Sunday, June 17, 2007

Little Rock

As far as I know, Konrad Krez only published three poems about his experiences commanding a Union regiment in the Civil War. None of those poems, to my knowledge, have been translated into English except on this blog.

Unlike 'New Orleans, February 1865' and 'Heimchen Brazos Santiago', written about locales where his unit was stationed for only a week or two, 'Little Rock' is about the place where he and his men were assigned for a year and a half, fully half of the three years that the 27th Wisconsin was involved in the war.

My great great grandfather, as a replacement troop, joined up with the regiment at the end of January, 1865, a few days before the unit was transferred by boat to Mobile by way of New Orleans.

Little Rock

Where, as from the emerald gates
A stream of silver, the Arkansas
From forested hills down into the flat land
Flows, and you crown the plain,
The river's long course from far distant
Rocks spills at last its flood.

Beloved of the South, the North
Kisses the sweat from your brow;
Underground springs that never run dry
Replenish your cool waters.

February brings you its buds,
Leaves in full array decorate your March,
And with the flowers' fragrance filling
The air, your blossoms bring in April.

On far away mountains the snow in May melts,
Delivering refreshing floods to your feet
To soften your summer nights.
Storms douse your hot autumn,
And in November the first frost comes
To kill your last roses
And the leaves on your trees turn colors.

Your eaves shiver with the light snow
In January, often coating your ponds
With thin ice, and more often,
Ornamenting your trees with icicles,
That hang with the rainbow's splendor
From your pine needles, covering
Every bough with glittering jewels.

Mild is your winter, and indeed cold enough,
That with the comfort of a chimney
One enjoys the warmth of a good fire.

How fortuitously mixed your heaven of warm and cold!
In which a foreigner, coming from hot
Or cold lands, always encounters old friends,
For your Germans are your wild vines,
And your oaks, as lovely and large
As those of the Spessarts, are like
A piece of his old Fatherland.

In your garden an apple tree stands
Beside pear, plum and fig plants,
And all of the familiar flowers
That with our species go wandering.

A rock, like the Lorelei on the Rhine,
Nearby to you in your highlands,
Looks out over the plain, where your corn's
Full cobs grow higher than
A man on horseback, standing in his stirrups,
Can reach with his outstretched arms.

There grows the barley and there the rye
In heavy sheaves, richly turned out;
There fly the bursting shells of cotton about,
Where the white fleece, like balls of snow,
Hangs from green stalks.

Generous, as your fertile soil,
Are your hospitable people,
Who know no poverty
And make thrift their virtue.
Welcome is the foreigner, for whom
A ready chair is found at every table.


Loren said...

I've read this at least two or three times now and still am not quite sure what to think about it.

I don't like it as well as the first one I commented on, perhaps because it seems more "traditional" than that one, perhaps more "sentimental."

The first part actually confuses me, as I'm not sure who the narrator is addressing.

As noted previously, unfortunately I have no skills in German do it's impossible to separate your translation from the poet's original.

Craig said...

Thanks for your comment, Loren. I can appreciate your confusion. It took me forever to figure out what he was doing with that stream of silver and those gates of emerald. And then that slate thingy.

He starts the second stanza with the accusative case "dich" rather than the nominative case "du", so it might be that "Beloved of the south" would be more accurate than "You love the south".

Little Rock is and was the capital of the state and for the most part I think "you" and "your" refers to that city, but the first stanza is about the Arkansas River which starts in the Rockies and apparently flows across a bed of slate that's been there for quite a few eons. The slate is also like a writing tablet or a blackboard and the poet's words, a poetic conceit if you will, are a sort of river of thought, written across the state, that takes a long time to arrive.

The Arkansas River was also the dividing line, separating the Union occupied north from the Confederate south which had established a rebel capital in the Ozarks south and west of Little Rock.

I would not have been able to translate this poem without first translating the other two poems because so much of the sense in this poem comes from an understanding of what Krez did in the other two poems. Homesickness for his German homeland figures largely in all three poems. He was exiled a dozen years earlier because of his part in the 1848 Revolution and standing orders for him to be shot on sight were still in effect there.

Sheboygan winters embodied for Krez the emotional coldness of the homeland he had fled. If New Orleans, a land without winter, was heaven for Krez and the scorching heat of Brazos Santiago in the summer was hell, Arkansas was a kind of purgatory where he could expiate his Old World sins. The idealized Pfalz he projects on the canvas of his tent on Brazos Santiago depicts his homeland, nearly straddling the Rhine in German speaking territory on the French side of that river. The Swiss Alps in his description of the Pfalz have their counterpart in allusions to the Rocky Mountains in his description of Little Rock.

I knew very little about the geography of Little Rock before trying to translate this poem. The city is named after a rock outcropping on the southern bank of the river which is a landmark similar to the Lorelei on the Rhine. But it's clear that he begins this poem and climaxes it with a view from some significant altitude, more than you would get from a rock on a riverbank.

Pinnacle Mountain, it turns out, is about ten or twelve miles south and west of Little Rock with an elevation of about 1,000 feet and a panoramic view where one can see the river, scribbling its way across the plain, the city of Little Rock and the fields of corn, wheat and cotton that surround it.

According to accounts of the history of the 27th Wisconsin, the unit was stationed on or very near Pinnacle Mountain. The 43rd Illinois, another unit in his brigade, commanded by another German, Adolph Dengler, was stationed at the Little Rock Armory, birthplace in 1880 of General Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur's father, Arthur Jr., was a teenaged lieutenant and adjutant in the 24th Wisconsin. Arthur Sr. was the first Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin to serve as Acting Governor. The second Acting Governor of Wisconsin was Edward Salomon, the Prussian who replaced Governor Harvey when he drowned in the Tennessee River while reviewing what was left of the Wisconsin regiments after Shiloh.

Another Salomon, Charles, commanded another of the regiments in the division commanded by Governor Edward Salomon's brother, Frederick. Most of the Salomons settled in Utah after the war.

Krez didn't speak much English. What English he learned he got from his children. He dependended on his adjutant, whose often glib reports to the newspapers in Sheboygan echo some of the themes in the Krez poems.