May 13, 2022

"A Werldly Country: Ilse Aichinger's Prose Poems" | essay by Uljana Wolf || "Bad Words" and "Hemlin" | two short pieces by Ilse Aichinger

A Werldly Country: Ilse Aichinger’s Prose Poems

by Uljana Wolf


When Hans Werner Richter—initiator of the “Gruppe 47” meetings which helped shape much of Germany’s postwar literature—visited the young writer Ilse Aichinger in Vienna in 1952 to invite her for the next meeting in Niendorf at the Baltic Sea, another, younger woman was sitting shyly on the sofa. Her name was Ingeborg Bachmann, and Richter had never heard of her. After reading her poems a few days later, he promptly invited her, and—upon her request—extended the invitation to another rather unknown poet, “a friend of hers from Paris.” Thus, not only Ilse Aichinger but also Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan took part in the group’s next meeting, which—even though Celan’s reading of the Todesfuge was, according to its members, famously ill-conceived—stood for a paradigm shift away from neo-realist to more complex forms of literature. Yet while Bachmann and Celan have through numerous translations become known as two of the most important writers of postwar German poetry, Aichinger has remained somewhat drastically overlooked in the English-speaking world.

     Born in 1921, Ilse Aichinger survived the Second World War with her Jewish mother in Vienna. According to the Nuremberg Laws, her mother was protected as long as she lived in the same household with her minor daughter—a “first-degree half-breed.” Many of their relatives, including Aichinger’s beloved grandmother, were deported in 1942 and died in concentration camps. In 1945, Aichinger published the prose piece Das vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate) about the Jewish cemetery in Vienna; this text was the first to mention the Holocaust in Austrian literature. In 1948, the year that saw the appearance of Celan’s Der Sand aus den Urnen and the disappearing of “Third Man” Orson Welles in Vienna’s underground water tunnels, Aichinger’s first and only novel Die größere Hoffnung (The Greater Hope) was published by Bermann-Fischer/Querido-Verlag in Amsterdam. Portraying the life of Jewish and persecuted children in Nazi Vienna, the novel established Ilse Aichinger as a major figure in postwar writing, and the literary critic Richard Reichensperger noted, without exaggeration, that “Ilse Aichinger is the beginning of postwar Austrian literature.”

     Back to the 1952 meeting: At the end of the readings, Aichinger was awarded the “Gruppe 47” prize for her Spiegelgeschichte (Story in a Mirror), a narration of a woman’s life from death onwards, backwards, which earned her the somewhat problematic nickname “Fräulein Kafka.” In an earlier piece, Aichinger had proclaimed that the only possible way of narration that was left was “from the end and towards the end”—the experience of fear, death and nearly complete destruction became the starting point for a new narration, a new kind of writing.

     One year earlier, in his 1951 acceptance speech for the Bremer Literature Prize, Paul Celan had said: “It, the language, remained un-lost, yes, in spite of all. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through dreadful silencing, pass through the thousand darknesses of lethal discourse. It passed through and gave no words away for what happened. Passed through and was allowed to surface again, enriched by all this.” Both Celan and Aichinger experienced this process of “Sprachwerdung” as a strong and irreversible estrangement and foreignization of and in their languages. At the end of the 1960s, Aichinger started to work on short prose pieces that can only be described as long prose poems marked by a radical poetics of resistance and an unassuming, often startling beauty. The prelude to this most interesting part of her work is the 1967 text My Language and I, beginning with the words: “My language is one that tends toward foreign words. I choose them, I retrieve them from far away. But it is a small language. It doesn’t reach far. All around, all around me, always all around and so forth. We advance against our will. To hell with us, I sometimes say to it.” The story that follows describes an absurd picnic with “my language” as a real presence that refuses to talk to the narrator, constantly loses things, and prefers “cold food rather than hot.”

