Twenty PoemsKathrin Schmidt, translated by Sue VickermanThe jacket is designed in three horizontal bands of equal sizes. The top and bottom band is white. The middle is black and features the photograph of what is probably an eleborate paper folding with numerous petal-like spikes, but it looks like the head of a flower, a chrysanthemum perhaps. The author's name is in black lower case in the top band, huge, so it takes the full width of the jacket. All text is centred. Below the name is TWENTY POEMS in smaller thick, chunky caps. In the bottom third, also in black, and much smaller and spread over two lines, are the words: Translated & (ampersand) introduced by Sue Vickerman.

Arc Publications, 2020    £7.00

The roaring 20

Twenty Poems is, as you might expect, a pamphlet containing twenty poems. So far, so Ronseal. However, it acts not as a varnish on a career, but as more of a primer. It’s also a bilingual work, with Schmidt’s original work sitting beside Sue Vickerman’s translations.

Many of the poems in the collection carry political weight, for example, the ‘cynical take on Germany’s reunification’ in the poem ‘the day of the drop-dead divas’, or the ‘political dissent’ in ‘paperworks’, where ‘an angel is flapping through the paperworks’:

he makes the masses happy
by passing on news from the bbc
alongside the tass bulletins.

Beyond the big P politics, the range of themes covered by this selection includes ‘gender, identity, the body, eroticism, her own personal history and language itself’ — and that’s a lot to cover.

A ‘Schmidt Plate’ is an image from a Schmidt camera that’s ‘typically used [...] for research programs in which a large amount of sky must be covered’. This seems apt, given the poet’s name, and suggests I can focus in on one part of this universe, or rather one poem (‘thanks to’) that stands out from the rest of the selection but covers at least two or three of the themes listed above.

In ‘thanks to’ we’re told the poet likes going out walking in a ‘flimsy jackets / as a way of savouring the weather’. However, what makes this feel like a beautiful love poem, but also engage with some of the other themes, are the thanks to a partner for allowing her to go off and, most importantly, to come back after putting herself in the way of wind or rain, etc. She can only do that with the knowledge that there’s someone there to pick up the pieces afterwards:

this is only made practicable
by honey, already
stirred into hot milk by you,
when i get home.

That sense of relationship politics is communicated through a relatively small action that can’t be lost in translation. One small action helps put context behind the big actions of the other work included here.

Mat Riches