Geheimbrief is the latest collection – sixty-two short poems in all – by the Swiss writer and poet Erika Burkart, who was born in 1922, has published poetry and novels since 1953, and has won numerous prizes and awards, among them the Grosser Schillerpreis, the most prestigious Swiss literary prize which she shares with the likes of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch.
The volume opens with a quotation from Goethe’s Faust – ‘What is it that grips you thus at dusk?’ – which rightly suggests that the main theme will be that of old age, the thoughts of a writer whose life is coming to a close and who feels words, memories, pictures slowing slipping away.
There I stand on the gravel path/ and cannot grasp it/would like to keep up/ from the depth – a leaf/ that can remember its roots.
Many of the thoughts in these poems centre in words and forgetting, and the acceptance of our human inability to seize and express the essence of life. Over and over again the poet juxtaposes the limitation of human words with the inexpressible nature that surrounds us. Yet there is also a growing sense that with our conscious mind we might never totally grasp this ultimate knowledge and understanding.
Burkart draws heavily on the nature imagery of her native Switzerland – blue alpine flowers, melting snowflakes, birch trees at night, but never over-romanticises it. There is no longing to become one with nature. Rather she is clear that what makes us human are our words and reflective capabilities, and indeed there are a number of poems that deal with her own fear of losing those capacities:
On a lonely Sunday/ inside your own four walls/ in the brightest daylight, when you fear/the loss of yourself/ In writing/ to find yourself/ in a language/that no one any longer knows.
This is a beautiful collection of poems in which a mature, experienced and talented writer tries to catch in words an old, graceful mind that has accepted the limitations of the human being. Despite its melancholic undertone, this late collection leaves an incredibly calm and peaceful feeling. A fine justification for survival into old age.