Wendy Lotterman on the twists of logic and the syntactical turns in Ernst Herbeck’s Everyone Has A Mouth.
The poems in Ernst Herbeck’s Everyone Has A Mouth, slalom down the border between sense and absurdity. The initial nursery-rhyme simplicity pulls you through a landscape of soft logic and distorted syntax, ending with a blow of mystification. It is difficult to impose a blueprint on these broken riddles, which is what makes them so kinetic. The space between a list of plain facts and the nonsense by which they are concluded may be crossed by an inexhaustible variety of bridges. Herbeck’s poem “Red” reads:
Red is the wine, red are the carnations.
Red is beautiful. red flowers and red.
Color itself is beautiful.
The red color is red.
Red is the flag, red the poppy.
Red are the lips and the mouth.
Red are the reality and the
Fall. Red are many Blue Leaves.
An almost sarcastically factual litany is followed by a gradual decay of sense and grammar. We are left with the enigmatic falsity “Red are many Blue Leaves.” The internal friction of this statement is different from that of a statement like “Red are Blue Leaves,” leaving you curious as to what accounts for one red leaf being red and another being blue. It is tempting to read any list poem as a staircase, each line one notch closer to the punch-line balanced on the top-step. Herbeck’s poetry is like this, and it isn’t. Each poem builds a platform on which his twists of language and grammatical games are performed. But there is no simple lock-in-key relationship between the facts and the fiction.
The seed for most of the poems in this collection came from Herbeck’s psychiatrist, at whose suggestion Herbeck first began writing in the early ’60s. As the introduction tells us, Herbeck was institutionalized for the bulk of his life, having exhibited schizophrenic symptoms since his 20s. Other relevant biographical information includes Herbeck’s hair-lip—the subject of numerous operations. Herbeck’s poems build like a curious flesh around the nounal pit provided by Dr. Leo Navratil. These texts house a fascination with mouths and lines—reinforced by his affinity for the em-dash. “The Mouth”—from which the title is drawn—is the Herbeck’s most pointed take on his condition in the collection. It reads: “Not everyone has a mouth/ some mouth is disqualified/ or operated on. So it is with me/ the doctor says everyone has/ a mouth.” Through an intimate interrogation of his own face, Herbeck chips at a familiar stone—if the whole is defined by its parts, what happens to it when the parts are broken?
Each poem is like a game of hide-and-go-seek inside a closet—the tight economy of words asks you to search every inch of each poem’s terrain. As a non-German-speaking reader, this task is a bit trickier. For instance, in “Red” it is tempting to read “Fall” not just as “autumn” but as a curt warning of the line to come in which sense will fall. Especially since Herbeck actually uses this vocabulary in the poem “Language” when he writes “Language.—/ Language is fallen for the animal.” Another example is in the collection’s shortest poem “Self-Confidence” whose only line reads, “When one smokes it’s super-/ fluous.” The enjambment could present possibilities for multiple readings, but we cannot pursue them because Herbeck is a German poet. This frustration aside, Gary Sullivan’s translation—with contributions from sign-linguist Oya Ataman—doesn’t read as poetry-once-removed. Whether preserved or recreated, the poetry is immediately playful and enigmatic. Sullivan’s creative solutions for the glossolalia and grammar tricks keep the writing from seeming second-generation, or lesser-than.
Herbeck’s poems explode a simple circle into a disco-ball—multi-dimensional and full of mirrors reflecting a colorful cast of sometimes indecipherable images. They are worth exploring.
Wendy Lotterman is a writer and artist living in New York. She graduated from Bard College.