Jesus und der Äser-weg

Und als wir gingen von dem toten Hund,
Von deßen Zähnen mild der Herr gesprochen,
Entführte er uns diesem Meeres-Sund
Den Berg empor, auf dem wir keuchend krochen.

Und da der Herr zuerst den Gipfel trat,
Und wir schon standen auf den letzten Sproßen,
Verwies er uns zu Füßen Pfad an Pfad
Und Wege, die im Sturm zur Fläche schoßen.

Doch einer war, den jeder sanft erfand,
Und leiser jeder sah zu Tale fließen.
Und als sich Jesus fragend umgewandt,
Da riefen wir und schrieen: Wähle diesen!

Er neigte nur das Haupt und ging voran,
Indes wir uns verzückten, daß wir lebten,
Von Luft berührt, die Grün in Grün zerrann,
Von Öl und Mandel, die vorüberschwebten.

Doch plötzlich bäumte sich vor unserem Lauf
Zermorschte Mauer und ein Tor inmitten.
Der Heiland stieß die dunkle Pforte auf
Und wartete, bis wir hindurchgeschritten.

Und da geschah, was uns die Augen schloß,
Was uns wie Stämme auf die Stelle pflanzte,
Denn greulich vor uns, wild verschlungen floß
Ein Strom von Aas, auf dem die Sonne tanzte.

Verbißene Ratten schwammen im Gezücht
Von Schlangen, halb von Schärfe angefreßen,
Verweste Reh und Esel und ein Licht
Von Pest und Fliegen drüber, unermeßen.

Ein schweflig Stinken, und so ohne Maß
Aufbrodelte aus den verruchten Lachen,
Daß wir uns beugten übers gelbe Gras
Und uns vor Ekel und vor Angst erbrachen.

Der Heiland aber hob sich auf und schrie
Und schrie zum Himmel, eifernd ohne Ende:
»Mein Gott und Vater, höre mich und wende
Dies Grauen von mir und begnade die!«

»Ich nannt mich Liebe und nun packt mich auch
Dies Würgen vor dem scheußlichsten
Gesetze, Ach, ich bin leerer als die letzte Metze
Und voller Öde wie ein eitler Gauch.«

»Mein Vater du, so du mein Vater bist,
Laß mich doch lieben dies verweste Wesen,
Laß mich im Aase dein Erbarmen lesen!
Ist das denn Liebe, wo noch Ekel ist?!«

Und siehe! Plötzlich brauste sein Gesicht
Von jenen Jagden, die wir alle kannten,
Und daß wir uns geblendet seitwärts wandten,
Verfing sich seinem Scheitel Licht um Licht.

Er neigte rasch sich nieder und vergrub
Die Hände ins verderbliche Geziefer,
Und ach, von Rosen ein Geruch, ein tiefer,
Von seiner Weiße sich erhub.

Er aber füllte seine Haare aus
Mit kleinem Aas und kränzte sich mit Schleichen,
Aus seinem Gürtel hingen hundert Leichen,
Von seiner Schulter Ratt und Fledermaus.

Und wie er so im dunklen Tage stand,
Brachen die Berge auf und Löwen weinten
An seinem Knie, und die zum Flug vereinten
Wildgänse brausten nieder unverwandt.

Vier dunkle Sonnen tanzten lind,
Ein breiter Strahl war da, der nicht versiegte.
Der Himmel barst. Und Gottes Taube wiegte
Begeistert sich im blauen Riesen-Wind.

Jesus and the Carrion Path

And as we walked away from the dead dog,
Of whose teeth the Lord spoke charitably,
He led us from the sea to the mountain,
Up which we dragged ourselves gasping for breath.

And the Lord stepped on the summit first,
And while we stood around on this last rung,
He pointed out path on path to the mountain’s foot,
Trails tearing down to the storm on the plain.

But there was one that we thought would be easy,
That all of us saw as gently flowing to the valley.
And when Jesus turned around to ask,
We called, we shouted out: Choose this one!

But he just bowed his head and went on ahead,
Meanwhile, we were happy just to be alive
From fresh air, the green running into green,
From olives and almonds floating past.

Then suddenly there reared up in our path
A crumbling wall, a dark door in the middle.
The Savior pushed it open and waited
Until every one of us had stepped through.

What happened was something that closed our eyes,
Something that planted us like trees in that place,
For before us flowed this horror, wild, serpentine,
A stream of carrion on which the sun danced.

Hard-bitten rats swam in this brood
Of snakes, of half-eaten decay,
Of rotting deer, donkeys, an aura above
Of pestilence and flies sky-high.

