahre, wenn ich zehn Jahre älter bin, dann ist er neunzehn, dann wird er zur Armee eingezogen, da könnte ich in diplomatischen Dienst gehen. In irgendeinem Land, das nicht so groβ ist, als Attaché arbeiten. Dazu brauchte ich aber einen Mann. Finden ist ja nicht schwer, aber wie einrichten, daβ es über längere Strecken gut geht?!

(p. 96)

In these two instances Kirsch's management of her text may consist in having asked only these two women, and not the other three, whether they had a wish. She seems to have been more skeptical here than with the married women.

The two themes that these two inferred questions bring to the fore—mastery of one's environment and interpersonal relationships—help to explain a further influence by Kirsch on her text: the arrangement of the narratives. With one exception, they are ordered according to the age of the speakers, the youngest being last. The exception, “Die Pantherfrau”, is also singled out in two other respects: first, as the title figure of the collection, and second, because Kirsch interrupts the interview (the sole instance of direct authorial intervention) to describe in her own voice the activity of the trainer at work.

A first reason for the dominant position of “Die Pantherfrau” in the work is probably admiration, as evidenced in Kirsch's description of the animal trainer in the ring:

Frau Coldam trägt flache Schuhe, Jeans, einen roten Pullover, eine Kette mit goldenem Medaillon, die Peitsche in der Hand. Die Käfigtür wird hinter ihr geschlossen. Unsere Heldin hat sich verwandelt. Obwohl sie vorher nicht alt war, erscheint sie uns an ihrem Arbeitsplatz bedeutend jünger als noch vor Augenblicken. Ihre Haltung ist straff, der Kopf erhoben, die Stimme, die kurze Befehle gibt, ist entschieden und laut.

(p. 13)

For the author of Zaubersprüche, this encounter with a way of life that sets childhood fantasies and elemental ambitions into reality may well have been an event of special significance.4

A second reason for the prominence of the narrative emerges when one examines it in light of the themes of personal and professional contentment discussed above. The “panther woman's” mastery of her difficult profession is so complete that she talks of its dangers, as Kirsch remarks in her description, as if she were a housewife mentioning the danger of cutting oneself while peeling potatoes (p. 14). Her personal life is equally satisfying. She is obviously very proud of her husband and daughter. Furthermore, although her frequent allusions to her husband as her boss indicate a rather unquestioning acceptance of traditional roles, a closer look shows that the partnership is one that has helped her reach deep-lying goals. As a child, she relates, she was afraid of large animals, especially horses. At the same time, though, she longed to ride. In the circus, and, in part at least, with the aid of her husband, she learned to overcome her fear and to do something very few others can do.

When one regards the work as a whole, various symmetries and relationships become evident. The small number of interviews encourages the reader to make comparisons and to notice parallels, for example, between the first woman interviewed (the animal trainer) and the fifth (the young mother of twins). Both express unqualified satisfaction with their lives, the one principally because of her career, and the other because of her family. Both are strikingly apolitical, in contrast to the three other women, who are all members of the SED. Although they enjoy benefits of the new system—medical care and assistance finding a job—their lives would probably be quite similar under another type of government. Among the three SED members, the contentment of the older woman, who has seen a vision turn into reality, contrasts with the more problematic accounts of the two younger women; for them idealism is often associated with frustration, and defensive self-interest seems to be a condition for survival.

The degree to which parallels like these can be understood as part of the intentional communication from Kirsch to her readers is difficult to ascertain, but certain estimations can be made by considering her other works and the social and literary context of Die Pantherfrau. I do not regard it as coincidence, for example, that the three contented women she presents have happy relationships with men. The primacy of love is a recurrent theme in Kirsch's poetry. Similarly, since references to differences in attitude between older and younger generations of socialists are common in GDR literature, one can assume that the contrast between the old party activist and her younger colleagues is to be read in this context.5 The search for authorial intention, however, should not lead one to ignore the essential openness of the text. In her comments at the end of the work, Kirsch insists upon the function of the writer as a chronicler of his or her age. She writes:

Der Schriftsteller muβ Chronist seiner Zeit sein. Seine Arbeiten sollen nach 50, nach 200 Jahren Auskunft geben, wie bestimmte Leute zu bestimmten Zeiten gelebt und gefühlt haben.

(GDR edition, p. 133)

With this statement and, more importantly, by allowing her subjects to tell their stories in their own words, Kirsch sets the reader free to use the narratives as documents and as sources of information. The information the book yields varies with the questions one asks of it. One reader may, accordingly, notice the class differences evident in the language and assumptions of the speakers and in comments such as the following by the mother of twins: “[Man denkt immer], Intelligenzler, die haben es dicke, die schwimmen im Geld” (p. 107). Another may note an absence of worry about job security. A third may be struck by the frequency with which fatigue is mentioned.

As documentary literature about women, Die Pantherfrau invites comparison with the works of Runge, Schwarzer and Wander. Regarded together, the four books provide a wealth of material for an examination of the situation of women in the two Germanies. None pretends to interview “typical” women, but all supply information about societal forces affecting women—and men—in the two states. In so doing, all present women who are “representative” in the sense described by Runge in her afterword:

Ihre Auffassungen sind mitbestimmt durch das Milieu, aus dem sie stammen, und das, in dem sie jetzt leben; durch ihre Ausbildung und dadurch, ob sie einem Beruf nachgehen; durch den Mann, mit dem sie zusammen sind oder von dem sie sich getrennt haben; durch die Ansichten, die sie vertreten, und durch die Bedingungen, die ihnen von der Gesellschaft diktiert werden.

(p. 271)

As an expression of the self-understanding of a group of women at a specific point in time, each of the works constitutes a document of the seventies and a contribution to the emancipation of women in the two states.

Despite their similarities, the works differ markedly with regard to authorial voice. At one end of the spectrum lies Schwarzer's Der “kleine Unterschied”. The women she interviews speak in their own voices, but Schwarzer does not depend on them to carry her message. Instead, her book is a treatise on sex roles and sexuality, and the interviews appear as constituent evidence for her theses. She describes the circumstances of her acquaintance with each woman interviewed and interrupts the protocols frequently to emphasize important points and to supply practical advice (sources of help for battered wives, etc.). Within the protocols she italicizes freely, and she appends concluding remarks to each. She then pulls her argument together in a long concluding essay. Her voice, audible throughout the work, is that of an essayist; it does not rely on the tools of fiction.

In contrast to Schwarzer, Erika Runge remains strictly in the background. Like Sarah Kirsch, she speaks in her own voice only in a brief afterword. To the extent that she does employ authorial tools, however, they, like Schwarzer's, are those of the sociologist or journalist. Whereas Kirsch's title evokes expectations of fiction, the title Frauen: Versuche zur Emanzipation suggests a series of essays and indicates the organizing concept of the work. The individual interviews are preceded not by imaginative titles, but merely by the first names of the women interviewed. In the table of contents Runge supplies information concerning the age, profession and familial status of her subjects. The main ideas with which the reader is to approach the text appear in the afterword. (Asserting that none of the women interviewed can be regarded as fully emancipated, she asks herself what emancipation is and questions whether it can be achieved within the structure of the Federal Republic. The interviews cannot, she says, serve as positive examples of emancipation, but they can perhaps help women become aware of their position and of some of the societal pressures that lead to their oppression [pp. 271-273].) Although Runge does not address herself in her afterword to the question of her role as editor and interviewer, a comparison of Frauen with a preliminary version published in 1969 shows that she edited the texts extensively, excising and reordering sections, and that she incorporated her questions as interviewer into her speakers' monologues.6

Like Runge and Kirsch, Maxie Wander presents in Guten Morgen, du Schöne a book that to a large extent is free of authorial comment. She limits her own remarks to a short preface, in which she voices her belief that conflicts regarding women are becoming conscious and public because the GDR has reached a stage of development adequate to deal with them (p. 7). This confident statement introduces a series of protocols that, with a candor surprising in the post-Biermann era, offer a lengthy list of conflicts to be resolved. Like Runge and Schwarzer, and unlike Kirsch, Wander also includes numerous comments by her subjects on their sexual experiences. Her ability to draw her subjects out on this theme as well as many others witnesses to her skill and responsiveness as interviewer.

The West German edition of Guten Morgen, du Schöne contains a review of the book by Christa Wolf as a second foreword.7 Like Wander's preface, the essay conveys an implicit invitation to the reader to regard the interviews simultaneously in the context of women's emancipation and as a general contribution to an ongoing discussion among East German writers concerning the individual's role in a collective society. (Die Pantherfrau can be read in a similarly double context even though Kirsch and her subjects do not approach either topic directly.) Wander speaks of the freeing of women from traditional sex roles as a question of “human emancipation in general” (p. 7). Wolf describes emancipation as a slow process by means of which both men and women must be liberated from the lingering effects of class society:

nun erfahren wir … bis zu welchem Grad die Geschichte der Klassengesellschaft, das Patriarchat, ihre Objekte deformiert hat und welche Zeiträume das Subjektwerden des Menschen—von Mann und Frau—erfordern wird.

