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'Star' showcases brilliant diction, wordplay

Else Lasker-Schüler lived through arguably the most turbulent period in human history, through World War I and World War II as a German Jew.

A new translation of her poetry from Holy Cow! Press, "Star in My Forehead," translated by California psychiatrist Dr. Janine Canan, sheds light onto the poems and the poet.

The 122-page volume contains 40 poems, the original German text side-by-side with the translation, along with an interesting introduction outlining a short biography of Lasker-Schüler and a few pages of translator's notes. I found these particularly interesting, because translating is an art unto itself.

This is particularly the case in poetry, where everything depends on the language: While one might translate a piece of prose, say this book review, into another language striving only for accuracy to the content of its words, poetry is as much about how something is said as what is said. If you, for example, take opening lines of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ("Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village though ....") and rewrite them just any old way: "I'm not sure, but I think the individual who owns this wooded area to my right/lives back there in the village somewhere ...." Without the rhythm, the rhyme and the syntax, the poetry is gone, even with meaning intact.

So translators of poetry must translate poetically, a tough balancing act, and there are many approaches. Canan's notes illuminate the difficulties of translating this author, which I think gives readers an idea what to look for in the book itself. Lasker-Schüler wrote in German, a close cousin of English, which helps. However, Canan writes that Lasker-Schüler writes with "a simple song-like rhyme" and notes the difficulty in keeping this rhyme, along with rhythm and meaning, and putting it into readable English.

While previous Lasker-Schüler translations have either focused on the historical significance of the works or sought for literal accuracy at the expense of art, writes Canan, she describes her translation, somewhat enigmatically, as attempting to offer "the essential core -- the heart -- of Else Lasker-Schüler's lyric legacy." I take that to mean combining all these approaches.

Despite being more than 50 (and in some cases more than 100) years old, this work is very contemporary. The poems are frequently "organic" rather than literal, and have to be puzzled out or intuited at. In some cases, this was difficult.

I think part of this also has to do with the poet's fascination with art. She was an artist herself and a contemporary with the Expressionists. The images in her poetry are truly visual, filled with color. Often, these must be pieced together and imagined before the poem starts to come clear.

In the English translation, the lines of these poems do not end-rhyme, nor are they written to a metrical form. However, as free verse they contain a great deal of internal rhyme, alliteration and consonance.

Most impressive, however, is the word choice. Lasker-Schüler takes your breath away at times, stops your eyes and ears in their tracks. The diction is both innovative and economical. In "Shulamite," one line talks about "my deep cedar dream," just four (translated) words that immediately resonate. In "Autumn," Lasker-Schüler notes, "Hate imprisons, however high the torch blazes," a fine capsulation of a powerful idea.

The poems are filled with little bits of magic like these. From what little German I could put together, it seems this brilliance comes mostly from the poet.

There is a distinct choppiness to Lasker-Schüler's rhythms, carried over in the translation. Lines and strophes are short, and frequently end-stopped. There is little enjambment. Even grammatically, either the translator or the poet is fond, sometimes overly so, of sentence fragments.

This clipped feel enhances the poetic effect, I think, scattering images like splotches of color that seem disconnected until they finally click into synch with each other.

In light of the emotional depths in this poetry, I think it's a perfectly suitable style. The complexity -- poems here reflect passionate love, the pain of war, approaching death -- does not always lend itself to literal, logical expression. The more organic approach is one of the things poetry does ever so much better than prose.

Among my favorites in this volume are "Love" ("Through our sleep/a fine breeze rustles its silk --like buds throbbing open/above us both") and "Night Secret" ("Our lips long to make honey ...."). Another is "Homesick," which captures so perfectly the disconnectedness we feel in a foreign place. And there are several others -- "Autumn," "I Know," "The Old Temple in Prague" and more.

In parts, I'll admit it, I was over my head. Some of the ethnic references are foreign to me, and the style can be confusing. However, if expert diction and image-rich poetry is fun for you, you'll find plenty of enjoyment in "Star in My Forehead."

REVIEW

The book: "Star in My Forehead," Holy Cow! Press, 2000.

Author: Else Lasker-Schüler

Translator: Janine Canan

ISBN: 0-930100-88-3

Cost: $12.95

Recommendation: There is some really fine poetry in this volume -- stunning leaps of thought and gorgeous words, all credits to author and translator. Some of it's a little confusing, though.

Kyle Eller is the Budgeteer book reviewer. Submit your books for review to him in care of the Budgeteer News, 222 West Second Street, Duluth, Minn. 55802. To talk books, call him at (218) 723-1207 or send e-mail to kyle.eller@duluth.com.

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