Once he’d written them, he didn’t look back.
He moved on to plays and novels, for which he’s much better known. He didn’t write any more poems for decades.
Once he’d written them, he kept looking back.
He returned and revised and reworked. He’s looking back while writing, too. Thomas Bernhard’s poems are rooted in a place; the Austrian countryside where he and his ancestors were born, lived and died.
Bernhard starts as he means to go on; writing just a few years after the Second World War has ended, he wasn’t always too popular at home for his biting criticism of his country’s role in the rise of Nazism. Indeed he didn’t give permission for his work to be published in Austria at all until the copyright ran out, long after he’d died. For him, the whole landscape of his home is saturated with death.
Bernhard descends into despair, and the reader is drawn into it with him. There are flashes of colour in the darkness and madness, in the most unlikely combinations; a foretaste of the novels and plays to come.
James Reidel’s translation of all Bernhard’s Collected Poems is published by Seagull Books. My only quibble with this comprehensive edition is that I’d thought it would be bilingual, but when I found I had to get the German originals separately from elsewhere. Since the English collection runs to 500 pages as it is, however, I can see why the publishers made that decision. But I like to see both languages side by side, so I’ve put them next to each other for you here.