Featured review

Panther and Gazelle

By Paula Ludwig

Translated by Martina Thomson

Hearing Eye, 2012
2013 Number 2 - Between Clay and Star

The poems gain a power from being at unpredictable points on a gradient of darkness.

Review by Jen Calleja

My office phone has the name ‘ Goll ’ next to a red light that is sometimes on and sometimes off. When I noticed this name with its urgent red light for the first time a couple of weeks ago I daydreamed that Yvan Goll was on the line wanting to tell me the secrets of his affair with Paula Ludwig. Panther and Gazelle, translations of a selection of poems taken from Ludwig’s third collection Dem Dunklen Gott ( 1932 ) reveals some of these secrets. The poems articulate Ludwig’s feeling of being completely under Goll’s power, to the point of devastation: ‘darker than death is the one I love’ . 

Ludwig is very much an overlooked figure of German expressionism and the modernist movement. Born in Vorarlberg, Austria in 1900 before moving to Linz and then Breslau to live with her father, Ludwig led an unsettled and hard life. She was abandoned by the father of her baby son Siegfried when she was 16, and spent a number of years in domestic service. From Breslau (where she was a member of the Breslau Poetry School), she moved to Munich, then Berlin, while also moving between poetry and painting. The friends she made along the way included many more recognised writers and artists, among them Bertolt Brecht, Erika Mann and Klaus Mann (Thomas Mann’s eldest children), Waldemar Bonsels and Else Lasker-Schüler. 

It was while in Berlin that Ludwig met Yvan ( or Iwan ) Goll, the bilingual French-German Jewish poet who founded the magazine Surrealism, and whose volumes of poetry were illustrated by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georg Grosz. Their relationship began in 1931 and he would become the great love of her life; the ‘Dark God’ to whom this collection is largely directed and dedicated. He shuttled between Ludwig and his wife, the novelist and poet Claire Goll, before eventually abandoning Ludwig and going into exile in America. Ludwig moved to Ehrwald in Austria after some of her friends leant towards Nazism, eventually taking exile in Brazil in opposition to the regime. She returned to Germany thirteen years later an alcoholic, and spent many years homeless in Germany. Brecht in particular tried to support her writing once she returned, but her peak as a writer seemed to have passed. Her work was recognised with the Georg Trakl Prize in 1962 and she died in 1974.

On a first ‘listen’ the poems’ weighty, resentful sorrow is a shock. This sense of shock is transformed to admiration on careful reading; considered lines that push past the reactionary distress of a victim of love to the productive powers drawn from feelings of injustice. Her short and concise poems are the most affecting; as deep with meaning and as subtle as a sigh. The poem ‘Alas I fell’ is a question that quietly poses itself before quickly disappearing:

Alas I fell

into a rosebush.

Now I don’t know

what keeps me prisoner:

Is it the delicate thorns

or the wild scent of the roses.

Another poem ‘Don’t bring me farewell presents’ similarly poses her former lover a question as it simultaneously retreats from his kindness:

Don’t bring me farewell presents.

How could I hold them

in my hands

other than the farmer holds the golden fruit

he picked up from the ground

where lightning felled

his most glorious tree.

The poems gain a power from being at unpredictable points on a gradient of darkness. Some are angry and accusatory ( ‘Who catches a wild dove, | tames it, | and throws it back | into skies now alien?’ ), others plead eternally in vain with the figure of Goll who is supplanted by the reader ( ‘Oh you – | why must you deprive me | of the dark folds of your hands’ ). The blackest are almost like suicide notes:

Don’t look for me friends – 

radiant as I was yesterday

today I’m like the cloth

with which we cover the dead.

It is the death of the identity Ludwig had formed with Goll, along with the identity she had before him. Her being is wiped away or buried, her ‘ face lies under tears ’. In his leaving she has been reduced to herself, made passive and left without a purpose; her body becomes ‘nothing but an eye’. ‘When you left’ – a great example of this shrinking, redundant feeling – turns Ludwig’s feet into ‘two carrier pigeons | deprived of their message’, while ‘Now that I love you’ reveals an awareness even during their affair that she was losing her self, her reflection unrecognisable for ‘Eyes of love | no longer see themselves’. One of the greatest poems, however, is her righteously taunting ‘How terribly you’ll miss me, God’, in which flashes of strength alternate with the bile. Its power lies in its boldly mocking tone, and would have been a satisfying poem to end the book with:

You’ll rummage your heavens

hoping to find my eyes.

You’ll dash to pieces

the precious vessel of your solitude

but I shall not be there.

For I will hide myself

where you will not find me.

Translator Martina Thomson’s parents were friends of Ludwig’s and a dreamy watercolour by Ludwig of Martina and her brother appears at the back of the book. 

Three autograph poems accompanied by transcripts show the gentle approach Thomson has taken to make these poems have a natural sounding line. These reproductions of handwritten poems, along with illustrations Ludwig had produced at Goll’s request for the collection he wrote in response to Dem Dunklen Gott, help anchor the poems to Ludwig. They attest to the importance of keeping Ludwig’s spirit, artistic style and mother tongue the focus of the book. Thomson’s memories of Ludwig in her introduction ( that she would spill her coffee into her saucer to cool it and that she was ‘ not quite like a grown-up ’ ) hint teasingly at Ludwig’s engaging, restless character. 

Paula Ludwig seems to be slowly resurfacing as a writer, and this book is proof of her re-emergence. In 2004, the Vorarlberger Landesmuseum displayed a collection of her paintings accompanied by biographical material on her life and on the many poets, performers and artists she befriended. Essays are also beginning to emerge to correct her overlooked status. Interestingly, she has been paired with Claire Goll, perhaps in an attempt to pull these poets out from under Yvan Goll’s shadow. 

The first two stanzas of ‘ I am like the panther ’ sum up the feel of the collection:

I am like the panther

when she wakes from her sleep

and finds her mate gone. 

She runs back and forth 

on the riverbank 

till the sun goes down.

The poems are the product of this frantic running, the restless energy of despair transformed into something worthwhile and cathartic. This collection introduces readers to the darkly magical and melancholic poetry that falls from Ludwig’s pining body like petals being shed from a dying rose. From loss and crisis, sad beauty can blossom: ‘ Now the black berries of my death ripen in your hand ’.

Jen Calleja

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