Reading the introduction to German poet Uljana Wolf’s “Method Acting mit Anna O.,” a series of prose-poetic riffs on the words of a “hysterical” psychoanalytic patient who forgot her own German for a time, I come across the word “Aberzählen.” Momentarily forgetting my own German prefixes, I see a new mashup of “aber” (“but”) and most of “erzählen” (“to narrate”). Knowing Wolf’s penchant for neologism, code-switching, and pun, I wonder if this anti-telling is intentional, before the poet explains to me that this is simply “Ab-erzählen,” a no-longer-used term for free association, or “telling off” from the expected storyline. We are sitting in a café in Berlin’s Neukölln district, where Wolf’s preschool-age daughter has somehow found a graphic novel on Hemingway and Sartre, and her husband Christian Hawkey works nearby. Both of them teach poetry and translation at New York’s Pratt Institute, while Wolf also teaches German-language courses at NYU. True to her continuous contesting of language-borders, the poet divides her time between Brooklyn and Berlin. Most often she works at thresholds between German and English, which “makes the reader slippery, too,” as she puts it, referring to my misreading of an archaic word.
Wolf grew up in a utilitarian Plattbau tenement in the suburbs of East Berlin, where her parents still live. During her childhood, both her mother and father studied in the Soviet Union, and she started learning Russian in third grade. Ten years old when the Wall fell, Wolf has witnessed her life in words from a very young age. She participated in young people’s writing workshops amid what she calls “invisible immigration,” in a time when “everything changed except for language and place.” This “deterritorializing” experience has given Wolf the perspective she brings to her work now, teaching summer writing workshops to children and adults in diverse German communities, where she is very aware of the “power dynamics, hierarchies, silences and gaps” of multilinguality. Her own background as a native German speaker who has learned additional languages (the “mono-multilingual European paradigm”) inevitably meets other paradigms, such as the “more post-colonial” language relationships she finds that Indian and Middle Eastern students bring to the classroom, and the experiences of students who may not even have a singular mother tongue. The challenge for Wolf is to teach inclusively, without laying down her own European viewpoint as the “matrix through which to think language.”
Wolf’s first book engaged with German and Polish, the result of her study in Krakow and reclaiming of family history in Silesia. She had already begun her first experiments in translation/adaptation (the German word “Nachdichtung” literally means “after-poetry”) around 2000, while involved with young Polish writers in Berlin. Her first exophonic book was a foundational moment for her, feeding her later projects that open and explore spaces between German and English. Her 2009 book falsche freunde (Kookbooks), translated two years later by Susan Bernofsky for Ugly Duckling Press as False Friends: a DICHTionary of false friends, true cognates and other cousins, plays on the problem of German-English homophones such as “Gift”/“gift,” with can mean either present or poison, depending on which language you inhabit at the moment. Rather than simply sending words out to echo and elude each other, however, the book’s first section limits its prose poems to the bottom of each page, allowing white space to dominate; each small “Aberzählung” follows threads of human friendship and falseness, as well as mediated references to film, existing poetry, and cliché. The book continues with alternative translations of these poems by poets such as Eugene Ostashevsky, Pam Dick, and Uwe Weiss, aka Paul Legault, who translated one poem into a case of misreading in dialogue form. A nod to Paul Celan and his postwar breakage of the poisoned German language leads to this meditation on what’s left:
x marks the spot, like nowhere and its ex-foliage: a hole we touch our fingers to in remembrance of these toxins: counterwords and the nothing beyond.
In the translated text, “counter-“” is split at the margin, leaving an ambiguous gap where the hyphen may or may not be intentional.
Wolf has continued working with such slippery lacunae; her 2013 collection meine schönste lengevitch includes a series of poems on lace-making or knot-making, with literal lace images and white-space gaps on the page, along with metaphorical play like this (a slip into English in the mostly-German text, which itself comes from the Latin word for “web”):
the women tattled the shuttles rattled their teeth
what did they tattle about what did they need etc.
Reading this piece the first time, I couldn’t help but write in “needle” after the last word, riffing on what Wolf had started with her tattered, tatting women – one of whom is Anna O. of the book’s previous series, a patient whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim and who collected lace amid her mind-gaps and later became a women’s rights activist in the early twentieth century. The black-and-white images Wolf includes add a loosely ekphrastic dimension to the words that meet them on the page. The images themselves appear cut and pasted from pattern books. Some show women’s hands arrested in the act of looping or threading; others isolate a picture of a knitting needle or show lace fragments themselves, in this case with a tiny, hard-to-read label that reads, “Pine Pattern Collar in Tatting”:
In a cross-disciplinary convergence, American harpist and improvisational composer Zeena Parkins is currently working with Shetland lace patterns, transforming them into new forms of musical notation that release surprisingly vigorous, repetitive sounds from harp strings, piano hammers, and cymbals in a project initially commissioned by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. If Parkins’ ongoing LACE project sounds against expectations of delicacy and softness in Victorian-era fabric, Wolf’s poetic response makes the personal political in sounding Anna’s voice. One aim of this collection is to contest Freud’s patriarchal dismissal of “women’s handiwork”; Wolf lets images of fretwork and opening speak to broader questions of language and identity as well. In a footnote to her “Annalogs,” Wolf notes Freud’s own metaphorical response to what he belittled, in his take on the Biblical “eye of the needle” camel analogy. In our conversation, Wolf tests the analogy herself, saying, “I am always trying to get through the eye of the needle, of the monolingual nation-state,” thinking of received notions of identity and education in Germany, as generations of immigrants and the current influx of refugees continue to enrich the culture. Wolf encounters many writers for whom no one language is more native than another.
