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Grünbein's Cranial Base Lesson

Schädelbasislektion (in English Cranial Base Lesson) consists of five stanzas each consisting of eight septenaries with cross-rhyme (a-b-a-b) and anapestic attack (with two atone and one tonic). The classical quantity has been rendered with two atone syllables and one tonic.

I propose the translation of the first of a total of five stanzas of the poem Schädelbasislektion, which opens Grünbein's second collection of 1991 –a collection that brought him into the limelight and received considerable critical acclaim. A single word is fundamental to early Grünbein's poetics: Schädelbasislektion. The entire poem is an attempt to create an aesthetics of biological physicality linked to human transience through a tormented path in search of completeness, the ability to range naturally from art to science and to make them merge into each other, to reconstitute that lost original unity between science and poetry, which for Grünbein corresponds to that historical fracture, responsible for moreover for having withered and human being.

In poetry, for Grümbein, the fundamental semantic event is the lesson that reaches the base of the skull at a certain moment, albeit with great delay. In the inner distance of its elements, in fact, poetry distances itself from every other language, which, like an obedient murmur, remains below the magical threshold of stimulation and dies out in the shortest possible time.

Hereinafter you find the text of the first stanza with my own translation.

Was du bist steht am Rand Anatomischer Tafeln. Dem Skelett an der Wand Was von Seele zu schwafeln Liegt gerad so verquer Wie im Rachen der Zeit (Kleinhirn hin, Stammhirn her) Diese Scheiß Sterblichkeit.
What you are sits on the edge Of anatomical tables. With your bones to the wall Something of soul to whisper on Lies just so awry As in the maw of time (There the encephal, here the bulb) This shitty deadliness.


Grünbein, Durs. Schädelbasislektion: Gedichte. 1. Aufl, Suhrkamp, 1991.

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