(p. 14)

In her review Wolf provides information on Wander's function as interviewer and editor.8 Like Kirsch in her notes at the end of Die Pantherfrau, Wolf asserts that Wander's role was not a passive one. Not only did Wander influence her subjects by approaching them with singular sympathy, Wolf writes (p. 9), she also did much editing: “Maxie Wander hat ausgewählt, gekürzt, zusammengefaβt, umgestellt, hinzugeschrieben, Akzente gesetzt, komponiert, geordnet—niemals aber verfälscht” (p. 12). In this respect Wander's work resembles Runge's; that Kirsch took similar liberties is mentioned by Wolf in her review of Guten Morgen, du Schöne.9

With respect to authorial technique Wander stands between Runge and Kirsch, both of whom can be assumed to have influenced her presentation. As with Kirsch's book, the main title suggests imaginative literature. The phrase “Guten Morgen, du Schöne” is the first line of a Gypsy song, one that begins with expressions of devotion and ends with a threat to the beloved if she should prove to be recalcitrant. The subtitle, like those of Schwarzer and Runge, advises the reader of the non-fictional character of the book: Protokolle nach Tonband (FRG title: Frauen in der DDR). The titles of the individual protocols offer a second example of Wander's intermediate position. Like Runge and Schwarzer, she provides a first name, plus information (in the FRG version) concerning age, profession, marital status, and number of children. In addition, like Kirsch, she gives the interviews imaginative titles. Drawn from the words of the speakers, they point to significant aspects of the narratives. “Die Groβmutter” introduces the story of an old woman whose comparisons of the lives of five generations represent a chronicle both of change and continuity, whereas “Die Welt mit Opas Augen” is the title of the narrative of Gabi, who is shaken by her grandfather's suicide and who hesitatingly questions the values of those who may have driven him to his death.

Wander's titles, especially in the GDR edition, are clever and appropriate, and occasionally they show a touch of irony. Guten Morgen, du Schöne does not, however, make use of Kirsch's boldest technique, the paragraph of selected sentences at the end of each narrative. Only Kirsch, by extending the editor's prerogative to excise and to “reassemble”, provides a double text—narrative and “epilogue”—to stimulate critical reading. Furthermore, only she uses titles, as in the case of “Staffelschwimmen”, to point to personality traits of which her subjects are unaware. Finally, she alone limits the number of interviews, thereby enabling order to become a means of comment. All of these techniques allow her to achieve ironic distance and control. In so doing, she expands the range of an already flexible genre. Documentary literature is defined more by its intention than by the formal characteristics of the works to which the term is applied. It seeks to inform a contemporary public concerning topics of contemporary interest, and it does so not by verisimilitude, but rather by argument and documentary evidence. A danger of “pure”, or uncommented, documentary material, as Raoul Hübner observes in his analysis of Runge's Frauen, is that a reader may come to the texts with subjective, uncritical, or voyeuristic interests and fail to see the reasons that led to their being compiled:

Unter den in dem Band panoptikumsartig zusammengestellten … Erfahrungsbündeln wird [der Leser] sich mehr an denjenigen ausrichten, die seiner Sprachhaltung, seiner Bewuβtseins- und ideologischen Haltung am meisten nahekommen, sie wird er noch einmal verinnerlichen, ohne nun seine eigene Sicht über anekdotische Supplementierung hinaus weiter geklärt zu haben.10

Alice Schwarzer's essay represents one obvious means of dealing with this problem. Kirsch's techniques offer a second approach. Her methods are subtler than Schwarzer's, but nonetheless effective—and they manage to preserve the richness that makes her texts, like those of Runge and Wander, both revealing self-portraits and significant sources of information about women in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the German Democratic Republic.


  1. Erika Runge, Bottroper Protokolle, edition suhrkamp, 271 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1968); Frauen: Versuche zur Emanzipation, edition suhrkamp 359 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1970). Page reference to Frauen appear in parentheses in my text.

  2. Sarah Kirsch, Die Pantherfrau: Fünf unfrisierte Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-recorder (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag 1973); published in the Federal Republic as Die Pantherfrau: Fünf Erzählungen aus dem Kassetten-Recorder (Ebenhausen bei München: Langewiesche-Brandt 1975). Unless otherwise noted, page numbers in my text refer to the West German edition.

  3. Alice Schwarzer, Der “kleine Unterschied” und seine groβen Folgen: Frauen über sich: Beginn einer Befreiung, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer 1977). Maxie Wander, Guten Morgen, du Schöne: Protokolle nach Tonband (Berlin: Verlag Buch der Morgen 1977); published in the Federal Republic as Guten Morgen, du Schöne: Frauen in der DDR. The East German edition of Wander's book includes two more interviews than does the West German edition. In addition, the interviews are ordered differently and bear in part other titles. My analysis is based on the West German edition, which was authorized by Wander. Page reference to this edition and to Schwarzer's book appear in my text.

  4. In her review of Die Pantherfrau Karin Kiwus describes the world of the animal trainer as “eine Enklave, in der Sarah Kirsch vielleicht ein reales Abbild ihrer eigenen märchenhaften Imagination wiederfinden möchte” (“Das Ding Seele, dies bourgeois Stück”, Die Zeit, April 2, 1976, p. 17).

  5. Richard A. Zipser, who is editing a volume of interviews with GDR writers, notes that this problem was frequently mentioned by the writers with whom he spoke (“Contemporary GDR Prose Writers and their Society: Perspectives from Within”, unpublished paper delivered before the Special Session for GDR Prose Fiction at the Ninety-first Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association of America, December, 1976, p. 14). An allusion to this situation appears in Volker Braun's “Unvollendete Geschichte” where the narrator says of the East German adolescent: “anders als die glücklichen alten Genossen sieht er die Umbrüche und Durchbrüche nicht mehr in dem ungeheuren Kontrast zur finsteren Vergangenheit” (Sinn und Form, 25 [1975], p. 978).

  6. “Dossier: Emanzipationen: Auszüge aus vier Lebensläufen”, Kursbuch, 17 (1969), 69-89.

  7. A longer version of the review appeared in Neue Deutsche Literatur (“Berührung: Maxie Wander: ‘Guten Morgen, du Schöne’”, NDL, 26, No. 2 [1978], 53-62), together with letters written by Wander during her illness (“Leben wäre eine prima Alternative: Auszüge aus Tagebüchern und Briefen”, NDL, 26, No. 2 [1978], 40-52).

  8. Also of interest in Wolf's review, although they do not bear directly on the problem of authorial voice, are her remarks on the relation of the monologues to literature. She refers to them in general as “Vorformen von Literatur” (p. 12), but singles out the story of Gabi, whose grandfather committed suicide, as a contribution that approaches literary form. As an explanation for her judgment, she offers the phrase “der unwiederholbare Einzelfall mit hohem Verallgemeinerungswert” (p. 12). One might also add that Gabi's narrative centers much more exclusively than do most of the others on a single figure (the grandfather), and that the monologue therefore exhibits features of closure that other, more rambling narratives do not.

  9. Wolf, NDL review, p. 56; omitted in West German edition of Guten Morgen, du Schöne.

  10. Raoul Hübner, “Trivialdokumentation von der Scheinemanzipation?”, Dokumentar-literatur, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold and Stephan Reinhardt (München: Edition Text + Kritik 1973), p. 163.

Rachel Hadas (review date July 1985)

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SOURCE: Hadas, Rachel. Review of Sarah Kirsch: Poems, by Sarah Kirsch. American Book Review 7, no. 5 (July 1985): 3.

[In the following excerpt, Hadas lauds Kirsch's roving imagination and use of metaphor in Sarah Kirsch: Poems.]

Sarah Kirsch has a more developed style and voice than either [Katerina] Gogou or [Thalia] Kitrilakis. I have not read Kirsch in German and suspect [Jack] Hirschman's [translated] “versions” [in Sarah Kirsch: Poems] are insufficiently lyric; still, Kirsch's imagination comes through clearly. Gogou and Kitrilakis are poets of stasis, eloquent on the claustrophobia of a city neighborhood or the slowness of life in a village where “the doctor is an hour's ride / three by donkey, / even there, he's seldom home,” and “the women carrying pails / of milk, or wash, or water” on their heads “cannot turn, and never turn.” Kirsch is very different. Whether because of her own decisive journey from East to West Germany or, more likely, because of the flow of her fantasy, she is a poet of rapid motion, delighting in all kinds of travel and its metaphoric equivalent, metamorphosis. Thus “I'm bound to an airplane,” “I'm crossing Germany white snow / the sky is slashed open,” “I'm a tiger in the rain.”

Kirsch also writes about staying home, watering a garden, writing, just living. One of her most memorable poems ends:

Stretched out the night's finger
picks me out in my own house
smoke's swimming through the empty room
turning into a tree
all foliated with words
words that immediately withered
the little ships swim through the limbs
I no longer climb aboard these days.

(“Night Stretches Out Her Finger,” page 52)

These are not poems of domestic complacency, but neither are they angry calls for political action, as Hirschman confesses in his Introduction: “Her poetry is less noted for its critique of a regime than … for the brilliance of its handling of montagic imagery, … control and unifying of highly disparate elements through a narrative thread of bittersweet irony …” That thread traces a mazy path; the flex and snap of metaphoric energy keep the poems from being routine or monotonous, but tend to preclude narrative except in the more folktale-like pieces such as “When He Has to Go to War” and “The Milkman Littleladle.” My hunch is that some of these are in dialect in the original, songlike, rhyming, with strongly marked rhythms; the translation suggests all this without really conveying it successfully.