     Surprisingly though, the words used here are not very foreign. Foreignness, rather, seems to be a fundamental relation between self and language that enables another kind of speaking, one that bears witness to the “silencing” without falling into silence itself, and which instead functions as a constant documentation of falling, and failing: “Writing is learning to die,” Aichinger noted elsewhere. To get the attention of her estranged and seemingly disinterested language, the narrator constantly takes up a knife and lets it fall from a high distance onto a plate. Foreignness here is also a site—a picnic that takes place near the border-crossing station of another country. “The fourth country has ended, I shouted in its ear, the fifth is already over there,” is how the narrator tries to choose a spot for the picnic. Yet the agents of domestication, in this case “customs officers,” always loom in the background. In pushing these literal and literary boundaries, Aichinger’s writing takes up civic responsibility by refusing to accept old notions of the self and the body, or of language, power and bebest words,” as the title-text proclaims. The style of these texts is matter-of-fact, yet they offer neither facts nor matters in ways we’re used to. Doubt is the only certainty, and the focus is always on minor things or second-best objects—stains, balconies, “apple-rice.” The protagonists of those pieces—the drooling ones, the lost ones, the weak ones, “prompters and opera glass manufacturers”—are Beckett’s heros, turned Austrian.

     Aichinger’s constant effort to remain incorruptible and uncompromising toward herself and the reader, and her wish to leave behind false promises about the coherence of the world and its “better words” lead to a language deploying only “bad words”—bad because they have been stripped off their misleading certainties, opinions and ideologies. It is through the deployment of carefully chosen “inexact” words that Aichinger enables her language to survive and reinvent itself over and over again: “Werld would be better than world. Less useful, less skilled.” Language, foreignized by its will to be radically inadequate—only to reclaim it for the purposes of poetry.




Bad Words

by Ilse Aichinger


I now no longer use better words. The rain which pounds against the windows. Previously something completely different would have occurred to me. That’s over now. The rain which pounds against the windows. That’s sufficient. By the way I just had another expression on the tip of my tongue, it wasn’t only better, it was more precise, but I forgot it, while the rain was pounding against the windows or was doing what I was about to forget.

     I am not very curious about what will occur to me during the next rain, whether light or heavy, but I suppose one turn of phrase will suffice for all types of rain. I won’t care whether one can say pound when it only gently touches the window panes, whether that wouldn’t be saying too much. Or too little, when it is about to shatter the panes. I’ll leave it at that now, I’ll stick with pound, the rest is for others to care about.

     To drag the downfall in front of oneself, this also occurred to me, it’s certainly even more indefensible than pounding rain, because you don’t drag something in front of you, you shove it or push it, carts for example or wheel chairs, while other things such as potato sacks are dragged behind—other things, certainly not downfalls, those are transported differently. I know this, and again the better phrase was just on the tip of my tongue, only to escape me. I don’t mourn its loss. To drag the downfall in front of oneself, or better the downfalls, I won’t insist on this, but I’ll stick to it. Whether one can say I decide on it is questionable. Up to now standard usage doesn’t allow for a decision where merely a possibility is at stake. One could discuss it, but I’m fed up with these discussions––mostly held in taxis on the way out of the city––and I make do with my indefensible expressions.

     Of course I won’t be able to use them, but I pity them just as I pity stage prompters and opera glass manufacturers—I’m beginning to have a weak spot for the second and third best, in front of which the best hides quite shrewdly, if only with regard to the fourth best, since to the audience it shows itself often. You can’t resent it for that, the audience expects it after all, the best has no choice. Or has it? With regard to the audience couldn’t it hide, and show its face instead to the weaker possibilities? One has to wait and see. There are enough adequate rules––things that are hard to learn––and if I’m relying on the inadequate, that’s my problem.

     I’ve also become cautious about making connections. I don’t say while the rain pounds against the windows we are dragging the downfalls in front of us, but I say the rain which pounds against the windows and to drag the downfalls in front of oneself and so forth. No one can demand that I make connections as long as they’re avoidable. I’m not indiscriminate like life, a better designation for which also just escaped me. Let it be called life, perhaps it doesn’t deserve better. Living is not a special word and neither is dying. Both are indefensible, they disguise instead of define. Perhaps I know why. Defining is close to undermining and it exposes one to the grip of dreams. But I don’t have to know that. I can avoid it, I can very easily avoid it. I can stand aside. Certainly I could say living to myself so often I’d get sick of it and would be forced to switch to another expression. And dying even more often. But I don’t. I reduce and observe, this keeps me busy enough. I also listen, but this has certain dangers. One can easily be subject to ideas. Recently it was said, collect the downfall, it sounded like a command. I wouldn’t want that. If it were a request, one could consider it, but commands frighten me. That’s also why I switched to the second best. The best is commanded. That’s why. I don’t let myself be frightened anymore, I’ve had enough of that. And even more of my ideas, which aren’t mine anyway, because if they were they’d have a different name. Perhaps my errors, but not my ideas. Oh well, it doesn’t matter what they’re called. We’ve experienced this often enough. Very few can defend themselves. They come into the world and are immediately surrounded by everything that is insufficient to surround them. Before they can turn their heads, and beginning with their own name, incorrect designations are imposed upon them. You can see this already in lullabies. Later it’s even worse. And I? I could defend myself. I could easily keep track of the best instead of the second best, but I don’t. I don’t want to attract attention, instead I like to quietly blend in. I observe. I observe how each and every thing is given its sudden and incorrect name, lately I even join in. But the difference is: I know what I’m doing. I know that the world is worse than its name and that therefore its name is also a bad one.

