July 2, 2014

Karl Krolow


I knew you wouldn’t come.
It was four in the afternoon.
An elm was there. It looked
like eternity. There’s
no infidelity, but slitting open
letters with the opener’s like a stab
from another age of virtue.
How do elms smell?
They’re sickly.
Eternity dies slowly
of a stealthy sickness.
I’ll never see
what you’re doing now.
Maybe the telephone’s ringing
in your room now
four in the afternoon.
A female voice is severe,
says: wrong number.
The elm smells of sickness.
In the grass gone to seed underneath
a dragonfly’s still, looks at me
to the end of my certainty,
when I don’t add up the numbers
while waiting: I know,
my breath was the quick breath
of a child eavesdropping.
Mechanically I unbutton
my jacket button
and button it again.
I’m getting ready
for something or other.
—translated from the German by Stuart Friebert
with permission of Suhrkamp Verlag/Berlin

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013


Karl Krolow was by any stretch a giant of twentieth century German Letters. He made his mark early and often, with poems, translations (from the Spanish and French, chiefly; occasionally American), and criticism, later adding prose to his staggering output, which includes a number of Selected Poems (decade by decade), each with a life and mind of its own. Famously saying he didn’t write just for readers, but also for “so-called dead objects, for landscapes, cities, gardens, streetcorners, animals, for the air, the light above a particular object, for the stone and its pores, for sadness, bodily pain …” the list goes on. As a critic, a judge of major literary competitions, he spent much of his life taking account of what his contemporaries were up to. Few writers who lived during Krolow’s time were without his direct or indirect support.

Stuart Friebert: “Initially I came to writing poetry by the long way around: one of the first exchange students to study science and mathematics in Germany after WWII (1949–50), I had the great good fortune to have a sort of humanities course with Karl Langosch, the renowned medievalist-linguist. He challenged me to try my hand at German ‘verses,’ which adventure was capped later by my friendship with Michael Mann (youngest son of Thomas), who helped me line up my first poems, in German. Subsequently, I published four books early on in German, while gradually transitioning to write in English, greatly aided by translating relationships with Karl Krolow and Günter Eich, who taught me more than I’ll ever be able to absorb.”