Kirsch's work has a Chagallian rootlessness; the poems, like imagination, are not held down by gravity, but the infinitely flexible ties that bind them to earth are nevertheless local in nature—images, language, the texture of a world. Though the essence of Kirsch's work is change, motion, she is a sharp-eyed observer of detail wherever she finds herself. A strength of the book is that no one poem is adequately representative of her range, but a quotable passage is the close of “I'm Bound to an Airplane,” because of its collage of landscapes, its reference to Ovid (beloved of other exiles such as Brodsky), and its almost Stevens-like joy in metaphors for the imagination.

I fly to the seashore Ovid gazed at
many years in exile, he wailed
as this region so definitely beautiful
was only for a poet otherwise imaginary
in this way he found solitude wishing
for a prison-paradise, soon
wrote rich heart-felt songs of praise extolling the Lord
when he died there affectionate to his work friendly
and without success I could
see his grave and for the first time palm-trees
I wanted
to come clean into the snow,
with this “caterpillar” vehicle, my foot
already making tracks I've a mind
to get out look at stones, unpretentious plants, the shoreline
full of light-hearted houses tall
I will also dance and evenings along the sea
I buy a green melon
give it away to the taxi-driver
everything comes true there
one day when I land.

(“I'm Bound to an Airplane,” page 60)

The inconsistent punctuation is annoying, but it does not obscure Kirsch's exuberance. She surely deserves to be better known in this country, perhaps through better translations.

Judith Ryan (review date winter 1986)

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SOURCE: Ryan, Judith. Review of Katzenleben, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 60, no. 1 (winter 1986): 99.

[In the following review, Ryan asserts that the farm life depicted in Katzenleben is not idyllic, but rather oppressive and cumulatively “tiresome.”]

Idylls have always had their dangers, and the “cats' lives” of Kirsch's title poem [from Katzenleben] are not the comfortable snoozes they might seem. The image is an emblem of the farm life that forms the subject of the collection. Beginning before the onset of winter, the cycle follows the year through until the next fall. Like farm life itself, the poems are full of little things: plant and animal life, subtle changes in weather. The ultimate effect, however, is not that of lovingly detailed descriptions; rather, the multiplicity of observations brings with it a kind of horror: pain at the need for laborious notation, distress at the elusiveness of all distinctions, alarm at the slightest change in the tiniest object. Sometimes one sees things too clearly for comfort: “One could distinguish precisely / which of the remaining leaves / moved a little in front / or behind another.”

“Mild Alarm,” the poem from which the foregoing quotation is drawn, defines a mood that imbues the collection as a whole. Cats are first mentioned, not in the title poem, but in an account of newborn kittens falling to their death from the hayloft: “after the first death the farmer puts / straw beneath the hatch the gray siblings / at their mother's belly take over / the teat left by the trailblazer their chances / of survival have risen with a bound.” Such wordplays are evidently meant to heighten the sense of unease pervading this landscape, but they are not always successful. More skillfully handled are the enjambments, which repeatedly create disjuncture between subject and verb, the almost total lack of punctuation, which allows connections forward and backward, and the general sluggishness of the verse, which moves its heavy clusters of nouns at glacial speed, like the seemingly interminable winter that dominates a major part of the sequence.

Over the long haul these effects become tiring and even tiresome; but at their best they convey very well the close oppressiveness and malignant stagnation that is the other face of this country idyll. Kirsch's poem on her grandfather's pastor suggests, however, that much of this unease may itself be an illusion. Here the pastor's upright gait is seen as a distorted reflection in a globular glass garden ornament. The eye, the imagination, words themselves play tricks. These poems may at times show frightening transformations of apparently harmless realities, but are these effects not perhaps somewhat forced?

Charlotte Melin (essay date fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Melin, Charlotte. “Landscaping as Writing and Revelation in Sarah Kirsch's ‘Death Valley.’” Germanic Review 62, no. 4 (fall 1987): 199-204.

[In the following essay, Melin provides a detailed analysis of Kirsch's poem “Death Valley,” noting its significance as a reflection of Kirsch's role as a writer and her relationship to Germany.]

Sarah Kirsch's poem “Death Valley” from Erdreich (1982) recounts the descent of its narrator into the unexpectedly treacherous desert and her reemergence after a cathartic encounter with wild, powerful nature. Its occasionally Mannerist formulations and extravagant imagery elicited criticism, on the one hand, of “solche falschen Zungenschläge” in her work (Heise 4) and scepticism, on the other, that details like the glittering opera house represented “ganz konkrete Erfahrungen,” as Kirsch insisted in an interview (Kogel 16).1 Curiously enough, Kirsch charts a real trip across the desert, and her heightened descriptions seem to share their imaginative origins with the vivid place names that spot Death Valley maps—Desolation Canyon, Lostman Spring, or Hell's Gate, to name a few. Nonetheless, the mimetic qualities of the poem prompt further questions, for their presence creates a provocative tension between her subject, the landscape as experienced, and the language of Kirsch's narration, with all its extended meanings and allusions. Although Kirsch asserted that “die Bilder bedeuten, was sie sind” (Kogel 16), “Death Valley” goes beyond a portrayal of nature in the American desert to involve ultimately Kirsch's understanding of her craft as a writer and her relationship to Germany.

The seeming exorbitance with which Kirsch describes the California desert, unusual even given the known “Doppelbödigkeit und bildliche Intensität” of her oeuvre (Cosentino 418), serves to render central disjunctures in “Death Valley” between rational and irrational perceptions of the world, between reality and illusion, via a subtle interplay of form and content. It ensues from Kirsch's highly poetic language, which incorporates a wealth of rhetorical devices and literary allusions, including ones to her own work, that elaborate various transient themes. As in many of her poems, Kirsch considers characteristic topics—travel, love, writing, and nature—and sporadically assumes a persona (that of Alice in Wonderland) to enrich the poem's outwardly opaque images with a powerful complexity.

The outer sections of “Death Valley” symmetrically frame the poem, establishing a precarious tension between the illusory security of contemporary life (represented by the commercial amenities and trivial artificiality of Disney-Land in the first section and the perfunctory, domestic comforts of Deutschland in the last) and the ineluctable forces of the universe, which reveal themselves as raw, unmitigating nature and mortality Kirsch's allusion to Alice in Wonderland signals the physical and psychological displacement her subject experiences and establishes close parallels to the structure of Lewis Carroll's tale, in which framing poems mediate the transition from the real world to a realm of nonsense, concurrently introducing questions of mortality (Madden 371).2 Kirsch's Alice, like Carroll's, is an innocent who begins her journey on a rational footing with a curious, but cautious, first step into a geological museum, only to find that, as in Wonderland, such enticing realms can turn frightening. As in Carroll's story, where the narrator demarcates temporal distance between his reader and the tale by directing his listener's attention back to a “golden afternoon” of storytelling and commanding Alice to place his story “… where Childhood's dreams are twined / In Memory's mystic band, / Like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers / Plucked in a far-off land” (Carroll 23), Kirsch carefully separates her narrative from the reader in time. Though written predominantly in present tense throughout the first five sections—a device that emphasizes the immediacy of the experiences—the final section (paradoxically the one closest in temporal proximity to the reader) commences with the perfect tense, offering closure to the previous events: “Und später in Deutschland / Hat sie den Blick hinter die Spiegel / Vergessen” (Erdreich 14). Kirsch's more literal Alice, not unlike Carroll's, collects souvenirs of her journey—real dried weeds and stone—which in the final stanza become tokens emblematic of the preceding narrative.

The journey conducted within this architectonically structured poem leads Kirsch away from the known into increasingly strange territory in terms of both geography and writing. Falling rhythms reminiscent of the opening section of her important travel work, the Wiepersdorf cycle,3 accompany the descent: “Hier ist nicht Disney-Land. Alice …” (9), the poem aggressively commences. At first, the landscape seems vaguely familiar, even European in the way in which the desert mimics classical architecture. Kirsch's readers may recall the happy life described in her poem “Brief” from Drachensteigen where, having left the GDR and accompanied by her “Geliebter,” she wrote, “Ich bin glücklich in Italien. … ja ich habe Pompeji gesehen …” (47). The precipitous departure “Death Valley” makes from these comfortably familiar settings can then be gauged against observations Franz Fühmann articulated in his essay on Zaubersprüche, where he equated volumes of poetry with cities, identifying Kirsch's province as the corner of some magic, Gothic town, rather than sterile, modern settings that included “Disney-Land und Neon in der Wüste” (385). Whether or not Kirsch intended an oblique reference to this essay, in “Death Valley” and other poems in Erdreich she wanders through these previously uncharted tracts, all the while still employing her characteristic conjurer's cadences in an evocation of elemental earth, air, fire, and water.

Actively determining the journey's course at first, Alice dons the mask of Nydia, the blind girl who found a way out of Pompeii's volcanic eruption. She seems to guide her male companion away from a dangerously decadent, American world, yet already by the end of the first section of “Death Valley,” the erosive power of the desert impinges on her sense of refuge. The act of control represented by Alice's purposeful descent into a museum (a place where one expects to observe and learn from safely contained exhibits, though, more sinisterly, museums also entomb what they house or collect dead objects), and her initial identification of the phenomena she finds as man-made landmarks (griechische Tempel) or even as meticulously worked objects (die schöngefalteten Kaskaden) yields rapidly to irrational and uncontrolled forces. Kirsch poetically expresses this when she employs oxymoron and synesthesia, writing: “Die schöngefalteten Kaskaden / Stürzender Bäche aus Sand / Luden müde verdurstete Seelen / Trügerisch ein das Gestirn / Krachte durch Kuppeln gläserner Luft” (9).

