Now online at Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics:
“Fragments, Shards and Visions” — on the Swiss poet Erika Burkart
Introductory essay by Marc Vincenz and interview with Ernst Halter, Burkart’s widower.
The following prose by Erika Burkart is translated from the German by Andrea Scrima from Am Fenster, wo die Nacht einbricht. Erika Burkart, Aufzeichnungen, ed. Ernst Halter, Zürich: Limmat Verlag.
Childhood / Ninepins and a Thunderstorm
Ninepins. They’re playing ninepins, said my father, as above us the sky’s protective vault shook with the muffled rumblings of thunder. Who dared to hold a game of ninepins in the House of Angels? They did, blithely unconcerned about turning the cathedral into a wooden heaven. Elfi, our waitress, said a wooden heaven was just a room full of drunken men.
The ninepin lane took up the northeast corner of the garden terrace: because of their finger holes, in which I saw eye sockets, the solid wooden balls reminded me of skulls as they rolled down a splintering, tree-length plank of fir. No one played on workdays; ninepins was a Sunday game. In the morning the bells rang out, in the afternoon the glasses clinked and the balls rolled. The men, made jolly by the beer, played with passion. They’d laid their dark Sunday vests, called smocks, on the backless wooden banks; they rolled up their white shirtsleeves. Starting in the meadow of the pub garden, their eyes fixed on the goal, they picked up speed before dropping to one knee and letting the ball leave their outstretched fist, letting it roll as they followed its course, still in a bent-over position. Rumbling, the ball shot down the lane; as the man stood up the pins fell down, nine of them, rapidly, one after another like dominos, or, if it was a champ shooting, all at the same time as the fellow wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
After the ball bounced back from the low earthen wall surrounding the platform the pins were positioned on, I helped Hans, the pin boy, to set them up again, which had to happen quickly. It was already the next player’s turn, and his dismissive gesture signaled for us to stand aside.
Nearly every Sunday, unnoticed in the heat of the play, a thunderstorm that had been brewing all afternoon in the southwest put an end to the game of ninepins. Literally bowled over by the rumbling balls, the boastful cries, the cursing and swearing when a ball swerved out of the lane and strayed off into the grass, they hadn’t heard the faraway rolling thunder. It was a stroke of lightning that brought an abrupt end to the match; in no time, the players were gone, scattered up the garden steps and into the pub. One lightning bolt followed another, and the pin boy and I crept beneath the steps. Our chins propped on our bare knees, we crouched in the cave and listened, keeping our heads down and ducking at the claps of thunder, which were now coming in shorter and shorter intervals. The lightning’s flare reached all the way into our dark cavern; there was no time left to count the seconds in between. Hans, poking his head out, said that the strokes of lightning would tear the world apart. I drew closer to his side and saw, momentarily blinded, fiery zigzag snakes shooting straight down from the sky. The rain hadn’t yet begun to fall. Then, a capital peal of thunder knocked us into a heap and released the flood, which then pelted onto the slab of concrete in front of our bunker. After a time, which dissolved into a rushing, timeless sound, there came the rattling of machine guns. The clamorous clattering echoes sounded like the rumbling wheels of a hay wagon driven by trolls over a bridge in Hell. — We’d left the pins where they were. Twenty steps away, they lay there every which way, felled, fallen ones staring with a frozen gaze into the flashes of lightning as the rain trickled into their gaping mouths.
No one had looked for us in the excitement. From one moment to the next, the host and hostess were faced with the task of finding room for twenty new men flushed from the match, all of them crowded around the door with their jackets tossed over their shoulders; tables were pushed into place and chairs moved as Elfi balanced the serving board above their heads. The pub was small; lightning flashed in each of its four windows. They knew the situation, and feared it. Squeezed into a corner of the stairwell, both curious and anxious, they had been watching the events that recurred every Sunday in fair weather.
Removed from the chaos, in the smell of damp mortar, Hans and I waited for the thunderstorm to end. The white of my Sunday shoes radiated marvelously against the fresh green of the dripping grass in the meadow, where a pale gleam shone from the long wet planks of the tables. Sparkling behind the clouds, it found its way through the rifts and into the empty pub garden and, in the bush-enclosed northeastern corner, to the fallen ones, which in this light were nothing more than ordinary, rain-drenched pins that bore a strange resemblance to the beer bottles that had been left behind on the tables: these, too, were childhood plunder, the way it crawls out of the box of tricks at night when the summer lightning flashes in the east to rehearse a scene from the ghost game of a life whose images are pieced together differently in each epoch. Bewildering end game. Blindly, we relinquish.
Follow the link to issue 7–1 of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. Senior Editors: Andrea Scrima and Carole Viers-Andronico. Essay and interview begin on page 25 of the PDF, followed by a selection of Marc Vincenz’s translations of Burkart’s poems and my translations of the Aufzeichnungen, which begin on page 58.