An inescapable sulfurous stench
Bubbled from those evil puddles of flesh,
Making us bend over in the yellow grass
And vomit out of fear and revulsion.

But the Savior held up his hand and cried
And cried passionately to heaven without end:
“My God, my Father, hear me and take
This horror from me and forgive them!

“I called myself Love and now I’m seized too
By this retching at the most unholy
Decrees, o, I am emptier than the last harlot,
More woeful than a cuckoo full of himself.

“You my Father, since you are my Father,
Let me live like one of these rotting creatures,
Teach of your mercy in their carcasses!
Can there still be love where there’s disgust?!”

And behold! His face burst into a sudden rage,
Which we well knew, for those hunted things,
And as we turned aside not to be blinded,
The light of his halo became lost in light.

He swiftly knelt down and plunged
His hands into that corruption,
And ah, a smell of roses, one more deep,
Rose from His utter whiteness.

Then he dressed his hair with dead meat,
Not much, and crowned himself with worms,
From his sash dangled a hundred corpses,
From his shoulders rats and bats.

And as he stood like this in the dwindling day,
The mountains burst open and lions wept
At his knee and wild geese, one in flight,
Came down in waves one after the other.

Four dark suns spun into a breeze.
There was a vast beam that never tapered.
The sky burst. And God’s dove lilted
Rapturously in this giant blue wind.

                                                    Franz Werfel
                                                    James Reidel, tr.


Wenn die Stunde saust,
Und die Frühe säumt,
Wacht der Schläfer schwer
Wie Ertrunkener auf.

Schlamm weilt auf der Stirn,
Und ins Haargewirr
Flechten Tang und Gras
Braunen Bettelkranz.

Und es ist ein Haus
Voll von Sang und Hall.
Lampe lebt in Rauch
Über Treppen hin.

Eine Mutter geht …
Und er weiß nicht wo,
Duft und Stimme wird
In der Höhe süß.

Doch ein Priester ernst
Schreitet in die Fern‘
Seinem Stabe nach,
Goldenem Vogelknauf.

Und Vestalin sitzt
Bei dem Flammentier,
Springt ein Wind herein,
Hütet sie den Schoß.

Wo der Tempelbau
Oben offen ist,
Schwebt ein Adler groß
Unterm Morgenmeer.

Und die Schläferstirn
Löset ein Gesang,
Und das Herze wächst
Mit der Flut des Nils.

Temple Dream

When the hour flies
And dawn’s overdue,
The sleeper wakes hard,
Like one pulled from water.

Mud lies on his brow,
And in his tangled hair
Seaweed and grass braid
A brown beggar’s wreathe.

And there’s a house
Full of song and echo.
A lamp alive in smoke
Above the steps.

A mother goes …
He knows not where.
Perfume and a voice
On high grows sweet.

A priest solemnly walks
Into the distance,
Following his staff,
Its golden bird knob.

And a vestal sits
By this beast aflame.
A wind springs up
And she tends to her skirt.

Where the temple
Is open above,
A great eagle soars
Beneath a sea of morning.

And the sleeper’s brow
Dissolves in a chant,
And the heart waxes
With the flood of the Nile.

                                   Franz Werfel
                                    James Reidel, tr.

In Conversation with James Reidel
TAR had the pleasure of speaking with James about Franz Werfel's life and poetry.

The Adirondack Review: Tell us about the Jesus poem with the rather gruesome title.

James Reidel: That poem is from Werfel’s 1915 book EinanderOne Another, Each to Each, take your pick—but it was likely written in April–May 1913, when Werfel and some other chaps from the editorial department of Kurt Wolff took a month-long vacation in the Italian resort town of Malcesine on Lake Garda. Werfel had just shepherded the publication of Georg Trakl’s first book and now returned to his own work, a
collection of hymns and odes.

TAR: The poem seems to have a holiday air to it, a working holiday given who this is about.

JR: Yes. I’ve not been to Lake Garda, of course, but Goethe has and many Central Europeans before and after him. The salubrious climate is one attraction … as are the breathtaking views and mountain walks. There are ruins, ancient fortifications, that kind of thing. It wouldn’t be hard for Werfel to imagine this poem in such a setting with his own friends following him. But bear in mind that the poet is writing a kind of gospel lesson here, one not found in the New Testament but rather in what is called the Agraphon, literally that which is not written.

TAR: That which is not written?

JR: Well, the parable is written in a number of places. Before Werfel there was Goethe, who, in turn, adapted it from the Persian poet Nizami, whose sources are from earlier Islamic legends about Jesus. After Werfel, the Greek poet Sikelianos writes his version too. So, plenty of reason not to sniff at this just because of its title. The poem caught my eye and I translated it a few years ago and put it away. I did not look at the two other versions I found. They tried to be true to the rhyme rather than the content, and the content, the parable, is what drives this poem.

TAR: How did it come up again?

JR: I was helping a friend identify a letter in the University of Pennsylvania’s Werfel collection. It was addressed to a “dear lady” who turned out to be Thea Sternheim. She was convalescing from surgery in May 1913, so Werfel sent her some poems, probably his new book Wir Sind (We Are/Exist). To be a “useful” foil for my friend, to test her theory, I suggested that Werfel might have sent new work to her since he was always looking for a good muse. Sternheim was, like Werfel, a Jew who had been educated at a Catholic school. She had a similar interest in seeing Christ outside of the New Testament and more himself.

TAR: Himself?

JR: Yes, more human, even metahuman, and Jewish and more palatable as such to modern Jews, a rebel and so an emblem for outsider thought in the early twentieth century. (You see, Werfel and some of his friends were living experiments in comparative religion, Theosophy, etcetera.) And this parable presents us with a kind of Sufi Christ, which picks up on ancient Hindu philosophy, of seeing beauty in corruption. I think Werfel also drew on a Baha’i text that adapted this Islamic Jesus legend. The commentary stops at the dog’s teeth and expresses the rather trite understanding that the dead dog’s teeth is this lesson for “when we direct our gaze toward other people.” Then we should “see where they excel, not where they fail.” Werfel seems to part ways with Abdu’l-Bahá and his epistle “O lover of humankind!” You see, Werfel’s poetry at the time, his reputation, cast him as one of these lovers, too. His first book is titled Der Weltfreund. But he means this ironically, too.

TAR: That it’s impossible to be a humanist?

JR: Impossible for Christ, too, perhaps, a kind of PETA Christ if you think about it. Did you know there is a moment in that first stanza that will remind you of Barfly? In the first few minutes of the film, where the Mickey Rourke character walks down the street and goes up to a car in which a dog is barking furiously at him and barring its teeth, to which he responds, “Beautiful!”

TAR: Now you’re double-dipping at the deep end of the allusion pool, but I can see it. PETA, Barfly

JR: Okay, mea culpa. But the Christ in this poem lapses from his love of mankind and sees it for what it is and what men are capable of. He does something to shock his disciples, something with the same shock value of the crucifixion—history’s greatest piece of performance art. It’s like Werfel is saying that we have only seen but a little of Christ’s repertoire. And this poem was written just a year before the First World War. Werfel being prescient again.

TAR: Prescient?

JR: Well, the same way he is in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. He comes so close to seeing—I prefer the word expecting—the death camps, the Holocaust in what happened to the Armenians. Here Christ becomes the god of death for but a flash, almost a subliminal flash, it’s filmic, that image of him with the belt of skulls. It’s as shocking as those Hindu paintings of Kali Ma wearing a necklace of beheaded enemies.

TAR: The other poem we’ve chosen is about religion, too, a far different faith.

JR: Yeah. He, Werfel, was very much interested in Akhenaton and he wrote a number of poems with these imagined Egyptian settings and ceremonies devoted to the worship of the sun. This poem, too, is from Einander and has its own ironies, I think. Here the grotesque is sublimated. As I translated this and knowing something about Werfel’s night life, it’s not hard to see him waking up here next to one of his favorite prostitutes. There is even that morning ritual for a man waking up, too, of micturition with that Nile flooding at the end. But is the Nile more a Danube?

TAR: A Danube?

JR: A friend of mine in Austria also told me to be mindful here of the Hapsburg symbolism—the eagle soaring in the poem. It being World War I. The forced ritual of old ways, an old regime, trying to stay awake like its old emperor. But I don’t think so, ultimately. I think here, again, you have Werfel’s method, like Christ’s, of finding shock and beauty. Both poems have birds at the end …

TAR: That is one reason for their juxtaposition here.

JR: It works.

Two Poems by Franz Werfel
Translated from the German by JAMES REIDEL

FRANZ WERFEL was born in Prague in 1890. His career spanned two world wars and his poetry, novels, and drama are part of world as well as German literature. He died in exile in Los Angeles in 1945.

JAMES REIDEL is a poet and writer. He recently finished revising and expanding Geoffrey Dunlop’s English translation of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which is Werfel’s longest novel, and he has translated Werfel’s shortest, Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand, both of which will be published together by David R. Godine in spring 2011.