Having accomplished this descent into Death Valley, Kirsch devotes the second section of the poem to a description of nature, as she likewise does in the symmetrically corresponding fourth part. Whereas the second section culminates with a reference to the devil (des Teufels Kohlplantagen), the fourth ends in an inverse image with the personification of God as a sheriff. The two parts share the motif of jagen—the adventurers find themselves pursued by an animated, chthonic nature. Here the menacing chase marks the shift out of the state of rational control that “Alice” clings to at the start of her journey and into the irrational one that forces her confrontation with mortality. Rhetorical devices continue to suggest the confusing power of the desert: repetition for emphasis (Im totenblassen Totenreich), the substitution of an unexpected term for the expected (furchtbare Äcker instead of the anticipated fruchtbare), the coupling of contrary terms (Erschrocken und fröhlich, schlingernde Seelen), and, again, oxymoron (Salzseen, Waschbrett des Winds).

Quite unexpectedly, given its location and arid climate, the desert is described by Kirsch as “Land / Der gröβten Kolchose der Welt” (10). It is tempting to interpret this appellation as either a sign of a vast environment that cannot be possessed by single individuals or as a mark of utopian socialism. It apparently alludes, however, to Kirsch's earlier poem about America, “Playboy und Cowboy,” from Zaubersprüche (1973). “Playboy und Cowboy,” which followed a series of poems about the Soviet Union, arose from dream images associated in the poet's mind with an anachronistic painting of a kolkhoz farmer (Corino 1086); hence, though distant, it seems the likely origin for Kolchose in this poem. Seen as a reference to “Playboy und Cowboy,” this term heightens our awareness of the conflicting illusions and realities that puzzle Kirsch about America since her earlier poem revolved around this very issue. In “Playboy und Cowboy” Kirsch contrasted an artificially costumed dandy with his genuine, though threadbare, counterpart. The poem, concluding with a string of interrogatives that express Kirsch's bafflement over these coexistent opposites, called even her own vision into question: “Soll ich den Maler tadeln? / Hat er die Wirklichkeit gemalt? Amerika?” (39). In Erdreich, notwithstanding her first-hand exposure to the United States, this unresolved clash between superficial, material opulence and fundamental, pragmatic stringency persists, as it does, in fact, in much foreign literature about America.

Over the course of “Death Valley,” these and other cumulative uncertainties result in growing passivity on the part of Alice and her companion. Kirsch indicates this loss of control by shifting to an increasingly verbless style. Her insistent use of verbs in the first section (where Alice stands, steps, and learns) gives way to a nearly unpunctuated series of nouns densely elaborated with adjectives, often participial adjectives that transfer the prerogative of activity from humans to nature. Although Alice and her friend “Tauchen … nach strahlenden Steinen Schiefertafeln / Eingekratztes zaubrisches Zeug Shoshonengemurmel. …” their surroundings “werfen die Bilder / Uns in den Kopf vergessene Szenerien” (10). Memory ceases to be a function of individual volition. The search for stones becomes a quest for shamanistic, primordial power, reminiscent of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's poem “Die Mergelgrube” in so far as the act of collecting stones—of trying to possess their potency and origins—leads to both authors' reflections about time and the insignificant, transitory existence of the individual.4

This fresh recognition of the self stems in Kirsch's case not so much from this single journey into the desert as from the trip to America itself, to which so many of the poems in Erdreich are devoted. The bald honesty of the landscape, suggested by the phrase, “In diesem ehrlichen Landstrich ohne den Zuspruch der Bäume” (10), demands a corresponding honesty with oneself. Indeed, in another poem from the volume, “Die Entfernung,” where Kirsch reports, “… ich weiβ / Was ich bin …”, she muses again on the candidness found in America: “Die fröhliche neue Welt sorglos geschminkt / Ist wenigstens ehrlich” (26). The momentary confusion and occasional artificiality that Kirsch encounters facilitate, in part, this new honesty.

With the brief third section of the poem, which is devoted entirely to a description of Alice's otherwise relatively anonymous male companion, a reversal of roles occurs. Alice no longer leads the couple, as in the first section: rather, her friend seeks “einen englischen Weg” that they hope will lead somewhere—their destination is not specified—through the whirling sand and over hidden craters. Kirsch's depiction of his halo-like bright and blowing hair (in optical contrast to the pale desert) and her characterization of the path he seeks as “angelic” presage the encounter with God in the fourth part. For a moment, the poem's language seems to suggest that the adventurers have almost become capable again of determining their course. Initially, in a continuation of Alice's bewildered perspective from the previous section, Kirsch describes the friend using an extended series of adjectives and an archaic introductory genitive construction: “Des Freundes wehendes wildaufgestelltes Haar / Macht einen hellen Schein in der Wüste …” (11). The second half of the stanza, however, records his vigorous actions in looking for a path through the desert: “Er späht … er sucht” (11). The companion briefly seems master of the situation, yet as the reader learns in the succeeding fourth part, the route he seeks is not a way out of Death Valley. Moreover, though he continues to accompany Kirsch's Alice on her journey through the fifth stanza, this muse-like animus is powerless to help Alice circumnavigate her frightening, but quite necessary, confrontation with mortality. In subsequent sections when Kirsch writes of experiences in terms of wir, as something commonly shared, Alice is the true focus of her attention and exclusively so in the poem's final part, where the friend disappears altogether.

With the fourth section, the temporary respite that the friend's presence seemed to offer evaporates. Nature becomes uncannily animated. With organ-like cacophony the very stones summon the greedy winds of the desert, which “… stürzten sich in die Arbeit / Dem grauen dem schwarzen so rotem Gras / Letztes Leben ausblasen, ununterbrochen / Berge und Täler vertauschen …” (12). This coarse, destructive action (ausblasen, schleifen, auslöschen, Splitter verstreuen) obliterates natural landmarks and works of man alike, represented by “Das niedergegangene Bergwerk.” If mountains and valleys—which we commonly take to be abiding—are so impermanent, what can man hope to accomplish? Alice and her companion are now expelled from this desolate Eden of lost dreams where they found “Nichts in den Dünen und Gott / Jagt als Sheriff hinter uns her” (12). In the face of this hostile environment, both the consolation nature seems to promise and the solace religion extends in the face of mortality have vanished.

What follows this expulsion from an Eden-turned-Jammertal is an abrupt departure from the foregoing encounter with nature. In the fifth stanza Kirsch suddenly transports her readers to a mirage-like setting: “Hinter Schienen als wäre es gestern geliefert / In dieser elenden Fremde dem Jammertal o wir glaubten / Ohne Vernunft und des Teufels zu sein / Stand plötzlich ein glitzerndes Opernhaus” (15). Significantly, although the section begins in the subjunctive mood, suggesting an irrational experience, the opera house Kirsch describes actually exists and stands as a clearly identifiable terminus to the journey in the poem. This journey began on the western side of the desert in the Panamit Range (mountains named for the Shoshone tribe that inhabited the desert) and led eastward, past abandoned borax mines to Death Valley Junction, where the Amargosa Opera House is still located. Here, in fantastically painted murals depicting a European society of the 16th-17th century (judging from the ruffs the king and queen wear), the reader encounters a visual equivalent to the mannered language and content of Kirsch's poem. Further knowledge of specifics helps elucidate Kirsch's description. The line, “Die Oper ist aufgeführt und ihr Ende steht fest,” toward the end of the fifth section reassures the reader and Alice that the bewildering journey will soon be at an end, but, in fact, it also evidently characterizes the dance-mime performances once regularly done to a tape recording in the opera house (Findley 96).

The question of why Kirsch describes the mural bears closer examination. The presence of the king, queen, and half-secret romantic exchanges (“aufgerissene Augen / Sehen Küsse und heimlich getauschte Briefe”) suggests the fairy-tale-like perspective Kirsch often adopts in her poetry, particularly in the earlier Zaubersprüche and Rückenwind (1976), and her frequent thematic treatment of love. At the same time, the confusion of the scene (“Niemand weiβ was hier wirklich geschieht / Alice schlägt die Gaukelei / Mit fliegenden Fingern in Baedeker nach”) parallels the mad chaos of the croquet party at the conclusion of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. After all the spiritual turmoil that precedes this section of the poem, Kirsch's Alice has grown skeptical of what appears to be a familiar European world, though not simply because she has come to mistrust her own perceptions in California. The archaic image of Old World society, historically remote as it is, represents a past tied to Kirsch's life, including the time before she left the GDR in August 1977 in the aftermath of the Biermann controversy.5 The description of the “glitzerndes Opernhaus” skirts biographical particulars. But the mural does form an image of the past about which Kirsch can evince skepticism and a sense of distance, as she very similarly does in “Reisezehrung” (another long poem from Erdreich that should be read in conjunction with “Death Valley”) in which Kirsch characterizes a landmark seen on an imaginative journey to the GDR as a castle, as looking like “ein glitzerndes Trugbild” (38).6

Alice's gesture of checking what she witnesses against citations in Baedeker is at once an act of exerting control—even of writing—and a rejection of immediate sensory experience as too unreliable. This desire to catalogue in a way Kirsch once called “Eroberung”7—the attempt to understand totally the foreign—is likewise present in another poem from Erdreich, “Bäume,” where the unsuccessful attempt to identify a particular type of tree leaves Kirsch dissatisfied: “Wenn ich an sie denke grüne Gestalten geschieht es / Mit einem merkwürdigen Gefühl der Leere” (22). With her attempt to categorize, Alice already begins the transition back into the rational world before Kirsch indicates this by shifting tenses again (in the line “Wir sind gekommen und werden gehen”), providing closure to the experience with a description of a guardian figure (“Die abwesende schwarze Garderobenfrau / Reicht uns den Mantel, die Autopapiere”), who sends Alice on her way out of this below-sea-level underworld.

