In Hora Mortis ; Under the Iron of the Moon: Poems by Thomas Bernhard
Review by S. D. Stewart
Before he wrote novels and plays, the young Thomas Bernhard was an accomplished poet significantly involved in his regional poetry scene. Following publication of three books of his poetry, however, the fourth submitted manuscript was rejected, and remains unpublished to this day. At this point, Bernhard quit publishing poetry altogether (until much later in his career) and turned his focus to prose instead. This slim volume collects his second and third books of poetry. Though he set poetry aside for several decades (at least out of public view), Bernhard took great care to ensure that his poetry would remain in print, even publishing for the first time an early collection, Ave Virgil, as a chapbook twenty years after he had written it while living in Oxford and Sicily. (This collection appeared in English for the first time in Conjunctions Issue 53, 2009, still available for $5 from the Conjunctions website.)
The two books in this volume feel vastly different. The first, In Hora Mortis, is the shorter of the two and contains the poems of a believer howling and railing in the presence of his God. Considering Bernhard’s well-known vitriol against the Catholic Church and organized religion in general, these poems came as a shock and led me to the immediate conclusion that Bernhard was in high satire mode here. Yet the poems sound so sincere that it has led some readers to question whether or not they truly were the poems of a tormented, questioning pilgrim. Bernhard was in his twenties when he wrote these poems, and certainly idealistic wondering and wandering would not be uncommon for a young person at this stage of life. However, by this time he had also seen a lot of horror and suffered great personal losses, with no known evidence of a predilection for seeking solace in religion. In later interviews he’s stated that he believes in heaven, but not hell, and then more generally that he is religious but has no beliefs (statements that appear to contradict each other, not surprising considering the source). And so as tempting as I find it to think here of Bernhard hiding the genuine in plain sight within the folds of an absurd cloak, I find it difficult to reconcile all of what I have read of his words with the idea that these poems are anything other than lovingly-crafted mockery. Of course, there is in fact no way to know for sure how genuine he is, which is likely how Bernhard would have wanted it.
The poems in Under the Iron of the Moon feel more personal and I enjoyed this collection much more than In Hora Mortis. The diversity increased and the depth of emotion grew, though only to a fixed point. Bernhard appears to be both embracing and grappling against the brutality of Austrian nature, following the seasonal cycles with his words. He fights against nature, yet in a resigned way also accepts it as his fate, as his legacy to inherit. Dark imagery abounds, and much anguish, but the voice is different than the one Bernhard adopts in prose. It is more exposed, less measured, also displaying the musicality and repetition he will later showcase in his fiction, but here in a less overt way.
Some poems seemed to recall moments spent in TB wards, while recovering from surgical procedures:
The cock crows through a rag
of skin and gorges
in the blood
that is sawing apart
He drinks my color
like a moon and cackles
as the stars
on the mountaintop
While others, such as the one from which the excerpt below is taken, speak of family life, war, and death:
I want to put my shoes to sleep
and forget the troubles of the long war
and meet my brother at the cemetery
for the evening’s grieving between two gravestones,
one our father’s and one our mother’s,
and let the wind in the wheat over the mounds
enter my psalm of the earth
that will bury us with fear and scorn
beneath the dreaming limbs of the sun.
Certainly Bernhard was intimately acquainted with death by the time he wrote these poems. While still a teenager, he lost his mother and grandfather, the two most important people in his life at the time. And these events occurred while he himself was living with death looming over his own head. He came close to dying several times and would live the rest of his life in poor health, with the constant expectation of a shortened life. So the themes present in Under the Iron of the Moon are not surprising to discover. What grew in front of me as I read these poems was the impression of a dark misshapen mass of collected grief that Bernhard is struggling to heave off his chest into the ancient Austrian forest.
Oft-repeated words: frost, wound, death, die, spring, summer, winter, autumn, birds, river, wind, rain, snow, trees, sun, sky, fields, black, red, green, blood, beaks, claws.
In the introduction, translator James Reidel raises an interesting question: given how dedicated Bernhard was to his poetry, how earnest a poet he seems to have been in his twenties, could the persistent motif in his fiction of the “failed artist-writer-scholar-actor” been a highly personal reaction to a publisher’s rejection of his fourth book of poems? A rejection that came at a time when Bernhard considered himself to be at or approaching the apex of his poetic strengths? Given what we know of Bernhard as a person, this would not seem out of character. It is also interesting to consider this theory in light of the fact that, while Bernhard took care later in his career to ensure the continued publication of most of his poetry, he never allowed this rejected manuscript of over one hundred poems to see the light of day. The only legacy of this batch of poems is its title Frost, which Bernhard interestingly repurposed for the title of his first novel.
Back in 2001, Conjunctions published a web exclusive English-language version of Bernhard’s poem “The Lunatics/The Inmates.” For those readers reluctant to approach his poetry, I highly recommend this one as a good starting point, for it is a poetry-prose hybrid in which one can clearly see the first kernels of what was next to come from this fascinating literary figure.
Am I just a bucket’s worth of torture?
Am I dead? Are my suicide threats lies?
My froth has spun around half the globe.
I am stretched out in my prison clothes.
My feet think and my mind wanders off.
From head to toe the world’s nothing more
than an age of depravity and rot.
And the city itself is the murderer!
The line is broken from all lines, which proves that there exists no line, and which also proves that one can regard everything as the line, presupposing a character that gets too involved in what inevitably drives it into ruin.