How has the Nibelungenlied inspired modern poet Ulrike Draesner’s new book? Stephanie Hathaway attended the book launch this November.
Tuesday evening, New College, Oxford hosted the book launch for Ulrike Draesner’s latest volume of poetry: Nibelungen . Heimsuchung. The event was organized by Professor Karen Leeder and Mediating Modern Poetry, and attended by students and staff from modern, early-modern and medieval backgrounds. Ulrike Draesner, a visiting fellow of New College, presented and read selections from her new book that marks the advent of a completely new look for Reclam. Draesner explained that Reclam had acquired the rights to the 1908 Nibelungen illustrations by Carl Otto Czeschka, and asked her if she would compose poetry to accompany them. The result is a beautiful hard-cover volume showcasing the Czeschka colour illustrations in their full Jugendstil glory, complete with gold leaf, placed exactly as Draesner wished, to complement her expressive verse.
Hardly a work has been so charged with complexity in meaning and political and cultural undertones as the Nibelungenlied material. Indeed, Czeschka’s illustrations were themselves instrumental in inspiring Austrian director Fritz Lang to create his epic five-hour silent film version in 1924, at a time during which German cinema was at the forefront of the development of motion pictures.
It is through all of this background that Ulrike Draesner’s verse shines a light of perspective both selective and thought-provoking. She talked about how she had studied the Nibelungenlied at university and, as an “honorary medievalist”, how the Middle High German epic had inspired her then, and again upon coming back to it later, always giving new meaning. Her verse is modern, rhythmic and evocative, focussing, as she says, on the individual. The book treats each of the four heroic figures: Kriemhild, Sigfried, Brünhild and Hagen, giving their feelings and perspectives voice in “lyric monologues” in German, occasionally interspersed with Latin, English and Middle High German, and concluding with 23 short Nibelungen “novels”.
Draesner was in fine form as she read selections, many from the Kriemhild section, and then from the chorus of crows. Showing some of Czeschka’s illustrations, Draesner focussed on the scene in which Kriemhild dreams about her future husband, Sigfried, as a flacon who is attacked by two eagles. The rhythmic, kinetic verse leapt from the page as Draesner read with her emotive, velvet voice, and the interplay between language and senses could be keenly felt. English translations were read by Professor Almut Suerbaum and Karen Leeder, and were equally well-composed to evoke the images and feelings of the figures.
There followed a short discussion of the ways that the Middle High German epic Nibelungenlied was used in this work, and how it inspired Draesner, who said that she had tried to connect with the psychology of the figures, where the epic described only action, inaction and power-play. The evening wrapped up with drinks and lively discussion in one of those rare occasions that modernists and medievalists are met with the same subject matter. Ulrike Draesner’s book is a real treasure for all Germanists from medievalists to post-modernists, and hearing her perform the verses she composed was an absolute pleasure.
Stephanie L Hathaway, University of Oxford, 10 November 2016.
Stephanie’s review will be published in volume 3 of Cerae Journal!