Abruptly the sixth section transports the reader to a comfortable life in Germany and more prosaic syntax. The initial coordinating conjunction und, however, invites close comparison of this final stanza with what previously occurs in the poem. Alice, in Kirsch's words, has forgotten the look behind the mirrors, whereas in the desert, where “Brennspiegel werfen die Bilder / Uns in den Kopf vergessene Szenerien” (10), she found that memory became more important. Her “hübsches kleines Leben” contrasts pointedly with the vast, stark Death Valley landscape. Instead of the accompanying Freund from her journey, she now lives a domestic life with her child; in place of unbounded nature she has neat Blumentöpfe. The letters the mailman brings are froh and langweilig, as opposed to the feelings evinced by the desert where Kirsch characterized her subjects' souls as erschrocken and fröhlich. The term “Schreibtisch” informs Kirsch's readers that “Alice” has returned to her usual writing activity versus the search for “Eingekratztes zaubrisches Zeug Shoshonengemurmel” in the desert. Poetry, after all, may employ the magical, but it cannot risk being consumed by it. Finally, the poem concludes with a tight description of the souvenirs Kirsch has collected: dried weeds that now seem bunt (although they were found “Im totenblassen Totenreich”) and a feeling of mortality that “Gelänge in die Pralinenschachtel / Vom ersten Flug übern Atlantik” (14). Nowhere in the poem are the disparities sharper. The vast spatial and spiritual expanse represented by the American desert landscape can only uneasily—in subjunctive mood—be squeezed into a candy box and stored away by the author in her desk.

The structured oppositions generated in the final stanza of “Death Valley” comprise only part of the series of dialogical contrasts drawn in the poem. Many of these contrasts are typical for Kirsch's work: new impulses and the freedom offered by travel compete with daily life, which is secure, yet confining in its many responsibilities; nature's vitality contends with civilization; illusion and even self-delusion confront reality's exigencies. This fruitful ambivalence of attitudes derives from what Susan G. Figge has perceptively characterized as Kirsch's intrinsically related and increasingly complex interests in travel and writing (168), yet it also represents an important extension and refinement of views previously articulated by Kirsch. The major oppositions in “Death Valley” center either on the initial contrast between Disneyland and Deutschland (a double-edged criticism which certainly also involves Kirsch's relationship with the GDR) or on her definition of herself as a writer, especially her problematical position as a woman writer.

Published five years after she left the GDR, Erdreich, the volume in which “Death Valley” appears, marks Kirsch's coming-to-terms with her homeland. Whereas in her two preceding collections, Drachensteigen (1979), written in the GDR, West Berlin, and Italy, and La Pagerie (1980), which chronicles a sojourn in southern France, Kirsch revels in her new freedom to travel, in Erdreich, with its poems about America, the GDR, and the FRG, the value of physical journeys as a means of poetic rejuvenation is sharply called into question. “Uns zwingen die eignen Maschinen / Ohne Verweilen weiterzurasen Expeditionen / Ins Innre der Menschen sind uns versagt” (28), Kirsch writes disparagingly of modern travel in “Fluchtpunkt.” Even the slower, internal pilgrimage recorded in “Death Valley” proves daunting because it confronts Kirsch with both ultimate personal questions and the difficulty of expressing experience in writing.

The desert experience, like the biblical temptation in the wilderness in the confrontation it provokes with illusions and delusions, offers a stark alternative to, not a synthesis of, the antithetically contrasted Disneyland and Deutschland of the poem. Neither America's deplorable materialism, rapidly sketched by the references to Disneyland and Pompeji, nor the small, boring existence to which her protagonist returns in Germany represents thoroughly attractive options. Indeed, the life Kirsch describes in the FRG sounds almost as stifling as the routine that fed her longing to travel in poems such as “Rückkunft” (Landaufenthalt, 1969), written before she left the GDR. Nonetheless, “Death Valley” concludes in Germany and while the reader senses that domestic comforts will not permanently satisfy Kirsch's restlessness, they do have positive benefits in terms of Kirsch's calling as a woman writer.

Kirsch tests a series of alternative feminine roles in “Death Valley”: that of Alice or Nydia, who have the capacity to lead, that of the woman who follows her lover, and that of the mother with child. Each role, the poem shows, has its implicit hazards. One can become lost when recklessly adventuresome, find that others cannot be relied upon if followed, or sink into the monotony of a rooted existence. Beyond such simple categorizations, each of these roles implies a different way of relating to the world—and writing about it—possibilities Kirsch explores using a complex poetic strategy.

In defining herself as a poet in “Death Valley,” Kirsch consistently counterpoises the vivid desert landscape against a thematic subtext in which she distances herself from immediate experience. This begins with the double mask she assumes at the poem's outset since both “Alice” and “Nydia” embody characteristics associated with writers. Alice wanders through Wonderland, but also in Lewis Carroll's story she demands the tale, and hence plays a part in its authorship. Nydia, who guides others out of Pompeii, blindly seeks her path, much as an author when writing leads readers while searching for the dark trail of the narrative. The shift in pronouns in each of the stanzas (from sie to wir, to mir, and then in reverse sequence back to wir and finally sie) further enhances our sense that the writer finds it imperative to remove herself from the present to write since the poem concludes on a note of retrospection in the third person. Moreover, Kirsch affirms the importance of writing, as opposed to direct experience, in three specific instances in the poem: the search for stones (when her travelers recall forgotten sceneries), the check in Baedeker (when she wants to catalogue what she sees), and the work at her desk (when her subject has “forgotten” what she encountered, yet possesses souvenirs).

These three elements—memory, identification, and discriminating possession (which also involves forgetting part of an experience) are essential to the writing process. By asserting their importance, Kirsch privileges mental journeys over physical ones, for as we learn in the poem, it is all the diverse activity of the mind responding to the world, not just sensory apprehension of it, that nourishes the poet. As Kirsch writes in “Reisezehrung,” the companion poem to “Death Valley” from Erdreich, “Ich kann in Palermo sitzen / Und doch durch Mecklenburgs Felder gehn …” (44). The Alice persona of “Death Valley” must learn to remember and forget selectively, to give herself at times over to subjective, irrational, or immediate experiences, and at other times to return to the rational, mundane world of her writing desk, that is, to integrate various feminine roles. Only in this way can the writer, and particularly the woman writer, achieve full poetic expression.

“Death Valley” ends precariously, a poem, much like the tiny box in its own final stanza, that hardly seems to have the capacity to contain all the elements Kirsch presses into it. Interestingly, it was one of the works from Erdreich that Kirsch did not choose to include in the collection Landwege (1985), though it would be too bold to construe this as an assessment of the poem's quality by the author. Whatever its extravagances or weaknesses, “Death Valley,” with its intricate references to Kirsch's own work and her position as a writer, is a pivotal poem in the volume Erdreich. In mapping one sort of border crossing, from life into death and back again, it prepares the reader for the imaginative passage into the GDR that Kirsch accomplishes in the later poem “Reisezehrung.” Thus “Death Valley” begins the gradual thematic transition Kirsch makes in Erdreich to a more domestic realm, a world which subsequently provides the substance for her poems in Katzenleben (1984) and Irrstern (1986).


  1. This recent criticism on the grounds of extravagance, curiously enough, echoes in some respects the charges leveled against Kirsch by GDR critics in the sixties, particularly at the sixth Deutscher Schriftstellerkongreβ in 1969 where her poem “Schwarze Bohnen” was attacked as too subjective and private (Cosentino, “Rückblick” 107). Later, of course, her work was defended by more sensitive readers, notably Adolf Endler (see also Fühmann; Hacks; Heukenkamp). Taken together with this earlier reaction, what the new commentary demonstrates is the persistently problematical nature of Kirsch's undertaking, the risk she runs by balancing on the fine line between apparent simplicity and a crafted intricateness that is highly demanding of the reader.

  2. It is intriguing to consider recent German interest in Lewis Carroll's classic in conjunction with Kirsch's poem; this includes Christian Enzensberger's translation Alice im Wunderland (1970) and the work of the contemporary painter Markus Lüpertz who executed a series of forty-eight paintings entitled “Alice in Wonderland” from 1980-1981. Like Kirsch in “Death Valley,” Lüpertz conceives Alice's journey as a descent into the underworld, a gesture which art historian Donald Kuspit interprets as a statement of artistic position: “… Alice's visit to Wonderland is like Ulysses' voyage to Hades, the land of the dead who still live in the unconscious. This confrontation with the dead who still have a hold over us because they presumably set the norms—and from whom we can free ourselves only by taking a lawless lyrical attitude to them—is the essence of the mannerist position” (99). For additional allusions in contemporary German literature see H. C. Artmann's Frankenstein in Sussex, Rose Ausländer's “Alice in Wonderland” (101) and Friederike Mayröcker's “Text ‘bei mozambique’” (126).

