Darkness Spoken by Ingeborg Bachmann

Darkness Spoken: The Collected Poems
Ingeborg Bachmann, Peter Filkins (Trans.)
Zephyr Press, 2006
ISBN 0939010844



The shelves sag.
The volumes are weighted down with the past.
Their sweat is dust.
Their impulse is rigidity.
They no longer struggle.
They have saved themselves
upon the island of knowledge.
Sometimes they’ve lost their conscience.
Here and there, protruding
from them, human fingers
point directly towards life
or towards heaven.



Early in the morning, when
fruit wagons rumble
through the city, when the subway
travels through your bed
and the incoming flight lanes
are lower than usual,

you must, you must,
you cannot sleep.

Early in the morning, when the
Americans in divided
Berlin begin their maneuvers,
when shots fire as if
it was starting,

you must join in, but need not,
for you may also sleep.

Early in the morning, when
it’s bright and in the park
the generals stretch out
their stomachs, when the alarm
sounds, you must
finally sleep once again.

You sleep, sleep, it is part
of a story, not history.
Therefore it’s better you sleep.

Secret agents,
when the first
words are spoken, then
you sleep,
having no use for words.

Early in the morning
when the trials
begin and the
soft faces
of the murderers and
the sentencing
judges avoid
each other,
when an airplane
wing grazes
your hair,
when you
your corridor
into death, into
into forgetting,
then you will
sleep at the gong, as
they speak
about sleep like
a miracle.



Enchanted cloud castle in which we drift…
Who knows if we have not already moved
through many heavens with glazed eyes?
We, who are banished into time
and thrust from space,
we, who are refugees in the night and exiled.

Who knows if we have not flown past God,
for we fly off, swift as an arrow, without seeing Him
and only cast our seeds wider
in order to live on through darker lineages,
awash now in guilt.

Who knows if we haven’t been dying long since already?
The cloud ball holding us strains ever higher.
The thin air today cripples the hands.
And what if our voice should snap and our breathing stop?

Does enchantment remain for the last moments?


Ingeborg Bachmann was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria. She studied philosophy at the universities of Innsbruck, Graz, and Vienna, where she wrote her dissertation on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. In 1953 she received the poetry prize from Gruppe 47 for her first volume, Borrowed Time (Die gestundete Zeit), after which there followed her second collection, Invocation of the Great Bear (Anrufung des großen Bären), in 1956. Bachmann also went on to write short stories, essays, opera libretti, and novels, including The Thirtieth Year, Malina, and The Book of Franza. At the time of her death in a fire in Rome in 1973, Bachmann was at work on a cycle of novels titled Todesarten (Ways of Dying), of which Malina was the first published volume.

Along with her close friend Paul Celan, Bachmann was considered the premiere German language poet of her generation. Her various awards include the Georg Büchner Prize, the Berlin Critics Prize, the Bremen Award, and the Austrian State Prize for literature. Her work remains highly influential to this day, and she is now regarded as a pioneer of European feminism and postwar literature. Influencing numerous writers from Thomas Bernhard to Christa Wolf, Bachmann’s poetic investigation into the nature and limits of language in the face of history remains unmatched in its ability to combine philosophical insight with haunting lyricism.

Peter Filkins has published two volumes of poetry, What She Knew (1998) and After Homer (2002), and has translated Bachmann’s The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann. He is the recipient of an Outstanding Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association, and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. He teaches at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

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