The title of Wolf’s collection meine schönste lengevitch refers to a another take on mono-multilingual culture, but one meant to ridicule: Kurt M. Stein’s 1925 book poking fun at German-American code-switching and mispronunciation. “Lengevitch” is a transliteration of a fictional German immigrant’s effort to say “language” in English. Wolf takes this problematic text as a starting point, also drawing on Gertrude Stein’s wordplay and Nelly Sachs’ pained investigations of the German idea of “Heimat” or “homeland.” Though she does not intentionally engage Heidegger’s obsession with etymology as a reflection of nationalist “rootedness,” Wolf chooses some of his preferred German words (such as “bauen,” “to build,” which he relates to Old High German “buan,” or “to live”) to play with and against, far more aware than the Nazi philosopher was that etymology is, as she puts it, “a form of fiction.” Wolf reads and writes more in dialogue with Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose nineteenth-century theory of translation holds that the language of the translator should be “bent towards an alien likeness and with such foreignness enrich the receiving language.” As committed as she is to contesting borders and teasing apart the idea of “roots” in her own work, Wolf is well aware she has her own, in German, and that if anything she is “post-monolingual.” Working with images of whiteness and veiledness, she makes sly reference to “mr. veilmaker” (Schleiermacher) in the poem “Doppelgeherede” (“Double-going speech,” if attempted as literal translation, or what Sophie Seita calls “Double Drivel Speech”), which also refers to “mrs. stein” and her buttons, in its playful narrative of language-twins and their shadows, Doppelgänger-words springing onto white space without apparent roots.
Translating Wolf requires dual sensitivity to German and to the English slippages that bring her texts to multilingual life. Sophie Seita’s 2015 translation of Wolf’s “Anna O.” series takes on its own title from within the text: “i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where,” these broken lines running from the back of the chapbook-style cover to the front. Syntactically, “to where” could mean direction or action, a “wh”-word turned verb. In English as inflected with German as Wolf’s source text is in the reverse, Seita’s language-license turns each “annalogue” into an equally slippery mindscape. Each translation mirrors Wolf’s text visually, with a prose poem on the left page and largely white-space, floating text on the right. Since Wolf’s language already incorporates English, Seita keeps those lines while approximating the German language-play with earthy Anglo-Saxon syllables: “oh such recognizing work,” Wolf’s prose poem “annalog von den blumen” begins, “sie sagen überschuss, ich sage bluterguss, blütenstuss. sie fluffen kissen auf, ich hisse: what can all that green stuff be?” Here is Seita’s version, which keeps Wolf’s de-hierarchized letters: “oh such recognizing work. they say surplus, i say bloody overplus, blossom guff, they ruffle and puff up pillows, i hiss: what can all this green stuff be?” The result is that the music of both languages sound more similar than might be expected; it is not so hard to imagine Anna O. sliding with frightening ease between them. A word like “guff” (which means trivial talk) is used so rarely, it might be made up. Although this prose-poetic fantasia is narrated by an Austrian psychoanalytic patient who forgot her native language for a time, that language was German. When she riffs on oranges and flowers and the world’s end in English, with some German slipping through the lace-gaps of her mind, the reader’s experience may actually come closer to the “real” Annalog voice than in Wolf’s lengevitch edition. Readers of Seita’s translation can look forward to a larger selection, Subsisters: Selected Poems, forthcoming later in 2017 from Belladonna Press.
The gaps and thresholds of young children’s speech have also found their way into Wolf’s work, partly the result of listening to her own daughter and partly through her experience teaching writing to children – a difficult task, she acknowledges, though she has found “false friend” exercises helpful. The last section of meine schönste lengevitch is called “Babeltrack” and consists of prose-poem notes from the “archipelago” of parenting, a landscape of ever-opening territory. This is language that asks to be read aloud, its wordplay intensively sound-dependent, as Wolf enters the gap where the tongue can go walking, where “key-trees” of language grow, without the capitalized nouns of conventional German:
ein garten für die zunge zum spazieren, winzige schlüsselblumen zur sprache, laute, unlocked
In an earlier section of the book, Wolf refers to a “gap garden,” a nod to the essays of the German-American poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop, whose 2016 selected-poetry collection, Gap Gardening, is named after a term developed in earlier essays and which also explores language-boundaries in political context; Waldrop’s father was active in the Nazi party, and she is committed to disrupting syntactic systems and perspectives that hold hegemonic weight. Here in the younger poet Uljana Wolf’s stretching lace, in her expanding string of familial islands, in the tongue’s guerilla garden, poetry points out the places where monolingual identification breaks down. At a time when back-to-roots bluster is giving racist groups surprising power on both sides of the Atlantic, Wolf’s work takes on new urgency in speaking for nomadic speech. The result can be strange, floating lines or scrambled homophones, tatters that make readers want to see how they might fit together – or might not. I draw my own slippery lines inside the book. I lean in to listen. When Wolf tells me, “multilingual writing is also failure, falseness, falling …” I hear this as good news.
Heidi Hart is a Pushcart Prize-winning poet who holds a doctorate in German Studies (literature and music) from Duke University. She currently teaches a course on music and politics at Utah State University and is preparing a book on Hanns Eisler's art songs for publication with Camden House. She has also published articles on contemporary opera and music in environmental film.