My Blue Piano

At home I have a blue piano.

But I can't play a note.

It's been in the shadow of the cellar door

Ever since the world went rotten.

Four starry hands play harmonies.

The Woman in the Moon sang in her boat.

Now only rats dance to the clanks.

The keyboard is in bits.

I weep for what is blue. Is dead.

Sweet angels, I have eaten

Such bitter bread. Push open

The door of heaven. For me, for now --

Although I am still alive --

Although it is not allowed.

Else Lasker-Schuler

In her moving and essential new book, After Every War, the Irish poet Eavan Boland has gathered together and translated the work of nine German-speaking women poets, all of whom wrote in the decades surrounding World War II. The title comes from the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who notices with a kind of wry domestic wisdom that "After every war somebody must clean up."

The poets in this collection recognize the hard personal truths -- the intimate consequences -- of warfare. They are both witnesses and participants. Some of them I've known and admired for years, such as Nelly Sachs (1891-1970), Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) and Else Lasker-Schuler (1869-1945), whom her friend Gottfried Benn called "the greatest lyric poet Germany ever had." Others are revelations to me, such as Elisabeth Langgasser (1899-1951), who is represented by a single devastating poem ("Spring 1946"), and Rose Auslander (1901-1988), who sounds the ground note for the book with her poem "Motherland":

My Fatherland is dead.

They buried it

in fire

I live

in my Motherland --

Word

These poets -- the others are Gertrud Kolmar (1894-1943), Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-1974), Hilde Domin (1909- ) and Dagmar Nick (1926- ) -- were all deeply shaped by the cataclysm of World War II. Boland has chosen a small but crucial selection of their overall work, a kind of personal anthology, that shows them to be war poets with a difference. The difference comes from being both poets and women, with all that entails.

"I had to do it -- suddenly, I had to sing./ I had no idea why," Else Lasker-Schuler cries out in her poem "In the Evening": "But when the evening came I wept. I wept bitterly."

These poets have a particular angle of witness that comes from powerlessness, from being vulnerable, injured, marginal, excluded. Most were exiles. Several of them were Jewish, which means they suffered the Holocaust. Dispossession is a key theme. They recognized what they had lost. "I am one who cannot live among my own kind," Bachmann declares in "Exile." "A stranger/ always carries/ his native land in his arms," Nelly Sachs observes in "If Someone Comes."

Here is Hilde Domin's "Exile":

The mouth dying

The mouth twisted

The mouth trying

to say the word right

in a strange language.

There is something deeply compelling, as Boland puts it, "in the way the world of the public poet encounters the hidden life of the woman in these poems." The interplay is endlessly fascinating. I'm struck by the personal way these poets confront history, test and interrogate language, especially their mother tongue, question the efficacy of poetry, and repeatedly defend the importance of private feeling. They are dark elegists who view large historical events through a focused individual lens. Their voices seem to me as necessary today as when they wrote in the aftermath of World War II.

Here is Rose Auslander's transfiguring elegy for her mother, "My Nightingale," which now takes its place, along with Else Lasker-Schuler's "My Blue Piano," on my shortlist of the most radiant mid-20th century poems.

My Nightingale

My mother was a doe in another time.

Her honey-brown eyes

and her loveliness

survive from that moment.

Here she was --

half an angel and half humankind --

the center was mother.

When I asked her once what she would have wanted to be

she made this answer to me: a nightingale.

Now she is a nightingale.

Every night, night after night, I hear her

in the garden of my sleepless dream.

She is singing the Zion of her ancestors.

She is singing the long-ago Austria.

She is singing the hills and beech-woods

of Bukowina.

My nightingale

sings lullabies to me

night after night

in the garden of my sleepless dream.

(All quotations are from "After Every War: Twentieth-Century Women Poets." Translations from the German by Eavan Boland. Princeton Univ. Press. Copyright © 2004 by Eavan Boland.)