FROM SPORT 40, NEW ZEALAND, CONTEMPORARY WRITING IN GERMAN, 2012
Clemens J. Setz
Translated by Ross Benjamin
Borrowed Feathers or The Zeisig Talent
The advantage was that Claudia’s last name was Zeisig, which is a type of finch, calling to mind a colourful and pleasant creature; the disadvantage was that she was twelve years older than I was and on top of that had a fifteen-year-old son named Martin she was raising on her own. On our first evening I met him briefly. A peculiar, shy child. He’s really talented with language, Claudia had said, and Martin had stood there and nodded. Then she had shown me a few drawings she had made of him: wild clouds of lines through which two figures sailed, a large female one and a small male one, hand in hand. The small male figure held an empty speech balloon like a schoolbag under his arm. That’s me again there, right? Martin had asked.
I had at that point rolled my eyes, and Claudia happened to notice it. Granted, the gesture might have been somewhat brusque, but at least I had made my viewpoint clear. Our second evening did not go much better. I should already have grown suspicious when Claudia told me an excruciatingly long anecdote about her son, which culminated in the punchline that Martin finally said to the teacher: If you don’t believe me, then just ask God. I had laughed as well as I could, but the meaning of that inane remark, which she had undoubtedly made up, still has not dawned on me to this day.
But I truly became aware of my mistake only when I stood before the large-scale paintings in Claudia’s apartment: sad clowns. Terrible kitsch. I must have been suffering from complete blindness to get involved with someone capable of hanging such tasteless pictures in her home. When she then declared proudly to me that she had painted them all herself, my decision was made: I would definitely not see her again. Perhaps the night with her would be somewhat tolerable—at least her strong shoulders and the way she could bring her legs into the lotus position without the help of her hands raised some hopes—but after that I absolutely had to distance myself, and without any long transitional phase. After all, the delicate balance of my aesthetic sense was at stake. Claudia’s appearance itself, however, did not offend me in that respect at all, on the contrary, her face was pretty for her age, and when she had gone ahead of me on the stairs, I had time to view her extensively.
We were sitting in Claudia’s kitchen and drinking coffee, hopeless and unpromising coffee, which I was constantly sloshing onto the tablecloth. The cup was much too small, in general everything in the apartment was shrunken, downright tiny. I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in the movie Eraserhead, when the fist-sized roast chickens are served. And someone stabs into them and black blood comes out.
I took another sip of coffee and choked on it. Claudia apologised to me and patted my shoulder. She was very nervous, she probably had not had a man in the apartment for a long time. Martin was sleeping, as I had found out the moment I entered the apartment, at a school friend’s that evening. This statement was about as clear as a sign around the neck: Take me. All right, I thought. After I took the last sip from the coffee cup, I stood up and acted as if I wanted to say goodbye. Immediately, Claudia shifted into attack mode and begged me to sit down for a little while longer, she would be right back. With quick high-heeled footsteps she disappeared into an adjoining room. Soon she returned with a photo album. No, it wasn’t a photo album, I realised with relief, but a sort of diary.
—Oh, what’s that? I asked in a tone that meant: Come on, never mind that, let’s go to bed together, get it over with.
—Oh, nothing important, she said with an unpleasantly vibrating voice.
I looked at my watch.
—Well, you know what, Claudia, then I should really—
—Oh, not yet, please.
She had said that more pleadingly than she had probably intended. I put on a friendly face and relaxed on the sofa. I cracked my knuckles. A harsh, manly sound. Claudia smiled shyly and slid a little closer, until our knees touched.
—You know a lot about literature, don’t you? she asked me.
I nodded. Of course. As the publisher of Fleet, a magazine for cultural viewpoints and spatial intervention, that description definitely applied to me.
—If I ask you to give your honest opinion, Claudia began.
—The evening was wonderful, I lied.
—No, she said, flattered, and grabbed her collarbone, no, not that, haha. But lovely, of course, for me too, yes. But I have something here that I’d like to show you.