  3. The poem “Wiepersdorf” begins, “Hier ist das Versmaβ elegisch …” (Rückenwind 18).

  4. Kirsch, like many contemporary German women authors, has evinced a strong affinity for the work of Droste-Hülshoff, notably in her poem, “Der Droste würde ich gern Wasser reichen” (Zaubersprüche 42).

  5. Kirsch was one of the twelve original signators to an open letter protesting Wolf Biermann's expulsion in November 1976, an act which made her existence in the GDR increasingly difficult and precipitated her departure to West Berlin (Emmerich 184ff.; Nagler 286; Frisé).

  6. Kirsch, of course, often employs historical or fictional garb, yet the multiple levels of meaning in her poetry defy simplistic interpretation of these devices. As Heinrich Mohr demonstrates in his discussion of the Wiepersdorf cycle, which contains a moment of historical displacement comparable to what occurs in “Death Valley,” the reader might easily be tempted to think too concretely, for example, to conceive of the poem in terms of the Biermann crisis, but, as Mohr cautions, “… das Gedicht ist zeitlich früher” (446).

  7. “Ich lebe von der Entdeckung, von der Eroberung immer neuer Landschaften; ich erobere sie mir dann auch schreibend,” Kirsch commented (Ester, et al. 108).

Works Cited

Artmann, H. C. Frankenstein in Sussex. Fleiβ und Industrie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969.

Ausländer, Rose. Die Sichel mäht die Zeit zu Heu. Gedichte 1957-1965. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1985.

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice. Ed. Martin Gardner. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960.

Corino, Karl. “Privat würde ich als ein Schimpfwort empfinden. Gespräch mit Sarah Kirsch.Deutschland-Archiv 8 (1975): 1085-1087.

Cosentino, Christine. “Die Lyrikerin Sarah Kirsch im Spiegel ihrer Bilder.” Neuphilologus 63 (1979): 418-429.

———. “Sarah Kirschs Dichtung in der DDR: Ein Rückblick.” German Studies Review 4 (1981): 105-116.

Emmerich, Wolfgang. Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1984.

Endler, Adolf. “Sarah Kirsch und ihre Kritiker.” Sinn und Form 27 (1975): 142-170.

Ester, Hans and Dick von Stekelenburg. “Gespräch mit Sarah Kirsch.” Deutsche Bücher 9 (1979): 100-113.

Figge, Susan G. “‘Der Wunsch nach Welt’: The Travel Motif in the Poetry of Sarah Kirsch.” Studies in GDR Culture and Society, ed. Margy Gerber. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. 167-184.

Findley, Rowe. “Death Valley, the Land and the Legend.” National Geographic 137.1 (1970): 69-103.

Frisé, Maria. “Zaubersprüche hinter dem Eiderdeich. Besuch bei Sarah Kirsch.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2 Juni 1984: N. pag.

Fühmann, Franz. “Vademecum für Leser von Zaubersprüchen.” Sinn und Form 2 (1975): 385-420.

Hacks, Peter. “Der Sarah-Sound.” Maβgaben der Kunst. Düsseldorf: Classen, 1977. 267-284.

Heise, Hans-Jürgen. “Erdreich. Aus der Alten, der Neuen Welt—Sarah Kirsch's Gedichte.Die Zeit 2. April 1982: 4.

Heukenkamp, Ursula. “Sarah Kirsch: Zaubersprüche.” Weimarer Beiträge 20 (1974): 150-159.

Kirsch, Sarah. Drachensteigen. Ebenhausen: Langewiesche-Brandt, 1979.

———. Erdreich. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1982.

———. Irrstern. Stuttgart: DeutscheVerlags-Anstalt, 1986.

———. Katzenleben. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1984.

———. Landwege. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1985.

———. Rückenwind. Ebenhausen: Langewiesche-Brandt, 1977.

———. Zaubersprüche. Ebenhausen: Langewiesche-Brandt, 1974.

Kogel, Jörg-Dieter. “Die Bilder bedeuten, was sie sind. Gespräch mit der Lyrikerin Sarah Kirsch.” Süddeutsche Zeitung 15. April 1982: 16.

Kuspit, Donald. “Acts of Aggression: German Painting Today, Part II.” Art in America 71 (1983): 90-101, 131-135.

Madden, William A. “Framing the Alices,” PMLA 101 (1986): 362-373.

Mayröcker, Friederike. Ausgewählte Gedichte 1944-1978. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979.

Mohr, Heinrich. “Die Lust ‘Ich’ zu sagen. Versuch über die Lyrik der Sarah Kirsch.” Lyrik von allen Seiten, ed. Lothar Jordan, et al. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1981: 439-460.

Nagler, Monica. “Till slut skriver man så kryptiskt att det blir ett slavspråk.” Bonniers litterära Magasin 49 (1980): 284-286.

Jerry Glenn (review date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Glenn, Jerry. Review of Allerlei-Rauh: Eine Chronik, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (winter 1989): 97-8.

[In the following review, Glenn discusses Kirsch's shifting, fanciful poetic style in Allerlei-Rauh.]

The spectrum of the dozens of recent German Dichtung-und-Wahrheit memoirs is broad indeed, ranging from largely documentary chronicles to fanciful collages in which factual reports are difficult to identify with any degree of certainty. In terms of content, Sarah Kirsch's Allerlei-Rauh probably falls somewhere in the middle. Its style, however, definitely crowds the fanciful extreme. The motto is programmatic: “Alles ist frei / erfunden und jeder Name / wurde verwechselt.” How many different meanings could be found for these nine words? The first word of the text is no less significant: bunt. The narration is “colorful” and “varied,” but—another subtlety—by no means “gaudy.” The first ten words playfully form a dactylic hexameter (is Hermann or Dorothea lurking over the next hill?), and the first paragraph, a soaring introduction to a description of the North German landscape Kirsch calls home, concludes with a phrase that captures the essence of the work as a whole: “nichts Besonderes, nur unvergeβlich.”

The book has no sections, chapters, or other divisions. The narration flows smoothly, so smoothly that the reader is not always immediately aware that the perspective has shifted from the (rural) North German present to the (rural or urban) East German past, or from North (Germany) to South (Greece), or from people (Christa, the friend) to poetry (Christa, the author of Kassandra), or from reality to the fairy tale of the title. The style, however, is another matter. Here the shifts are unmistakable, as when the usual descriptive or reflective poetical language is broken by long parodies of classical or romantic style: “So ziehn sie vorbei mit kurzen klirrenden Ketten, würdig und nicht ohne Anmut, … und unser Horizont geht bei Regenwetter wie diesem bis in die Unendlichkeit rein und ist vom milden Herbstlicht umflossen.”

Hilda Scott (review date January 1990)

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SOURCE: Scott, Hilda. “The Women behind the Wall.” Women's Review of Books 7, no. 4 (January 1990): 10.

[In the following review, Scott commends Kirsch's insightful portraits of East German women and GDR life in The Panther Woman, though notes that Western readers may miss some of the work's subtle subtext.]

The Panther Woman, a very slim volume of interviews with five East German women, which reaches us in the University of Nebraska's “European Women Writers” series, was first published in the German Democratic Republic in 1973. It offers a look back at the generation of women whose adult children we have watched on TV, crossing the Hungarian border into Austria, storming the West German Embassy in Prague, or marching in Leipzig with banners saying, “We'll stay here.” What light can it throw on this upheaval in the most successful of Eastern European socialist societies?

Sarah Kirsch has lived in West Germany since 1978, the year she chose voluntary exile from the GDR in protest against the forced emigration of the popular folksinger and poet Wolf Biermann. She was still a highly regarded poet in East Germany when she undertook these interviews in 1971, at the suggestion of her East German publisher. It wasn't the right moment for poetry, he told her. The Panther Woman should therefore be read with a twenty-year perspective, as a book of unusual candor that appealed to readers who had tired of “gushing panegyrics about allegedly outstanding socialist personalities,” yet also met the government's political criteria for acceptable literature.

This compromise is reflected in ambiguities of concept and treatment that create uncertainty about the author's real message. The collection takes its title from the first interview, evoking expectations of the exotic, and the cover pictures a sinuous woman with a panther's head. Kirsch seems interested in entertainment, not sociology. She chose her subjects “not too conscientiously,” since “every biography is interesting.” Yet this is really a book about work and its central importance in the lives of five women; four of them certainly put their jobs ahead of their personal lives.

Not that the jobs are typical. The Panther Woman, a circus equestrian turned animal trainer, has much to say about her unusual animal act and the routine of the trainer's life. The next three profiles are of women in sensitive posts for which political reliability would have been a requirement. Committed cadres who have been through Party schooling and joined mass organizations, they nevertheless speak without jargon and confess to their frustrations with a humor and modesty that makes them believable and likeable. “Of course there were endless problems,” says one of them of her many years as assistant to a minister. “I just tried to solve them as best I could. It was a job that went far beyond my abilities.”

