Lighter than Air—Moral Poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, translated by David Constantine

[11 December 2002]

By John Sears

Bearing the Lightness of Being

This new collection from Hans Magnus Enzensberger features on its cover a photomontage (by Andrzej Owca) that includes a famous image of the Hindenberg airship exploding into flames in 1937. The image and its symbolic import resonate throughout the book: in these poems, things that seem “lighter than air” can carry secretly within them vast potential weights of human suffering and catastrophe. Enzensberger’s “moral poems”—poems with morals, but also poems about moral responsibilities, evasions, and paradoxes—outline in delicate, verbal textures the terrifying freights with which the lightness of human existence can be burdened.

In his own meditation upon a similar conceit, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (published by Faber and Faber), the Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes:

“The absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”

Enzensberger offers a comparable philosophical take on the implications of human responsibilities, arguing in poems like “Eror”, the title a misprint addressed by the poem itself, that to be burdened is a necessary condition of life, giving it meaning in a universe of weightless meaninglessness:

“To avoid mistakes at any cost
would be wrong. We concede,
admit, confess that there have been
certain slips, howlers, goofs and gaffes.
Some poems, for example,
might have been perfect,
had not a slight oversight
come to their rescue.”

Enzensberger adheres to a set of simple but effective rules in producing poetry, indicated by the title of his first translated volume, published in 1968, poems for people who don’t read poems. Lighter than Air consists of poems that are immensely readable in ways which, as the volume progresses, become strangely seductive, luring the reader into a sense of compliance with their gentle insistence on the absurdity of earthly worries, their shrugs and waves of dismissal that generate airs of unconcern. It’s easy to miss the other moments here, where a different, weighty reality momentarily pushes through the poetry’s rhetorical surfaces, as in “World Market”, which seems to be a list of consumer items until the last lines force us to reread more carefully:

“Car bombs do the rounds, wives
land from the catalogues,
bank accounts shift by satellite.
Brand new viruses come floating in.
Only now and then by the roadside
There’s a beggar lying, motionless.”

Everything here is deceptively apparent, presenting the world seemingly unquestionably as it is, and yet the poem manages to create a significant disturbance to any complacency that the reader might feel. The verbal effects of simplicity and lucidity mask an underlying concern with moral and ethical significance, and these poems continually remind us that the surface play of words in the light of their own making distracts us from the depths of meaning they can contain.

Each poem here is a carefully crafted structure containing moments of insight and awareness far deeper than the airy, simple language in which they are couched. Enzensberger writes with the touch of a pianist tinkling the high notes, allowing the words to chime their meanings clearly and yet sustain a deeper, more hollow resonance at moments when lightness of touch itself comes under scrutiny.

Credit must go here to the translations, in which David Constantine (and Enzensberger himself, in several cases) has managed to convey a consistent tone throughout the book in simple, formally precise English, without ever obscuring the tendency of each poem to suddenly veer alarmingly over an abyss. And veer alarmingly they do, in disconcerting ways, like the hydrogen-filled Zeppelin on the book’s cover, forever on the brink of a spectacular demise. In poems like “Order of the Day”, we recognise the deeper structures of our daily routines, and the recognition is not necessarily a reassuring one:

“Ring the accountant, also do some work.
Brood over the photograph of a woman
who has killed herself.
Look up when the word Feindbild
first appeared.

Fetch the lifeless, damp, bedraggled crow
off the balcony with the tips of the fingers.
Watch the clouds, the clouds.
Sleep too, sleep.”

These are instructions for sustaining repression, a list of daily tasks that barely conceals a massive act of evasion of the horror of mortality and its omnipresence in human history. The German word Feindbild means ‘image of the enemy’, and the enemy here is surely Death itself, imaged in the suicide and the crow but also in every tiny act performed at every minute of every day by everybody.

For all their lightness, then, these poems are relentless in their meticulous exposure of lightness itself as an imposture, as a condition whose opposite is not heaviness but darkness. Hans Magnus Enzensberger is Germany’s greatest living poet, and the dark burden his poems sketch out is not difficult to deduce in historical terms. What makes these poems so effective are the ways in which that historical burden is translated into works that situate themselves firmly in a recognisable but ethereal contemporary world, a world of reassuringly real emotions and events that are nevertheless disturbingly immediate in their impact.

These are poems of transparent simplicity, unburdened by historical or cultural reference and floating, instead, free of their moorings in everyday reality. Sometimes their wordplay exploits this simplicity to do what great poetry does best, which is to present to us the ineffable paradoxes of our own being (“I is different things”, we are told in “Proof of Identity”); at other times, we are drawn into conversations with the poems that grow increasingly disturbing:

“Come now,
sportsman, what shall it be?
Drive into a tree
in your BMW
or without more ado
(“Of His Own free Will”)

Either way, Enzensberger’s poetry grabs us by the scruff of the neck and forces us to look anew, and with much more wary eyes, at the worlds we have made for ourselves.

Published at: