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Robert Gernhardt's last call

A selection of poems and drawings by the late Robert Gernhardt.

Robert Gernhardt, one of Germany's most-loved poets, died in Frankfurt at the end of June. Born in 1937 in Reval in Estonia, Gernhardt studied painting and German in Stuttgart and Berlin. From 1964 until his death he lived in Frankfurt, where he worked as writer, painter and caricaturist. His lively cross-genre publishing activities soon made him the leading figure of the "New Frankfurt School" of writers and artists behind the satirical magazine Pardon in the 1960s and 70s and after 1979, Titanic. Here is a small selection of his poems translated into English by Ursula Runde, some of which have appeared in Poetry Magazine, and sketches from Gernhardt's "German Readers" series.

All about the artist | Always | Reflections on an obscene drawing (as seen on the walls the adult education centre) | Ballad of Depicting the Light | Not really, no | Guarding my Body | Last Call

All about the artist
(Alles über den Künstler. In Lichte Gedichte, p. 87)

The artist skates on ice that's thin:
Creating art – straight for the bin?

The artist to his fate is blind:
Will he gain glory? Lose his mind?

The artist falls with end unknown.
Soared like a star? Dropped like a stone?


Always someone swifter than you

You crawl
He walks
You walk
He runs
You run
He flies:

There's always someone still swifter than you.

Always someone more gifted than you

You read
He learns
You learn
He seeks
You seek
He finds out:

There's always someone still more gifted than you.

Always someone more famous than you

You're in the papers
He's in the encyclopedia
You're in the encyclopedia
He's in Who’s Who
You're in Who’s Who
He's a monument:

There's always someone still more famous than you.

Always someone richer than you

Your book is reviewed
His is read
Your book is read
His is devoured
Yours is treasured
His is bought:

There's always someone still richer than you.

Always someone more popular than you

You are praised
He is loved
You are honoured
He is adored
They lie at your feet
They chair him on their shoulders

There's always someone still more popular than you.

Always someone better than you

You are ailing
He languishes
You die
He passes away
You are judged
He is redeemed

There's always someone still better than you

Reflections on an obscene drawing (as seen on the walls the adult education centre)
(Obszöne Zeichnung am Volksbildungsheim)

Prick on the wall –
standing proud, standing tall.

Painted it myself
once on this partition,
when my own appendage was
still in prime condition.

Captured it with felt-tip pen
during daylight hours,
cupped it tenderly at night,
marvelled at its powers.

That this is all so long ago
does not make me sad.
That hands still decorate these walls
is reason to be glad.

Even if no prick of mine
serves as inspiration,
there'll always be one standing up
symbolic of creation.

Rising to a mighty height
from balls both tight and tender,
spurting out the juice of life,
a tribute to its gender.

Prick on the wall,
taking the piss.
We think it's ours,
in fact we are HIS.

Ballad of Depicting the Light
(Ballade von der Lichtmalerei. Lichte Gedichte, p. 116)

Put some things in the light and watch
what the light will do to such things.
If you think you’ll be busy all morning and noon,
just see what the evening brings.

If to watch the light shifting will not suffice
but you want to catch it as well,
you’ll be joining the torchlight procession of those
who know light is heaven and hell.

The torch has passed through many a hand,
from van Eyck to de Hooch and Vermeer.
It shed light on Kersting and Eckersberg
and also forced Hopper's sad tear.

The torch bearer's moments are precious but brief,
as his own life will soon flicker low.
But even when darkness descends upon him
the torch will continue to glow.

It will glow for as long as someone will take things
and watch as they go dark and bright.
It will glow for as long as someone will catch
what happens to things in the light.

Not really, no
(Eigentlich nicht, Lichte Gedichte, p. 15)

It's not really a process of looking
when someone knows where something is.

It's not really a process of finding
when you find something you didn’t miss.

It's not really a process of loving
when you're holding to ransom your love.

It's not really a process of holding
when you drop her as push comes to shove.

Guarding my Body
(Siebenmal mein Körper)

My body is without defence,
how lucky it's got me.
I keep it warm in woollen cloth,
it gets it all for free.

My body's well provided for
with bread and wine and stews.
It never seems to get enough
and afterwards it spews.

My body does not what it's told,
it does what I may not.
I'm fond of pictures, music, words,
it just finds bodies hot.

My body turns out lots of things
like blood and sweat and tears.
I wash it, dry it, keep it neat
from toenails to the ears.

My body knows no common sense,
just greed and sloth and lust.
I watch it as it falls apart
and mend it in good trust.

My body hasn't thanked me yet,
it’s often hurting me.
I move it up the hill and down
and drive it to the sea.

My body never talks to me,
it has no social skill.
I pander to its slightest whim,
it’s waiting for the kill.

Last Call
(Ach. Lichte Gedichte, p. 206)

Right up to my final hour
I'll be obliging and polite.
Should I hear Death firmly knocking
I'll shout at once: come in! Alright?

What’s on the schedule? Is it dying?
Well, that’s something rather new.
But I’m sure that we can swing it,
showing them a thing or two.

What is this? Your hour glass?
Interesting! And good to grasp.
And the scythe is for grim reaping,
did you say? I’d thought I’d ask.

Which way should I turn from here?
To the left? From where you stand?
Well, alright then. To the graveyard?
Where I take my final hand?

Yes, the glass is out of sand now.
Oh, I see, you want it back.
May I ask you where you got it?
So unusual, all in black.

Is it antique? Oh well, whatever.
I only meant to ask, old chap –
What? No questions? No more talking?
That's fine by me. I'll shut my -


Robert Gernhardt's poems are published in German by Fischer Verlag. The "German Readers" sketches are published in "Vom Schönen, Guten, Baren" by Diana Verlag.

All poems translated by from the German by Ursula Runde

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