—Just hand it over.
I made a gesture like an impatient traffic cop waving the cars past.
—Okay, oh . . .
She had turned a little red. I looked at my watch again, she cleared her throat and began to read aloud.
Grey your hair passing time
Summer with the women . . .
I had not really been listening and asked her to repeat that. She did so, and I asked for the book she was reading from. Her reading voice was unbearable, but the lines sounded interesting. I flipped through the booklet a bit. It was indeed nothing but poems. One on each page.
—Who wrote this? I asked. You?
—Is it so terrible?
She looked as if she were expecting at any moment a powerful punch in the face.
—No, I said truthfully, it’s not terrible at all. Anything against my skimming a bit more?
—No, not at all. Whew! Is my face red? I’ve never shown these things to anyone before, you know.
I wasn’t really listening, because I was occupied with reading. A number of the poems were really good. Some of them were somewhat bumpy, uncertain in their rhythmic construction, but all of them possessed a pleasantly flowing music, which immediately appealed to me. Hard to believe, I thought, that the painter of those abhorrent clown faces in the hallway was at the same time the writer of these verses.
Evening falls and the riders
dismount and there is peace
but the people keep on turning
like a wind wheel without cease
This short poem I read aloud, entirely for myself. Claudia sat next to me and vibrated like a bell that has been struck.
—You know what? I said. That’s really pretty. Classicistic, properly rhymed and everything, but still somehow gentle, at the same time casual, almost as if in passing . . . Hard to believe.
—What is hard to believe?
My horrible faux pas could just barely be rectified.
—I mean, hard to believe that these . . . hard to believe that you . . . that I’ve been spending the whole evening with a true poet without knowing it!
At the very last moment I had been able to steer the car out of the perilous curve.
—Hahaha, thank you.
She laughed with her mouth open, and all her wrinkles became visible. Around her eyes, around the corners of her mouth, on the cheeks, on the neck, simply everywhere. Thirty-nine, I thought. And writes poems. I turned to another.
Remember when we thought
the clouds drifting over us
were the rotation of the earth?
At times more swiftly and at times more ponderously
we lay in the room and played
Then suddenly the sky was completely still
a silent blue window square
Only in the upper corner a dog-ear
from an airplane that could no longer bear
and so flew straight through the blue
and with a razorblade made
a long white vapour trail in our future
—Ha! I cried out. Not bad, it—well, it’s really not bad!
But perhaps I was being taken in by her, I thought. Was it due to all the wine I drank in the restaurant? Carefully I went through the poem a second time, line by line, in search of kitsch. Immediately I made a find: the opening lines were clearly bad, unrhythmic, and on top of that a somewhat worn-out, conventional image. And the word ponderously, which jutted out of the nimbly handled metre like an ugly worm and nearly ruined the whole strophe. But aside from that? The vapour trail that appears at the edge of the window square like a dog-ear was a really successful image, accessible, unobtrusive, of geometric clarity. I was honestly impressed.
Respectfully, I began to take apart the pieces of the poem, hold them up and praise them. Claudia listened intently to me, and again she nodded and swallowed, as if with my words she were quenching a thirst long kept secret. Like a true poet, I thought. Hungry for recognition. As they all are. And what made the whole matter still more complicated: she was a true poet. She had filled this whole booklet with writing, slowly, page by page. It was astonishing. Without knowing it, I had been spending the whole evening with a true—
—And you’re not just saying that to make me . . .
—No, I assured her.
She slid closer.
—Definitely, I said, and turned my attention to the next poem.
This one here even had a title.
From above the ants look
like busy people.
But if you bend over and look at them,
they turn back into ants,
which in your gigantic shadow
do not know where to go.
I was—I have to admit—completely enthusiastic about this poem. I philosophised at length about its meaning, praised the artistic development that could be discerned from the more associative and semantically ambiguous lines of poetry at the beginning of the booklet (Grey your hair passing time . . .) to this much more sober, adult tone. Claudia continued to listen to me patiently, but now and then she made a move to take the booklet from me and put it aside.
