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Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Four poems


No, I am not a patch
on the breakfast egg.
It is perfect.
Sometimes I regret
that compared to the power pylon
I vacillate.
The good-natured moss
disarms me
when I lust for revenge,
and the rhino’s thinking —
straightforward as it is —
I can only admire.
Verily, my screwdriver
will outlast my brain.
I am impressed by the ant,
the way it fumbles and fumbles
for a crack in the wall,
since I am lazy.
An attractive idea
to be soft of heart
like the fig, and selfless
like the light-bulb. Sorry,
oil and vinegar, pepper and salt,
I’m sorry that unlike you
I am dispensable.

Translated by the author


Sverdrup, da Cunha, d’Urville —
nobody knows who these madmen were
and what they were after
in doldrums, pack ice, rain forests:
cowrie shells? gold mines?
the Order of St. James of the Sword?

Drinking brackish water and rum
on shaky schooners
they lost their teeth.
Only their names are still rampant
like the rushes by the seashore, haunting us
for a century or two,
until they too will vanish
like all those who came before them
and left no trace,
not even their names in copperplate
on old sea-charts,
or their collarbones in the dunes.

Translated by the author

Hong Kong 1997

Have you seen the builders of this city,
illiterate acrobats climbing up skyhigh
on bamboo scaffolding?
Have you bought the cheapest jeans
and slept in the most expensive beds on earth?
Did you cough in the incense-filled temples
and smell the clouds of French perfume
hanging over the sewers?
Have you heard the clatter of gambling dens
and the roar at the stock exchange?
And the tourists, did you notice them
rubbing their eyes, exhausted from shopping,
like giant pink shrimps
behind tinted bus windows?

No. This town, in which a thousand flowers wither,
which has got over its Great Leap Forward
long ago, is beyond belief. It is a phantom,
a portent, a hallucination, a science-fiction opera,
a miraculous fake.

Translated by Anni Dyck

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 1984

Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Munich, 1984

copyright © John Tranter 1997

John von Neumann (1903–1957)

Moon face, double chin, waddling gait:
a stand-up comedian, most likely,
or a salesman for fitted carpets,
a bon vivant from the Rotary Club.

But as soon as he starts to think
watch out for Jáncsi from Budapest!
The soft processor under his skull-cap
will relentlessly tick away,
and with a mere flicker of his memory chip
he will produce a rush of ballistic equations.

In three moves he checkmated Eichmann and Stalin:
Göttingen-Cherbourg, Cherbourg-New York,
New York-Princeton. First Class
he escaped from the Final Solution.

All he needs is four hours’ sleep,
plenty of whipped cream on his Viennese strudel
and a couple of Zürich bank accounts.

Even those who have never heard of him
(and most of us haven’t)
switch with a click of the mouse
into his algebraic circuitry.
Without his own brand of it,
Artificial Intelligence
might never have got off the ground.

Whether it’s a question of playing dice
or detailing a hurricane — you name it..
self-fertilising automata or firing-tables
the piece of chalk in his hand
will lag behind the speed of his mind.

A maniac scribbling down Hilbert spaces,
rings and ideals, operating beyond all limits
with unlimited operators. A few new ideas,
he says, and we could jiggle the planet.

An elderly wunderkind with an interface
to the CIA. Helicopters roaring down on his lawn.
‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki: pure mathematics.
War is his cocaine. There is no such thing
as too big a weapon. Always in high spirits,
lunching with admirals.

A shy fellow at heart. Mysteries
his black box cannot cope with.
Love, for example,
stupidity, boredom.

Pessimism = a sin against science.
Energy out of the can, climate control,
eternal growth! To turn Iceland
into a tropical paradise — no problem!
The rest is nebbich.

Finally: staff outing to another island,
in business suit and blackened glasses,
Bikini. ‘Operation Turning-point’.
The test was successful. The cancer from the radiation
took ten years to turn off his synapses.

Translated by the author

Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of Europe’s leading writers and critical thinkers. His most recent book of poems in English is Kiosk, translated by Michael Hamburger and the author, published in 1997 by Bloodaxe Books in the UK, ISBN 1 85224 385 6

You can read a review of Kiosk by New York poet and law professor Lawrence Joseph in Jacket 4.


Bloodaxe Books — e-mail to
USA & Canada: Dufour Editions, lnc, PO Box 7, Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007, USA
phone (610) 458 5005 fax (610) 458 7103
Australia: Keith Ainsworth Pty Ltd, Unit 6/88 Batt Street, Penrith, NSW 2750, Australia
phone (61+ 47) 32341 1 — fax (61+47) 218259

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