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Harald Weinrich
translation by Steven Rendall

 

Reading Animals: A Bestiary

Gentle reader, lend an ear
To beasts, men, and sages.
Perhaps you’ll see yourself appear
Somewhere in these pages.

                          *

“Verse, Mrs Grasshopper, is unsound.
What good La Fontaine and fables?”
Mrs Ant, turn your laptop round!
What a tangle of plugs and cables!

                          *

For Fox, sweet grapes are sour;
he pretends they won’t be missed.
But what if, in an evil hour,
he stops believing that grapes exist?

                          *

Buridan’s ass is hungry and in need.
Between two haybales he must choose.
No matter what he does, he has to feed!
For deliberations, no time to lose!

                          *

The aurochs, ancient bovine,
cared about poetry not at all.
What age produced such kine
With wit so small?

                          *

A bull didn’t want to run the street
in the Spanish town of Pamplona.
He wanted to see things on the net
Not, as it were, in persona.

                          *

A voracious reader’s like a crocodile,
can swallow whole a calf,
a water buffalo, a hippo of the Nile—
bigger than he by half.

                          *

Read sensitively: a shy fawn
grazing through a clearing roams.
Stay there! Be silent! That’s the dawn
of Romantic lyric poems.

                          *

Long sentences? Donald Duck
doesn’t like ’em. They make him sick.
Better short: quick-quick, quack-quack!
You agree? Think, think, think!

                          *

Hercules, Siegfried, St. Michael all three
slew their dragons with just a blade.
Becoming a hero is quick and easy,
But without dragons no hero’s made.

                          *

The bullfinch preens a fine scarlet
breastfeather, driving the other fowl
in the market mad, the wicked varlet.
But the female knows: he’s no owl.

                          *

A thick novel can be
flat as a flounder.
Count pages, you’ll see:
few pages, great wonder!

                          *

“Gecko!” cries the gecko. And I
“Gecko!” as a kind of echo.
He: “Gecko!” I: “Echo!” in reply.
We understand each other well, no?

                          *

On the Capitol you gabbling geese
wakened Rome and saved the town.
Now Romans, you sleep in peace,
snug in beds of eiderdown.

                          *

The female gorilla’s in distress;
She’s lost her infant.
Gorillas know all about death.
Like us, they’ve only an instant.

                          *

Gulls, your workday at the beach
is strictly ruled by ebb and flow.
Mine too. I lie on the sandy reach
and look at you. We’re good, you know.

                          *

Nero once had the Roman Senate
elect his favorite horse as consul.
The other horses couldn’t ken it,
preferring citizenship to twaddle.

                          *

At the watering hole, to the gnu the leopard says:
“Come here! Plenty of room next to me.”
“No thanks” Gnu replies. “I know your courtly ways,
The farther away I am, the better I see.”

                          *

Morn, the mayfly thinks
to begin reading next day.
Beware, fly: in two winks
all things pass away.

                          *

With wings not fins the ray glides
in long, dark sweeps
down below where he abides.
To know him, plumb the deeps.

                          *

We buy sardines closely packed
in narrow metal tins.
Other fish, freedom intact,
do better, like their human twins.

                          *

Snails think they’re too small and slow
to read in their tiny homes.
It only looks that way from down below,
and for great theses in heavy tomes.

                          *

“Knowledge is silver, questions gold.
Whoever asks, shall have his inning.
Now ask, beasts, and be bold.
Snake, begin!” “OK, what’s sinning?”

                          *

High above the puddles, at twilight
and in cursive, their weather forecast
the swooping swallows write:
Time for caps and umbrellas past!

                          *

Will one night do for a fling?
Poets say: not at all.
Swifts do it on the wing.
Careful you don’t fall!

                          *

Half lion, half human, Sphinx began
with riddles to frighten folk.
Matter of life and death, man,
a reader’s interest to provoke.

                          *

Male tortoises are late readers,
Beginning at the age of eighty.
At seventy, females are the leaders.
Does that arouse suspicions, matey?

                          *

The elk, emerged from the wood,
stands majestic in the glade.
The hunter aims, but does not shoot.
Of such moments is poetry made.

                          *

The book’s soon done, my Phoenix burned.
But prepare yourself for more surprises!
Your attention to a new book turned,
from its ashes the Phoenix rises!

 

From Das Leben und Lesen der Tiere: Ein Bestiarium, (© Verlag C.H. Beck, 2008). Translation © Steven Rendall.

 

Harald Weinrich Weinrich is an internationally known scholar and philosopher. He was born in 1927, and taught for many years at the universities of Munich, Münster, and Bielefeld, as well as at the very prestigious Collège de France, where he is now Professor Emeritus of Romance Literature. He is also the author of many books, among them Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting and On Borrowed Time: The Art and Economy of Living with Deadlines. He has won numerous prizes, including the Karl-Vossler-Preis (1992) and the Hansischer Goethe-Preis. His work has been translated into many languages. His most reent publication is Über das Haben: 33 Ansichten (2012). The book from which these poems were taken, Das Leben und Lesen der Tiere: Ein Bestiarium, was published in 2008; he is currently working on a second, enlarged edition. He presently divides his time between Münster, Paris, and Alexandria, Virginia.

Steven Rendall is a freelance translator of more than sixty-five books from French and German. He has won the National Jewish Book Council’s Sandra Brand and Arik Weintraub Award and the Modern Language Association’s Scaglione Prize for his translations, and he was a finalist for the 2012 French-American Foundation translation award. He is also Professor Emeritus of the University of Oregon and Editor Emeritus of the journal Comparative Literature. He lives on a farm in southwest France with his wife, two dogs, three cats, and five chickens.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013