All three provide glimpses behind the scenes that must have seemed piquant to East German readers. The oldest of Kirsch's subjects joined the Communist Party before World War Two. She was active during the war in the anti-Nazi underground, then threw herself into work for a socialist GDR and rose to become head of personnel in the prestigious Brecht theatre, the Berliner Ensemble. Her recollections breathe life into some cardboard communist notables: we learn, for example, how the celebrated actress Helene Weigel, Brecht's widow, used to weep her way through the offices of higher-ups and return jubilant with whatever she needed for her company.

Next we meet a historian in the Academy of Sciences, who is also pressing for her concept of socialist city planning as a member of the Potsdam District Council. She has decided that it's a waste of time to hold office hours since she cannot promise her constituents action; the council makes no decisions but simply passes on suggestions to the appropriate authority. Meanwhile her historical collective can't get its history of Potsdam out to the tourists because any publication of over 100 pages must be produced by a publishing house, but they all have full agendas.

A tough and energetic executive in one of East Berlin's largest companies, the youngest of the trio is still in her early thirties when Kirsch interviews her. When she got her first job as a green university graduate in economics, the marketing manager didn't know what to do with her because she was the only one in the division, including the manager, who had studied anything.

Next to the division manager I earned the most money—and had the least idea of what was going on … I learned how you hold a rubber stamp properly, that the knob has to be in the front, how you open a document folder, how you have to file—everything from the ground up.

(p. 78)

The final narrative is a spirited account by a genuine worker, a school drop-out who has withstood all efforts to train her for a skilled job. “Are you nuts, working yourselves to the bone like this for peanuts?” she asks her fellow warehouse workers, all women. The older ones are “real coolies,” she declares, but the younger ones, who were beginning to learn the ropes, simply refused to keep pace and knocked off. She is the one woman who describes how she combines a family (twins) and paid employment. The answer is a helpful husband. “I couldn't do one more thing. I dragged the kids home behind me from nursery school … And he did everything; it was all more than I could handle.”

Perhaps to lighten this earnestness for her East German audience, Kirsch chose to present her stories in a quasi-literary rather than a journalistic format. She has transformed her interviews into monologues, so that we do not know what questions she asked or how much editing she did. She has also given them fanciful titles (“A Bathtub Full of Whipped Cream”), ending each with a kind of reprise, repeating a few thematic sentences as though there were some keys to meaning we might miss. But there aren't, and I found these devices jarring.

Kirsch's subjects avoid many aspects of their lives. There is no mention here of shortages, poor quality, high prices, the severe limitations on travel, the lack of access to information, or the supervised uniformity of opinion. On the other hand, the availability of day care and of opportunities for education and job training at every level are taken for granted. Of course German readers could fill in the subtext; we lack the necessary clues. More generous footnoting would have helped. If young Germans don't know what Pearl Harbor stands for, American readers may not know, for example, that in 1945 “people were already streaming back from Dresden” because it had been fire bombed; that “May Day used to mean that everybody would disappear” refers to the annual compulsory May Day march that workers try to avoid; or that a family name like Krumbein can be a curse to a child because it translates as “bow-legged.”

In spite of the gaps, I feel as though I had known these women. They represent the many East Germans who got things done because they knew how to work within the system. They thought there were socialist goals worth working for, and it became second nature to them to suppress their reservations. This readable small volume, by what it doesn't say as well as what it does, helps identify the silences and contradictions that eventually turn reservations into revolt. Just as important, it suggests the residue of belief in socialist principles that still motivates those East Germans who have wagered their future on a reformed GDR rather than on flight to the West.

Nancy Derr (review date summer 1990)

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SOURCE: Derr, Nancy. “Germany East and West: The Twain Meet.” Belles Lettres 5, no. 4 (summer 1990): 9.

[In the following excerpt, Derr commends Kirsch's realistic portrayal of East German women in The Panther Woman.]

In The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder, Sarah Kirsch presents a collection of monologues she recorded, then transcribed and edited much as a film director edits hours of takes. The collection, a fascinating snapshot of life in socialist East Germany, offers a depressing portrait of five women from all walks of life. The reader gains a sense of the historical development of this country from a fascist dictatorship to its status as the strongest socialist country in the world. We see something of the functioning of local government, the East German business world, and the workings of a factory. While remaining anonymous, the women in The Panther Woman range from an historian employed at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin and a district parliament representative, to the “panther woman,” a cat trainer with the Aeros Circus. All of the participants in the collection are mothers and career women. They have surpassed their counterparts in the Federal Republic in participation in the workforce and in their legal parity with men. Day care is widely available and heavily subsidized by the government. And, although we find little criticism of the system, one senses a subtle alienation from society despite the fact that, as the translators state, they are “firmly rooted in the collective experience.” Kirsch, in her afterword to the edition points out that these tales were to be “neither touched up nor decked out with the usual frills,” in other words, not the typical “panegyrics about allegedly outstanding socialist personalities.” These women are real, with real problems, successes, and disappointments.

Kirsch, otherwise known for her prizewinning lyric poetry, was born Ingrid Bernstein in 1935; she took the name Sarah out of solidarity with the Jewish people. Ousted from the Socialist Unity Party because she condemned a fellow artist's expulsion to the West in 1976, Kirsch emigrated to the Federal Republic in May 1978 and now lives in northern West Germany. The Panther Woman, so named for the first of the five tales, was initially published in East Germany in 1973. The English translation is based on the West German version published in 1975.

Peter Graves (review date 29 May 1992)

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SOURCE: Graves, Peter. “Schleswig-Holstein Questions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4652 (29 May 1992): 23-4.

[In the following review, Graves discusses Kirsch's East German background and offers a positive assessment of The Brontës' Hats, Schwingrasen, and Spreu.]

With all that is known about the former German Democratic Republic it may strain the imagination to conceive of that dour little State having once experienced anything as alluring as a “lyrical wave”. That, however, was the description given to the remarkable outpouring of poetic activity among the young writers of East Germany in the 1960s, and the term is not inappropriate. Into a literature marked by stagnation and defensiveness there came a new generation, born in the 1930s, who were committed to the socialist order and eager to have their say in its construction. They brought with them not just fresh vigour and a willingness to experiment but also the confidence to ask awkward questions and a refusal to transmit prefabricated harmonies dispensed from above. Although their work was a joint undertaking in that it was sustained by a common impulse and a network of friendships, each poet had a distinctive voice, and one of their main concerns was precisely the role of individuality within a collective society. Among this loose grouping were such as Reiner Kunze, Wolf Biermann, Volker Braun and Karl Mickel. The leading lady was Sarah Kirsch.

It is the way with waves that they are uncontrollable. The authorities could offer inducements to their turbulent young poets or threaten them with sanctions, but they could not stem their growing frustration at a system seemingly incapable of reform. Even the availability of publishing outlets in the West for those banned at home was insufficient to relieve the pressure, and when the government opted for the heavy-handed expulsion of Wolf Biermann in 1976, it not only scored a Pyrrhic victory par excellence, but also gave the signal for an exodus of disillusioned writers which continued until the State itself collapsed thirteen years later.

Sarah Kirsch was among the first to leave, moving to the West in 1977. She has never concealed her disdain for the ideology she left behind, nor her differences with those, such as Christa Wolf, who had hoped to resurrect the socialist ideal in renewed form. But she is not an overtly political poet, and even in the GDR had shown her contempt for the pervasiveness of politics by relegating them within her poetry to the casual reference or the dismissive afterthought. The inwardness of her verse, with its fondness for projecting on to the real world some private emotion or fancy, led to public charges of subjectivism and passivity, but she also had her defenders, and three volumes of her poetry were published in the GDR before her departure.

She has continued to be a prolific writer, with a reputation as one of Germany's finest poets, and a competent rendering of her poems into English is therefore long overdue. In The Brontës' Hats, a bilingual edition produced by Wendy Mulford and Anthony Vivis, one may question the wisdom of devoting over one-third of the limited space to recent, unpublished poems when there is such a large backlog of her work unknown in this country, but the translations themselves can scarcely be faulted. The dominant subject-matter of Kirsch's poetry is derived from the natural world around her, but it is a world of ambiguity and shifting contours, one in which the ordinary soon gives way to the strange, and the startling visions of imagination, as in the title poem for instance, can send the Brontë sisters sailing abruptly into the landscape of northern Germany. This is no idyll, however, nor is it mere play: emotion breaks through with a sometimes raw intensity, and the bleak, storm-beaten backdrop of Schleswig-Holstein, where Kirsch has lived since 1983, mirrors the often tempestuous course of human relationships and the fragile span of existence. The structure of her verse highlights the underlying restlessness, as rhythm and meaning flow within and across lines largely uninterrupted by punctuation, a feature admirably reproduced by the translators.

Schwingrasen, a new volume of Sarah Kirsch's work, contains some fifty-five short pieces which, though set as prose, are almost indistinguishable in style and cadence from her poetry. In content they range from childhood memories of wartime Germany, via her broken marriage with the East German poet Rainer Kirsch (“Prince Heartless”), to a philippic against television chat-shows, but they constantly return to the remote northern hamlet that is her home. The presence nearby of “marsh grass” (the book's title) is a reminder that appearance can be deceptive and the ground underfoot treacherous. Nevertheless, there is also a provisional note of contentment here, a quiet humour, a hesitant stability, as the poet indulges her writing, cares for her animals and performs the various duties of country life.

