Mireille Gansel

Translated from the French by Joan Seliger Sidney

to inhabit beauty

“was it nice, your house, when you were little?” yes your childhood question this spring morning and suddenly beauty is a house one inhabits perhaps the first one perhaps the only one –

against all odds –

a house over there

when the little girl left the Budapest family she drew a train and along the train a current of blue water. And flowers. And a dock deserted. And since you know that waiting is a secret country a country of silence and that absence is a way of hoping. Perhaps from that comes this penchant for finding lost things again. And also for the words that translate. And if to translate was to look for lost words?

yes, a drawing. Like a letter. Like a lost house. A house over there –  

nomadic house


in your memory this first train bound for Budapest along a torrent the color of glaciers I did not yet know that it was the Inn coming down from the Engadine and that many years later I would find it again at the meeting of the Danube and the Ilz. At Passau. Where, one day, the poet Reiner Kunze will find refuge a few kilometers downstream. And there at the crossroads traces of the past where traces to come are already inscribed I will learn to inhabit the slow passage of words and poems –

nomadic house along the whitewaters –


in the house of Reiner Kunze. This evening of late March 2016. On the sloping garden, night falls between the gold of forsythias and traces of the last snow. In our glasses, a Croatian wine. Fruited and dark. The poet’s best bottle. He prepares himself for meetings and readings in Ukraine for the publication of a volume of his poems in the Knyhy editions at Tchernivsi (formerly Czernowitz). In this dusky light of the setting sun, I dream of his poems, of the years of exile in his own country. Forbidden from readings and publications, excluded from the writers’ room of the RDA. Yes, these same poems, translated today into Ukrainian, and that he’s going to present at Kiev and Czernowitz

          Even when he falls
          the tree inside the tree
          only dies slowly
          so it is with the humanity in man

written two years before the crushing of Prague Spring by the Soviet troops –

Czernowitz, city at the margins and confines of the Austro-Hungarian empire: Galicia Romania Bessarabia Ukraine. Melting pot of so many languages and cultures: Yiddish German Ukrainian Russian Romanian Ruthenian – Czernowitz, so many thinkers and scientists, poets and writers deported, exiled, assassinated. So many mixed and intimate dialects, so many beings “declared as Nothingness” (Imre Kertesz) –

there was one day in Geneva, dear Jean Halpérin, we were talking about Celan’s poem, “Psalm-Psaume.” And about the word “niemand” and you were telling me that the German word, like the Hebrew equivalent, is an absolute absence, negation, and doesn’t include the ambiguity of the French word “personne.” It’s man reduced to nothingness. And we chose to translate it as “no-man” : no-man : niht-man :

          It’s the no-man that we will knead again from earth and clay
          the no-man who will give voice to our dust

man annihilated to which Imre Kertesz opposes the same “ethos of resistance” –

after choosing this translation of niemand, Marc Faessler writes us: “It brings together Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and Rilke. This is the reversal of language to defeat its usage by the executioners. The Power of Words in the tongue’s language!” and this evening of March 2016, in a voice low and serious, Reiner Kunze reads Paul Celan’s “Psalm” then he adds: “Siehst du, blühend – blühen, das Schöne das Leben trotz alledem” – “You see, blooming – to bloom – the beautiful life against all odds” –

that night, while I was coming down the street, there were under the stars, stronger than the glacial wind that blew from the river, these migrant poems from all languages, these smuggled words that no border can stop –

below, at the edge of the Danube, stationed in the parking lot of the little hotel, three cars rented to tourist companies by the border police –

on the other shore, Austria –

nomadic house along the whitewaters –

          Here the sun is lower, the Neva mistier
          And hope sings to us far, far away.
          Let the boats on the Neva go in silence

. You gave me this book. It was many years ago. In a small edition that I carry on all roads. It is with these verses that I discovered Anna Akmatova ever since I’ve lived in them like one of those houses that they say have a soul –

leave no traces

what word could express this childhood home? swept away in a night train from Budapest Keleti. Birthplace motherland mother tongues. Where to come to the world. And to oneself. This word I discovered in London at a man of letters’ house filled with books. It is in Passages which Walter Benjamin finished writing during his exile in Paris. It was in 1934. Below the large stained-glass window of the Bibliothèque nationale. He calls a house – Gehäuse – : “where one takes shelter. Finds refuge.” Sometimes along the meandering roads in certain places you will discover traces “reorganizing space and through it time” –

they will bring you to this swept away house “to inhabit without leaving traces” –

Mireille Gansel has won major awards for both her translations of German and Vietnamese poets, and for some of her six books of poetry. These four poems are from Maison D’Âme. Her lyrical memoir, Translation as Transhumance (translated by Ros Schwartz), has contributed to the field of translation studies.

Joan Seliger Sidney is writer-in-residence at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. She’s the author of The Way the Past Comes Back (The Kutenai Press), Body of Diminishing Motion: Poems and a Memoir (CavanKerry Press), Bereft and Blessed (Antrim House), plus many poems in literary journals and anthologies. Body of Diminishing Motion won an Eric Hoffer Legacy Finalist Award.

Create a website or blog at