     Collect the downfall––this sounds too good to me. Too sharp, too precise, too much like late bird calls, and a better name for pure truth than pure truth is. I could attract attention with that, I could be lifted from my humble position in the ranks of namers, which I worked so long and hard to attain, and lose my observation post. No, I won’t do that. I’ll stick with my rain pounding against the windows, close to oft-quoted old wives’ tales––and so if downfalls, then those you drag in front of yourself. This last part is almost too precise, perhaps one should leave downfalls out of the picture altogether. They’re too close to what they stand for, silent decoys circling around the norm. Norm is good, norm is in any case inexact enough, norm and the rain which pounds, all first and all last names, it goes on forever, and you remain the silent observer you want to be, watched approvingly from one direction or the other, while you leave your hands in your pockets and the downfalls to themselves, leave them out, leave them be, that is good. To leave be, again, is almost too good, absurdly good, no, get rid of the downfalls, they attract unwanted precision and do not occur in lullabies.

     The rain which pounds against the windows, here it goes again, we’ll leave it, it leaves everything in its imprecise radius, we’ll stick with it, so that we will remain we, so that everything remains what it is not, from the weather to the angels.

     So this is one way to live and one way to die, and those who think this is not imprecise enough can just continue on in this way. There will be no limits for them.


Translated from the German by Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey




by Ilse Aichinger


Come on down, Hemlin, guess what I have for you. Come down further. You’ll never guess. Just don’t disappear behind your humble figure, you don’t need to do that, let it come to a stop. Let it come to a stop, I say, don’t drag. One of your feet always lags behind. Do you understand me? No idea, but I think you are muttering against the sun, you’re becoming stubborn, that leads to nothing, doesn’t lead, right? While you’re at it, bring me a basket of soap Hemlin! There he goes.

     Hemlin in the state of Jackson has a red-haired population, it never snows there. Hemlin can’t be traced back to an estate; it evolved with its citizens. Hemlin owes its openness to its careful fishing industry, Hemlin will be the pride of its descendents, it has few short-term inhabitants.

     Hemlin was sketched by Veronese. She stands facing the window, amidst her maids. She seems to be listening, trying to distinguish the sounds of the morning, and contemplating her own absence before she departs. Her right arm is angled, the hand slightly raised. The maids appear busy, almost afraid. Far behind them a door stands open. The maids, the door, Hemlin, nothing other than the sketch is known. Veronese didn’t execute the painting, presumably he declined the commission after this sketch.

     Hemlin is a letterhead. With an address, P.O.B., the usual, no bad address. Also no effort. The printing is unassuming, it doesn’t jump out at you. Before they came to this trade the ocean wind had stiffened the heads of the predecessors. A clear thing, reliable. The pride of the young apprentices is obvious. I come from Hemlin. They like to run errands. That’s understandable.

Hemlin, a kind of unreasonable joy due to occasions which are in themselves reasonable. Well-known characteristic signs are found principally at the northeast or more precisely east coasts. Birdlike laughter, spilling growth, the joy to speak through one’s teeth and so forth. All this, described to the point of tedium even before Lawrence, has its origin in the human inclination to underestimate occasions. These underestimated occasions grow secretly, then break out. We’ll spare ourselves sources here.

     Hemlin, Hemlin, where are you. Come on Hemlin, they are drowning you, the sources are growing.

     Hemlin must be a monument, round, makes trouble.



Translated from the German by Uljana Wolf



Reprinted from The Poetry Project Newsletter (March/April 2010). Copyright ©2010 by Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey.

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