Sometimes, however, external duties call, and she grudgingly leaves her rustic retreat to give public readings of her work. Spreu, also just published, is the diary account of several such excursions undertaken between 1988 and 1990. With only the occasional caustic glance at the activities of erstwhile colleagues east of the Elbe, Kirsch has produced a witty and self-deprecating journal (no more than “chaff”, according to its title) of a chore engaged in unashamedly for the money, also in the hope that interesting venues will compensate for missed connections, synthetic hotels and (in one instance) an audience of mental patients. She writes with her characteristic mix of the archaic and the colloquial, a language that hovers on the brink of affectation but miraculously never falls. Mostly the narrative just skips along, breezy without being frivolous, and when melancholy about the state of the world does break through, it does so without sententiousness. The text is interspersed with some of her own water-colour daubings and a whimsical selection of prints and photographs. This is an idiosyncratic book, and a delight.

Beth Bjorklund (review date autumn 1992)

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SOURCE: Bjorklund, Beth. Review of Schwingrasen, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 66, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 718.

[In the following review, Bjorklund comments favorably on the lyricism, ambiguity, and pastoral quality of Kirsch's prose in Schwingrasen.]

Schwingrasen is an archaic word for “moor,” a poetic place par excellence. The short prose pieces collected under that title serve as reconfirmation of Sarah Kirsch's reputation as one of Germany's best living poets. Her prose style is not greatly different from that of the poetry; both live from the originality of perspective and the freshness of voice. The lyric “I” speaks in a conversational tone, as if carrying on a dialogue with the self; and the absence of self-consciousness allows the speaker to experience the world phenomenally, as if for the first time. The lyric voice is laconic, at times ironic, and it thrives on understatement and a dry sort of humor. The topics are those of everyday life, which, however, acquire such added dimensions that the speaker herself has to laugh—and with that she flies.

If landscape was always an important factor for Kirsch, it plays a particularly prominent role since her resettling in northern West Germany in 1981. It is a Nordic climate of darkness and cold, “einfach finster wie im zitierten Arsche des Bären.” The fog and rain seem to foster poetic flight, and the speaker takes off in her “Schwanengewand” for “andere Wohnungen.” Those include childhood memories, dreams, and fantasies, as well as observations and impressions of the world around her. They sometimes involve dogs and cats, which are known for their cool indifference; and the poet's assumption of an animal voice allows her freedom to speak openly with impunity. The speaker projects a consciousness onto nature in order to find the self reflected there, whereby she “konnte Baums Standpunkt verstehn.”

The natural landscape is only sparsely populated with human beings, the most prominent being a certain “Prins [sic] Herzlos”; but “Prins Herzlos hieβ er nicht immer sonst hätte ich ihn niemals genommen.” The referentiality of designations such as “son” and “parents” remains equally ambiguous. Interpersonal relations are characterized in a marvelous piece entitled “Ein Schuβ Arsenik”; in thirteen lines the poet sketches the complexity of love laced with poison, all of which is passed off with the seeming nonchalance of “Das ist alles so hochgradig subtil.” The honesty precludes self-righteousness, for “der Künstler selbst schreibt gegen die Selbstherrlichkeit an.” Thus the speaker is ironic even about her “conversion” to rural life, which she likens to a male transvestite's fascination with female lingerie and cosmetics.

The “pastoral” that Kirsch presents is thus a very modern one, and current events such as nuclear fallout, East European refugees, and TV talk shows are heard in the background. Even the most personal topics do not allow sentimental treatment, for any idyll is immediately undercut with illusion-breaking opposition. It is perhaps that detachment which differentiates the texts from mere diary entries. The writer furthermore introduces ambiguity at every opportunity, and the complexity of the seemingly ordinary events precludes any simplistic predictability of response. Contrary to all appearances, the poet is highly aware of the creative process and its intent, which she thematizes in “Wie kommt Literatur zustande?” The role of the artist is parodied in a humorous piece entitled “Lachschleifen,” for “niemand hat auf der Pfanne daβ Kunst etwas Heiliges ist.” Art, for Kirsch, depends rather on the “Blickwinkel” where the self meets the world; “aber das ist bloβ das Lachen zwischen den Zeilen.”

Rita Terras (review date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Ich Crusoe, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 394.

[In the following review, Terras notes Kirsch's hopeful and resigned tone in the poems of Ich Crusoe.]

The last words of the last poem in Ich Crusoe echo and confirm what Sarah Kirsch had predicted nearly thirty years earlier in “Der Baum,” the first poem in the volume. Swinging in a tree and looking out at the shores of a body of water, the lyric persona is not unhappy. She does not complain about her situation but, at the same time, is confident of being able someday to cut loose from the confinement of tree and rope: “Ich hänge zwischen Stricken im Baum / … / … ich schaukle / … / … sehe / zwei Ufer meins und das andere / … kann los von Baum und Strick.” At age sixty the poet writes again about swinging. In her poem “Entfernung” (“Distance”) she is able to announce: “Und eigentlich bin ich / ganz uferlos schaukle / schaukle” (And actually I am / completely unbound swinging / swinging). These words reflect the profound changes of the last thirty years in terms of both the poet's private and public existence. The swing and its restraining forces (tree and rope) have vanished. The political implications of two shores, “mine and the other,” have disappeared. What is left for the present and the future is the soft motion of swinging unbound. Thus the collection of sixty poems, given to celebrate Kirsch's sixtieth birthday, begins with wishful optimism and ends on a note of hopeful resignation.

The poems in this volume are selected to create a carefully crafted résumé of the poet's life. We learn of her wanderings, real and imaginary, from place to place and through time. She moves from fields and streams in the country to a highrise in the big city; from Moscow to Berlin, and from Brazil to Norway; from summer into winter and on into spring. Reflecting about her life, Kirsch concludes: “There was nothing that / could hold me no continent / held my attention for long. Always / I jumped onto the last / moving ship in September.” In all her wanderings the poet holds to one steady element: her awareness of the presence of nature with trees, grass, and flowers, with birds and other animals, with the snows of winter and clouds in a summer sky. They travel with her throughout her life.

Sarah Kirsch's poems are not difficult to read. Creativity and a solid command of the German language allow her to be precise without sacrificing simplicity. An idiosyncratic ordering of lines has become one of her signatures. Of the sixty poems in Ich Crusoe, only five are previously unpublished, as are the finely executed watercolors with their imaginative forms and figures. Added to the volume are a somewhat subjective introduction to the poems by Joachim Kaiser and a brief, informative postscript by Karin von Maur entitled “Sarah Kirsch's Excursion into Watercolors.” The poems were selected by Iris Paetzke.

Rita Terras (review date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Luftspringerin, by Sarah Kirsch. World Literature Today 72, no. 2 (spring 1998): 368.

[In the following review, Terras praises Kirsch's use of image and language in her prose and poetry collection Luftspringerin.]

The present volume of Sarah Kirsch's verse and prose [Luftspringerin,] contains pieces from eight previous collections dating from 1982 to 1996. The title poem, “Luftspringerin” (1989), is appropriate, as it presents the poet's art in quintessence: the poet identifies with Lot's wife (perhaps following the example of Anna Akhmatova), looking back at her life, “having loved something that drove her almost to the edge of the world,” but ending in disappointment and “fear of always the same soup.” Thus, the poet leaves the title of “eine Art Engel die Luftspringerin” to the Russian space dog Laika, herself resigned to “fill her contingent of paper with ink.”

The prose piece “Wie kommt Literatur zustande?” describes Kirsch's poetics as impressionist, stream-of-consciousness, automatic writing “nach der Methode Gertrude Stein,” but not without adding an important point: it is a method based on “daily training.” Clearly, Kirsch is a poet who edits her impressionist fugues very carefully, removing any quasi-poetic element (meter, rhyme, euphony) and forcing the reader to concentrate on image and meaning. Her pointedly adjectival style is a dead giveaway of conscious composition.

Ultimately, Kirsch's landscapes, whether they be located in East Germany, Schleswig-Holstein, Austria, Iceland, or Sicily, point to the poet's alert and curious consciousness. As the poet's eyes scan a landscape, her mental eye perceives a rich landscape of the soul, filled with Urmythen and many literary myths too, with ample symbolic use of the pathetic fallacy and even an occasional stab at social themes, as when “the headless trunk of a tree, cleft by lightning, / stands in my way / with widespread imploring arms / and a rat who was once my landlord / runs ahead of me on firm ground” (“Moorland”).

Most of all, Sarah Kirsch is a poet who loves the word as such, who enjoys showing off her command of names of plants, natural phenomena, seasonal changes, but also of tools and household utensils, whatever comes floating down the river at flood time (“Was bei einer Überschwemmung im Fluss schwimmt”). Kirsch is a poet-painter whose strength is the robust concreteness of her vision: “The world onsists of details” (“Sanfter Schrecken”). This is true of the way she expresses emotion. The following example is typical: “It almost wrings my soul from my body when the most miraculous gets fused with the ordinary and I see a deeply bent woman creeping up the dike, coughing, with her little dog” (“Strohmian”).


Principal Works


Further Reading