This is a draft of one section of a collection of translations of German dada poets.
I begin with Emmy Hennings whose poetry is richly suffused with a tone that goes far to explain the origins of dada. She establishes a mood that was persist in German theater for decades. In her poems a malaise, a conviction of some intolerable derangement in things is linked with a nearly desperate eroticism, yet expressed with redemptive poise and precision. She does use rhyme and meter which I have respected, though I did not always preserve her form exactly.
Emmy Hennings met Hugo Ball, whom she later married, at the Cabaret Simplizissimus in Munich where she was performing in 1913. She had already published a number of poems in avant-garde and leftist journals as well as cultivated her skills as a performance and cabaret artist. Though much of her work was ephemeral songs, dances, and recitations of which we have only the barest record, she also published a volume of poetry entitled Die Letzte Freude in which the following texts first appeared.
As a performer she engaged in dada acts of provocation, but also acted (in the German premiere of Andreev’s The Life of a Man, for instance), danced, sang, and presented puppet shows. She was called “The shining star of the Voltaire” in the Zuricher Post and Ball always said she was a fully responsible collaborator. After the Café Voltaire closed, she and Ball worked together under the name Arabella, appearing in hotels and restaurants.
She took risks, agitating for revolution and forging documents for draft dodgers (for which she received a brief prison sentence). She worked for a time as a prostitute and her one surviving child was brought up by her mother.
Her work expresses the malaise of the era and the Bohemian reaction, heavy with dread yet scintillating with spirit and extravagance. The “Twilight Song” with its ambiguous ending, critiques Wagner while expressing the horror and, to use a more contemporary term, “belatedness” of the twentieth century. Many of her lyrics seem in a way the bohemian counterpoint to George Grosz’s scenes of bestial carnality among the ruling class. With the world disintegrating, she, too grasps after some version of love. Neither her memoir of dada Das Brandmal: Ein Tagebuch nor her autobiography Ruf und Echo has been translated into English.
In a statement rich with historical ironies, Johannes Becher, the Expressionist and Spartacist who later became a Stalinist apparatchik and repressed the same radical artists and intellectuals whose milieu had once been his own, wrote “It was in Munich, at the Café Stefanie, Where I recited for you, Emmy, poems that I dared tell only you."
for Hugo Ball
Octaves reel, and through the grey years -- echoes
as heaps of days collapse upon themselves.
I want only to be yours.
Within my tomb my blond hair grows;
in elderberry bushes live strange folk.
A pale curtain whispers “homicide.”
Two eyes range restless through the room,
inside our cupboards spirits hide.
Little fir trees are the children’s souls
and ancient oaks the souls of aged men
that whisper of miscarried lives.
The cliff-king sings an old, old tune.
I had no guard against the evil eye,
Though black men creep out of the water pail,
The picture book’s Red Riding Hood
Has me in thrall for once and for all time.
Pardon! I must jump off this ball;
in Paris a beautiful festival reigns.
Crowds collect in the Gare de l'Est
where bright silk banners wave as well.
You won’t find me among them, though.
I’ve run off to this vast big room.
I mix myself in every dream,
a thousand looks and each I know.
A sick man lies in misery.
His last look hypnotizes me.
We long to go back to some lost summer day.
A black cross fills the room.
After the Cabaret
I see the early morning sun
At five a.m. I homeward stroll.
The lights still burn in my hotel.
The cabaret is finally done.
In shadows children hunker down.
The farmers bring their goods to town.
You go to church, silent and old
grave sound of church-bells in the air,
and then a girl with untamed hair
wanders up all blear and cold:
“Love me, free of every sin.
Look, I’ve kept watch many nights .”
To you it’s like I’m marked, my name
just one on the list of the dead.
Too gone to sin in many ways,
I slowly drag through life’s old game,
anxiety in every stride.
My very heartbeat’s sick,
and it grows weaker day by day.
The angel of death now stands inside.
I dance until I’m out of breath --
I’ll soon be in my grave --
I know I’ll have no lover then --
so kiss me until death.
And nighttime when there is no light
and pictures fall right off the walls,
then someone laughs so big and bright
Someone’s long hands grab for me
And then a lady with green hair
who looks at me so very sad --
she was once a mother she swears.
She cannot bear the weight of pain
(I press the thorns into my heart
and then stop full of peace,
and I will suffer every hurt
it’s what is asked of me.)