‘Porcelain’ by Durs Grünbein: An Excerpt
Porcelain is a book-length cycle of forty-nine poems written over the course of more than a decade that together serve as a lament for Durs Grünbein’s hometown, Dresden, which was destroyed in the Allied firebombing of February 1945. Musical, fractured, ironic, and elegiac, Porcelain is controversial, too, in setting itself against what Grünbein calls the ‘myth’ of the Germans as innocent victims of a war crime. At the same time, it never loses sight of the horror deliberately visited on an unwitting civilian population, nor the devastation that looms so large in the German memory.
Translated by Karen Leeder
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Frosty night air: below the wings a sight for weary eyes,
the river’s slender S, beckoning the bombers on.
City with no time for dressing up that night.
Witch on a broomstick, brewing glass, metal, asphalt, stone.
Bomb after polished bomb, tumbling from the bay,
tons of rubble fall into the mistress’s waiting lap.
‘This night is irredeemable.’ . . . Augustus’s pride and joy—
bright sandstone castle—phosphorus burns it black.
The skies of Spain alight and Guernica and Coventry.
Of the bella ante bellum—nothing left to see.
Say after me: it doesn’t take much to make
a moonscape of a city. Or charcoal of the folk
who lived there. Imagine this: in the time it takes
to nip out of the opera for a pack of fags
the streets were death traps, bubbling with tar.
Just now, frost, hands frozen blue on handlebars,
then the sea of houses was raked by desert winds.
Stiff as pharaohs in their winter coats they burned.
Never was a summer hotter. The last alarm
hardly faded—and the ashes were still warm.