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Poem of the week: Black Beans by Sarah Kirsch


Composed of small, domestic details, this love poem is also an oblique reflection on materialism and East German communism

This week's poem, Black Beans (Schwarze Bohnen) is by Sarah Kirsch, the acclaimed East German poet who died last year, aged 78. It's from a new parallel-text edition of Kirsch's work, Iced Roses: Selected Poems, published by Carcanet and edited and translated by Anne Stokes.

Black Beans is an early poem whose reception itself is a political history in miniature. Stokes writes in her informative introduction that it "was singled out at the Sixth Writers' Congress in 1969 as overly subjective and negative. A few years later, however, in the wake of Erich Honecker's 'No taboos' speech of 1971, the same poem was held up at the Seventh Writers' Congress as an example of 'Socialist writing that encapsulated the complexities and contradictions of Socialist life'."

In an interview with Die Zeit in 2005, Kirsch said her poems were sparked off by "optical impressions". Although Black Beans isn't primarily a visual poem, the image of the "gorgeous/ Black beans" is clearly important. I almost said it "grounds" the poem, but that would be unfairly facetious. It gives it its title and the key metaphor – the hopeless, Sisyphean task of putting "the ground coffee/ Back together again".

Realism rules until this point. The long, repetitive, restless afternoon is characterised by lack of concentration. A book is picked up and abandoned; then the speaker takes us into her own head, and the same thing happens to her perception ("there is war"). It's not denied that "there is war", however: it's simply that the power of some undisclosed emotion or event makes the speaker "forget each and every war".

The fantastical coffee "episode" may be an assertion of the desire for psychological control. It's the point at which the Seventh Writers' Congress spokesperson could have discerned a literal Socialist paradox. Material goods in short supply are all the more treasured – eked out, recycled, re-used whenever possible.

Then again, the poem invokes the truism that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs – a universal law under every Ism known to mankind. The magical idea – omelette and eggs, cup of rich coffee and "gorgeous" coffee beans – is reinforced by the absence of punctuation, a feature of the whole poem, of course, but particularly assertive when it occurs inside the line: "Back together again gorgeous/ Black beans."

At this same point the anaphoric pattern ("In the afternoon") breaks down, enhancing the visual impact of the "Black beans". It's picked up once more, in line nine, a kind of punctuation-through-repetition, but then a more urgently-paced narrative takes over. The last three lines are a kind of "flash fiction". They bring us close to the speaker, generous in denotation but without filling in connective details. The pronoun "I" occurs only once in the English version, with an effect of acceleration and added mystery. If the speaker is a woman waiting for her lover, do we assume he has arrived and made love to her in between those lines? Do the making-up and washing activities bookend gratified desire, or signal the breakdown of reason?

Perhaps the last line ("sing don't say a thing") alludes to political astuteness. In a repressive society, the poet might favour the traditional "song" of love- or nature poetry in preference to political comments the censor could interpret as subversion. Singing and not speaking might also imply madness – an Ophelia-like love-dementia, where song becomes the only kind of speech available. The simple, cheery musical chime of the sing/thing rhyme in the English version lightens the mood and raises the possibility of a happy dénouement.

Black Beans may be a love poem but it's also a trenchant critique of materialism, capitalist or communist. Its narrator seems islanded among the good things of civilisation, the books and information, the coffee, clothes and cosmetics. At some vital, core level of her being, she remains aloof. What drives the poem is its inner narrative – the story of an "I" who perceives, thinks, knows, forgets, and apprehends the world with both sensuous admiration and desolate boredom. In a rare meeting of inner and outer possibility, this "I" at last finds a voice, and sings.

Black Beans

In the afternoon I pick up a book
In the afternoon I put a book down
In the afternoon it enters my head there is war
In the afternoon I forget each and every war
In the afternoon I grind coffee
In the afternoon I put the ground coffee
Back together again gorgeous
Black beans
In the afternoon I take off my clothes put them on
Apply make-up first then wash
Sing don't say a thing

Schwarze Bohnen

Nachmittags nehme ich ein Buch in die Hand
Nahcmittags lege ich ein Buch aus der Hand
Nachmittags fällt mir ein es gibt Krieg
Nachmittags vergesse ich jedweden Krieg
Nachmittags mahle ich Kaffee
Nachmittags setze ich den zermahlenen Kaffee
Rückwärts zusammen schöne
Schwarze Bohnen
Nachmittags ziehe ich mich aus mich an
Erst schminke dann wasche ich mich
Singe bin stumm

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