THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC: A Narrative Poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger


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Now available in his own superb English translation, German poet Hans Enzensberger's tour de force, The Sinking of the Titanic, combines theatrical farce and autobiography in a book-long poem that concerns much more than the Titanic's demise. Interwoven with the hushed, frightening story of the ship--""This is it./ An icy fingernail/ scratching at the door and stopping short./ Something gives""--are the poet's own memories of Cuba, where, incongruously, he first began writing his epic. ""And I looked out with an absent mind/ over the quay at the Caribbean Sea,/ and there I saw it. . ./ I saw the iceberg, looming high/ and cold. . ./ it drifted slowly, irrevocably,/ white, nearer to me."" (The final version of Enzensberger's poem takes shape ten years later in his native Berlin.) On board the Titanic, we see the steerage passengers without life preservers while the giant symbol of conspicuous consumption is ""swallowed"" by the sea. (""Dinner First Class/ April 14, 1912/ Caviar Beluga/Hors d'oeuvres variÉs/ Turtle Soup."") The poem is divided into Cantos--this, and the hellish atmosphere, and several direct references to Dante, evoke The Divine Comedy. But Enzensberger avoids too much reliance on this allusion, and uses other artistic prototypes and other vivid references: the Umbrian master's painting of ""Apocalypse,"" Poe's Gordon Pym, the newsreel of a solitary man in Heimaey, Iceland, who aimed a garden hose at the wall of volcanic lava engulfing his home, ""turning it into a towering wall. . ./ of lava, cold and wet. . . and thus postponing. . ./ the Decline of Western Civilization."" The result is a narrative with the grip of a novel, not only on account of its suspense, but because the reader is suspended, with the poet, on the question of our chances--as a society, or if necessary alone: ""Dimly, hard to say why, I continue to wail, and to swim.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin