Jürgen Theobaldy
translation by Donal McLaughlin


A Kind of Compassion

You try to call to say
to come later about ten maybe
I’ve already left though
get to yours
to see some guy lounging around
completely stoned
grinning chortling
and by the time we get rid of him
at about eleven
two others have turned up
not as stoned
but also wrecked
someone else then calls
to say he’s slashed his wrists
and a new drama begins...
at about half twelve the psychologist starts
all that group therapy stuff
and by the time we get them all out of the room
at about three
I’m so confused I join them
you stop me
we open a can
at four we’re lying happily in bed
finally I think


A beer, please!

I could get used to being a civilised
person. Here, a day without a sound is ending
the phone didn’t ring all day and the laundry basket’s
bursting beneath the sink, it too without a sound.
On screen, a house has just exploded before the astonished
reporter’s face. The fucking news!
Mehdi said last night and then got drunk.

I want love above all. I don’t want to have to think
about the brand of my underpants, the socks
I get for Christmas, for my birthday,
for Easter, and when I die. As a child I asked
for a railway set and was given a shirt,
something practical in cellophane, hundreds of pins in it.
This poem is nothing, practically. Think about it:
How’s something supposed to fall that we don’t force under,
soap in the bath apart? I’m joking again
though not in the mood for it. Must I really
wash my hair before you arrive? Getting my hair washed
is a terrible memory...

I also love all my relatives, especially my woman
who’s not related to me. Pardon? I didn’t say anything.
The news broadcast’s finished, i.e. the news they broadcast, the fucking
. Today there was good news. The America House
was occupied, I’m not saying where. The film’s already
starting, and my hair’s still not washed!
You’re not my wife. I love you. Look after me,
I smoke too much! Post-1933 and 1945
in this apartment, you start getting anxious. Are you listening even?

Suddenly I’m in a pub with much to-do
at the bar. This poem’s full of possibilities
like our lives. Not a day passes of course
without alcohol. I’m on a roll, dear alcohol.
Mehdi’s sitting here, definitively drunk. You’re here too,
have been for a while, and have reason not to speak to me.
A noisy night, the music’s noisy. I order a clear schnapps
for my clear head. A beer, please. Whatever you may
think of me, it’s important to me to say: you too
have written this poem. There was no art involved;
it was written with my back to the window.


Clear Days

Awake again after a long night
of many a beer and a schnapps
you’re lying next to me
It’s midday
There’s noise from the street
I wish I knew what you’re doing right now...
The thought you could be sitting in a pub
while a hangover settles in my head!
This poem is biography
We want it all, you and me,
and maybe that’s why
you’re not lying next to me
as I wait (okay, I admit it:
no work’s getting done...) for evening again
when I’ll again drink beer and many a schnapps
and will see you come in through the door
with that aura of alcohol and compassion
that makes me believe
that supernatural beings, every single one of them,
might – just like you – always carry a bottle of schnapps
in the folds of their supernatural coats


In Heidelberg in January 1973

What you’re doing to me
is making me uneasy!
You’re turning up now
in nearly every poem
maybe because you’re not here
which isn’t to say
everything would be okay
if only you were

I wouldn’t
be so alone, though,
this long night
in the university
where we’ve been staging
a sit-in since yesterday

Because we now have to fight
for our right to speak
to work and to love


Fleeing, or: Round the world in eight minutes

I then imagine
sitting in a New York hotel room
waiting for the knock on the door
that will herald my death.
Or lying
in a Swiss hotel room
with my hand on my dick
imagining it’s your lips:
that’s how small the world is
on its wrong-way way down my spine!
I wouldn’t want to create the impression
I’m the ‘romantic type’
as you toss me off
while I wait for shots to be fired...
it must be indescribable, though,
to be surrounded
and not able to tell anyone
any more


Between you and me

I’m on a train again. My feelings
to-ing and fro-ing. This morning in Heidelberg
it was the beginning of Spring, white clouds
above the slopes. I don’t know what it is
to fear you’ll lose your job. I do know what
love-triggered fear is. You in your white coat, the way
you gradually move away. The air in the compartment,
the weight of it settling in my lung. The shrivelled
newspaper on the seat opposite.
Still there is sun on the slopes. Is love
a luxury, for better times?
This poem won’t end when the train
arrives. It’s accompanying us
through the tale of our unsolved situations
and always holding something we
can’t explain back. The fact there are people
we hate, for instance, and people we
love. Hatred for someone like Flick(1)
I can explain; yet my love for you is
like the journey through this tunnel with
Spring at the start and dark clouds
behind the mountain.

(1) Friedrich Flick, major German industrialist, found guilty at the Nuremberg trials in 1947 of crimes against humanity, plundering private and public property, and supporting the criminal activity of the SS. Released in 1950. When he died in 1972, no West German industrialist had a larger empire.


From: “Klare Tage”, the second section of Theo’s second collection, Blaue Flecken, © Rowohlt 1974. Translation © Donal McLaughlin


Jürgen Theobaldy Born in Strasbourg in 1944 and brought up in Mannheim (western Germany), Jürgen Theobaldy has been living in Switzerland since 1984. His work spans a period of almost four decades. The author of thirteen collections of poetry, Theo – as he is known to his friends – has also published three novels, a short story collection, a volume of prose pieces, and a reader. His best-known novel, Sonntags Kino, has been taught on university courses in Britain and Ireland. His first attempts to write coincided with the student movement of the late 1960s. The poems included here reflect that period of extra-parliamentary opposition.

Donal McLaughlin Born in Derry in 1961, Donal McLaughlin has lived in Scotland since 1970. The author of an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories, his second collection is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive early in 2014. Donal also translates from German. Known for his bilingual edition of the poetry of Stella Rotenberg (Shards) and his translations of over 100 German-Swiss writers for the New Swiss Writing anthologies, he also collaborated with Chris Dolan on a stage version of The Reader. He is the voice of Urs Widmer in English. Donal featured as both an author and a translator in Best European Fiction 2012 (Dalkey Archive). He maintains a website at

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013