A review of

Darkness Spoken

by Ingeborg Bachmann

Central question: How does one say what cannot be said?
Format: 688 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5" x 8.25"; Price: $24.95; Publisher: Zephyr Press; Print run: 3,000; Book design: typeslowly; Typeface: Caslon; Translated and introduced by: Peter Filkins; Foreword by: Charles Simic; Number of poems in this book that have never before been translated into English: 129; Author wrote her dissertation on: Martin Heidegger; Number of books of poetry the author published: two; Number of collections of short stories: two; Number of novels: one; Number of opera libretti she wrote: two; Representative sentence: “We no longer share a language.”

For someone who spent her life wrestling with the enormous and existentially brain-warping problem of language’s inability to provide adequate means of expression, Ingeborg Bachmann made brilliant use of the twenty-six letters afforded her. Austrian by birth, Bachmann grew up during World War II, and her objection to fascism became central to her writing. In her early twenties Bachmann found camaraderie within Gruppe 47, a band of left-wing German writers (including Paul Celan and Günter Grass) who concerned themselves with the futility of language and the rebuilding of German literature after World War II. While she worked in other literary mediums, such as fiction and radio plays, her first serious foray into writing was as a poet, and Darkness Spoken gathers the sum of this endeavor: her two published books of poetry, Borrowed Time and Invocation of the Great Bear, and numerous uncollected works.

The fuse that runs through these powerful poems is the powerlessness of language, its continual failure to measure up: “Between a word and a thing / you only encounter yourself, / lying between each as if next to someone ill, / never able to get to either.” At times, communication remains downright impossible. In “[I’ve misplaced my poems]” Bachmann admits to writing of pain that “I know only that it cannot be spoken of,” and “Your Voice” is an explanation to her lover that “even if you say everything, I will never grasp it.” However, even in its inadequacy, language can provide painful salvation: “I again learned to speak and I wept / when a word escaped me.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Aimee Kelley

Aimee Kelley is the editor of CROWD magazine and the co-editor of the anthology Isn’t It Romantic: 100 Love Poems by Younger American Poets. She lives in Oakland and likes to sail.

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