After a few minutes she managed to do it. I was just about to compare her to the winner of that year’s national literary prize when she plucked my glasses off my face, kissed me on the cheek. A true poet had kissed me. We sank down on the sofa. She pulled off her blouse, pressed her breasts to my mouth. The idea of sleeping with a true poet here and now on the sofa inspired me. But the sofa proved to be somewhat too narrow for us, and soon we moved into the bedroom.
The next morning I woke up late. Claudia was standing next to the bed and getting dressed. She was fastening her turquoise pushup-bra on her chest. Next to the bed stood high leather boots, the upper, softer half somewhat caved-in like a shed snakeskin.
—Hello, I said. Good morning.
She turned around.
—Are you already getting up?
I sat up in the bed.
—Yes, she said. We overslept, haha. And I have to pick up my son.
It took me a while to catch on that she expected me to get dressed too and leave. When I went to kiss her goodbye, she deflected me. In a foolish tone I asked her whether she could lend me the booklet with the poems for a few days. She looked at me as if she had not the slightest idea what I was talking about and then shook her head.
Morose and somewhat deflated, I went home. Overnight it had snowed a lot. Powdery snow filled the street to the edge of the sidewalk. Due to the increased slipperiness even the buses were driving as if on tiptoe.
In the weeks that followed, I tried to reach Claudia, but she didn’t answer the telephone. Nor did she respond to the messages I left her. I had to face the bitter truth: I had only been a one-night adventure, a valve that had to be opened from time to time. I wondered whether I should just go to her place and ring the doorbell. But then I decided against it. If she didn’t want to see me anymore, I couldn’t change that with an intrusive ambush.
Three years passed in which I didn’t hear anything from her.
On a beautiful spring day in 2008 I read in the newspaper a brief report about a prize ceremony. The literary sponsorship prize of the city, in the amount of 2200 euros, was being awarded to a certain Martin Zeisig, poet. His first book of poetry, entitled Over Winter, was forthcoming that autumn. I searched for his name on the Internet and found a photo: there was no doubt, I remembered clearly. Clouds of lines, two flying figures. It was Claudia’s son. Really talented.
I found a reference to a literary magazine in which some of his poems had recently been published. Immediately I went to a bookshop and looked for it. In the late afternoon I found it. I opened the magazine.
Remember when we thought
the clouds drifting over us
were the rotation of the earth?
The sales clerk in the bookshop rushed over and picked up the magazine, which I had dropped in shock, from the floor. I thanked him. With the last of my money (my affairs had gone rather badly over the past few years and Fleet now appeared only twice a year) I bought the magazine. At home I examined every single one of the poems. My memory was not the very best, but I could still tell that these were without a doubt the poems from that evening, Claudia’s poems from the booklet.
Perhaps she had palmed her son’s poems off on me, as a crude attempt to seduce me. But, I said to myself, she could just as well have accomplished that with the right sort of alcohol. If she was actually the author of these verses, why had they now been published under her son’s name? He’s really talented, she had said. Perhaps she had given him the poems, for his eighteenth birthday? The idea of the gift somehow fit Claudia, I thought, the peculiar relationship between mother and son. Is that me? The speech balloon in the picture. And Martin himself had not exactly struck me at that time as a brilliant poet. No, impossible that he had written these poems already back then, at the age of fifteen. Yes, that’s what must have happened, I said to myself, she had pinned these poems on him. For now finally someone other than she herself was saying that her son was really talented. Finally he was getting the praise that he, in her opinion, deserved: a real literary prize.
After rereading the poems I knew some of them by heart, as I realised with irritation. Yes, they were true poems. If you retained them in your memory after reading them repeatedly, that meant that you were dealing with poetry. That is the first and perhaps also most important rule. The verses got stuck in my head, they made me crazy, kept me up at night. I had to find out the truth. I dug the newspaper out of the garbage can, looked for the article. The prize ceremony was on a Tuesday.
It was a bright evening, the sun didn’t set until around nine o’clock. The prizewinning young poet sat in a beige suit jacket in the first row, directly next to him sat his mother. I was about to approach her when I saw someone step up to her and speak to her. A man with a large mustache whom I recognised as the head of a small publishing house, but whose name I could not remember. The man sat down next to them, and soon he began to tell them something with a wealth of gesticulations, and Claudia doubled up with laughter and slapped her son on the thigh. Martin himself laughed too, but looked as if someone were giving him small electric shocks.
When the mustached man was gone, other people came to congratulate the young writer. They handed him a glass of champagne and he took it, but didn’t drink any of it. His mother was completely in her element, she was speaking left and right, presumably carrying on three conversations simultaneously and giving off a pleasantly sensual energy that reached and enveloped even me, standing about ten yards away in a poorly lit corner of the room. I remembered our night of love and the sound of her intermittently louder and softer voice, imploring me to keep going, faster, harder.
I made another attempt to approach her, but again I was deterred by the appearance of René Templ, he of all people had to show up, that impossible drunk and poet, with whom I had once gotten into an intense drunken quarrel, during which even the glass of his wristwatch was damaged. Templ shook Martin Zeisig’s hand and slapped him encouragingly on the back, so that the boy took a step forward. It wasn’t even necessary to get closer to notice that Templ, as so often, was completely drunk. When Claudia whispered something in his ear, he grabbed her hand and planted a fat kiss on it with his lips. She pulled the hand away, gave a flattered smile, and the drunk Templ staggered away toward the bar.
Hard to believe, I thought. I had once proposed to René Templ that we address each other with the familiar ‘du’, and he had simply declined, with the explanation that it was like small change, one shouldn’t give it away too quickly and to just anyone. The fact that Templ had been talking so chummily with Claudia and her son riled me, made me jealous.
Martin was still standing there with the full champagne glass in his hand and talking to two girls, who were constantly laughing and kept brushing their bangs from their faces. His mother observed him proudly from the side, but did not intrude on the conversation.
I approached her from behind. She acted as if she were startled when I touched her on the shoulder. Then she laughed loudly, held out her hand to me, greeted me, laughed still more, and presented her son to me. It was clear that she didn’t recognise me. Three years are a long time. Just as I was about to open my mouth, another man came out of nowhere and stood next to her.
—May I present, she said to me, my husband Robert.
—You may, you may, the man replied with a good-natured smile. The main thing is presentation. Or should I say, it’s will and representation. That’s what makes up the world, hahaha.
—It’s a pleasure, I said to the man, who was roughly twice as broad as I was, pressing his large, strong hand. You must be proud of your son, Herr Zeisig.
He nodded and gave a forbearing smile.
—My name is Gössl, he said.
—We’ve only been married for two years, Claudia explained.
I remained standing with them for a while longer and listened to the story of Martin’s brilliant artistic development. For so many years he had written only in secret and no one had known about it, no one had suspected what a talent had been slumbering in him, hahaha, and now, and now all of a sudden he is publishing a book of poetry, can you believe that, a real book of poetry! My Martin, a true poet!
And Herr Gössl too was completely enthusiastic about his stepson. As it turned out, he was on the whole an admirer of the Zeisig talent.
—You should see the pictures she paints, he said to me, and his tone at the same time made it clear that I would never in my life set eyes on them. I immediately fell in love with those pictures. What will, what representation! And they show clearly where the son got his eye for the essential.
—Oh, I would be awfully interested in seeing all that, I said.
—Yes, I love all the pictures she paints, he said. Especially the circus series.
And he neared her cheek, hesitated for moment, as if he were checking her smell, and then pressed his lips to the slightly reddened skin of her face. But, thank God, none of the youthfulness that Claudia’s face was radiating rubbed off on him.
© Clemens J. Setz. English translation © Ross Benjamin, 2012.