Lesley Lebkowicz reviews While I am drawing breath by Rose Ausländer (trans)

While I am drawing breath

By Rose Ausländer,

translated by Anthony Vivis and Jean Boase-Beier

ISBN 978 1906570 30 9

Arc Publications


Black milk: the poetry of Rose Ausländer

Many poetry readers, asked about the poetry of the Holocaust, will think of Paul Celan’s Todesfuge and its powerful opening image:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink . . .

Fewer readers will know that the image of black milk is from an early poem by Rose Ausländer. She was Celan’s senior by some 19 years. They both lived in the predominantly Jewish town of Czernowicz (now Cernauti) and became friends.  She was something of a mentor to him. When he used her profoundly paradoxical image of black milk, she generously said he was the greater poet and that she was happy he had used her image.

Celan’s suffering after the Holocaust was great: he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Seine in 1946. Ausländer, however, went on, and went on writing. She was prolific, with 24 books to her name, two published after her death in 1988. Writing was fundamental to her survival, and though she had already begun to write and publish before the Holocaust, her writing, her poetry, was the breath which sustained her life through and after the many dislocations and losses the Holocaust imposed on her.

Ausländer was born Rose Scherzer; her husband’s name was Ausländer. The name means ‘foreigner’; literally, someone from another country. Their marriage didn’t last. Ausländer’s use of the name did. It fitted her life, her frequent re-locations; it suited the way she felt about these dislocations. The subject of her work, most often spoken of indirectly, largely through imagery, is the Holocaust and the way it shaped her life. One of her recurrent images is of ash:

In the rain of ashes
is the trace of your name

It was
a perfect word

consumed it
‘Ashes’ (91)

Ash and language are again conjoined in ‘Your House’:

choking on the words

And so powerfully in ‘Ark’:

On the sea
an ark
of stars

for the
that survive
the flood of fire

In one respect ash is the literal outcome of the cremation of the bodies of the camp prisoners. The literal embodies the metaphor of the worthless residue of precious people destroyed. Ausländer rarely speaks of individual people; her voice is not explicit about the personal or even about the historical.

Hard truths are hard to speak; and hard to avoid: they seep into, and colour experience and writing which alludes to the experiences. Ausländer shares this impulse with W.G. Sebald whose prose was deeply informed by the same Gargantuan and subterranean subject.

Instead of the personal and the historical, Ausländer speaks in the language of fundamental elements: snow, fire, house, air, water, so that while her writing is born of historical specifics, it transcends those conditions and speaks to the elements which underlie the horrible capacity of humans to destroy each other.

In Your House:
The sun says
sleep yourself awake
my child
I will light your way

The rain
I am weeping for the
children . . .

And ‘Shut Out Their Love’ is almost entirely made up of elemental imagery:

They came
with guns and jagged banners
shot down the moon and all the stars
and shut out their light
and shut out their love

That day we buried the sun
And there was eternal night

Ausländer rarely capitalises anything other than the initial letter of a stanza. The additional capitalisation of the ‘And’ beginning the last line heralds the significance of the final statement.

Ausländer’s preference for working in these univeral elements means that not only does she transcend the specifics of history, she also transcends (or bypasses?) the specifics of individuality, of personality. While the piles of shoes or clothing displayed in Holocaust museums and memorials inevitably carry the imprint of the person who once owned and wore them, she does not give us this.

What she gives us instead is the power of language as a way of surviving what is too harsh to be specified, to be spoken of. Again and again she refers to language. Language has the power to give life; in Hunger:

Secretively I plant
the word in this cell
exhorting the apple to grow. . .

In a poem the title of which is translated as Words (though it is Sprache in German, which means Language), she begins:

Keep me in your service
my whole life long
let me breathe in you

I thirst for you
drink you word for word
my source

Even when Ausländer writes of despair, it is expressed through an image about language. From ‘The Net’:

I want to say something
one word
which says it all

I am who I am

/ . . ./

The word
fails me now
My words
fall silent in me

That Ausländer goes on to write of the failure of language is of course paradoxical. While I am Drawing Breath is seeded with paradox.

Dust that joins is a series of paradoxical images which Ausländer piles one on the other to both create and annihilate the universe she inhabits:

weavers of words

heretics who believe
we fly to the stars
in love
with the earth
which we burn to ashes
in cleansing fire

Paradox is the stuff of much spiritual discourse. To take logically opposed notions and unite them is to defy reason and drive the conscious mind beyond reason’s limitations into a spiritual reality. This is how Ausländer’s poetics works. The reality of the war, its racism and violence, drives us either to insanity or to spiritual reality. Paradox allows Ausländer to speak the unspeakable.


While I am Drawing Breath was published in 2014, a republication from 1995 of the collection then named Mother Tongue. The translation, by Jean Boase-Beier and Anthony Vivis, is presented as a parallel text: German on the left, English facing on the right-hand page. There is an integrity, an honouring of the text and the reader, in publishing a parallel text. While I respect this integrity, it sometimes made my reading a vexed thing.

I came to this review by virtue of my experience as a poet and reviewer, not as a native German speaker, nor with any academic qualifications in German language and literature. But my parents were native German speakers and I heard the language and learnt its cadences as a child. Some years ago I worked on the translation of an early Buddhist verse cycle with two Pali scholars, Pali being the language of the verse cycle. In the course of this I learned about the three-fold pattern of translation where a teams of translators collaborate: one fluent only in the first language, one bilingual and the third fluent only in the language of the translation, a system which makes both for accuracy and ease in the final version.

This fluency and fidelity is not always present in the book under review. For example, ‘verbrannte Kinder’ in Your House is translated as ‘children who played in the fire’. ‘Verbrannte’ means ‘burnt, burnt up, incinerated’. There’s no playing in Ausländer’s text. Some of these deviations from Ausländer’s uncompromising voice might better have been described as being ‘after Ausländer’. Though these glitches are unfortunate, it’s good that Ausländer’s poetry is available in English. The brilliance of her writing documents the possibility of transcending the worst of which we are capable.


LESLEY LEBKOWICZ lives in Canberra on Ngunnawal land. She has published five books, including the award-winning The Petrov Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013), a collaborative translation of Book IV of the Sutta Nipata (the oldest Buddhist verse cycle) and most recently, Mountain Lion (Pitt Street Poetry, 2019).