“Of Things” by Michael Donhauser [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
The entry below is by writer and translator Tess Lewis, who actually has one of her translations on the BTBA fiction longlist! (Angel of Oblivion, which recently won the PEN Translation Prize.)
Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 67%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 11%
To write the tomato, its flesh: the fruit’s flesh.
To write until it reddens to warm it with words.
So that, thus courted, warmth transforms into juice.
“The Tomato,” Of Things
What is our place in the world? We are, after all, one thing among many.
The Austrian poet Michael Donhauser’s collection of poems Of Things is an extended meditation on the relation of language to the world and by extension, our place, as linguistic beings, in it. Mundane things like a thicket, a manure pile, a marigold, gravel, or a tomato gain an almost talismanic power as the poet tries to understand them by describing their appearances, the associations they evoke, their historical contexts.
For Donhauser, the web of observation, perception, and thought along with the attempt to put that tangle into words determine our relationship to the objects around us. Metaphors become epistemological tools. A thicket glimpsed on a walk one Sunday afternoon is an “extraordinary, that is, unkempt form of thought,” a “feast compressed into a simultaneity of dishes,” the “bas-relief of a confusion.” A manure pile is the meadow’s “concentration / Atomization, disintegration, accumulation” and a reflection of his poetic language: “When I write, I collect words into a heap of language that resembles the pile of manure; perhaps by way of the manure pile I’ll gain some clarity concerning the sky of Sunday, coming from the thicket.”
This all sounds rather heady but there is a sensuality to Donhauser’s poetry that grounds it firmly in the physical. A peach is an orgiastic fruit, “plump and soft . . . in a circle upon itself. / Divided by the seam into the buttocks.” Liquid manure is “a heavy wine. / It has a rich bouquet: a thick scent. / So thick that it appears to be solid.”
There is a lightness and agility, too, to Donhauser’s writing. The tentative, exploratory, movemented nature of his descriptions holds the attention. His sentences start, stop, begin again, double-back, and jump forward.
The gravel makes us:
With a little time it makes us aristocratic.
(No reason to hurry now: we’re walking among words.)
It makes us into aristocratic auditors of our steps.
Of our conversation, as we walk.
As we imitate the act of speaking.
(For we listen only to the words, the crunching, the gravel.)
Reading these things—Donhauser’s poems themselves and, through his eyes and mind, the things he describes—is like slipping into a tropical sea, warm and enveloping, and drifting along with the currents. You emerge with senses heightened, refreshed, perhaps even a bit bewildered, eager to examine the objects around you.
I’ll end where I began, with the tomato.
The tomato appears in the shadow of language.
As moon (once again): as monad.
Darkened: a silken coal ember.