#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews HYDRA’S HEADS by Nora Gomringer

Reading this book is like walking through an amusement park. Actually no, that would be too artificial, too unreal, while the book is so very real; there is something authentic and sincere about it, something raw. Perhaps reading it is like being dropped into a wilderness. It will excite you in a joyous and a scary way; it will surprise you; it might hurt you; it might make you stop and look back, strain your ears to listen; it might make you remember and dream. It will certainly make you change the rhythm of your step.

This is the first English-language collection from the excellent German-speaking Swiss poet, Nora Gomringer. Big thanks should go to Nora’s translator, Annie Rutherford, for her determination to bring this poetry into English and for her excellent translations. I can only imagine how big a challenge it was to translate such a varied set of poems, to try to find (with complete success) the right register and voice for the range of work, not to mention dealing with the wide net of cultural references and highly inventive language.

you blaze in me

my heart blisterful

wets my shirt

the fabric ruined

above the heart

there’s no going out like this

in public

hair chimneying

in misty rooms

[From ‘Arsonist’, p. 53]

The first thing that strikes the reader is the variety of tones, themes, registers and forms that Nora switches back and forth between. And even though she takes on some weighty issues, including the Holocaust (there is a remarkable trilogy of poems halfway through the collection that blew my socks off, partly because Nora has managed to make these poems sound so current), there is also a lot of playfulness. The profound is often contrasted with the mundane, and the result of this clash is something intriguing and captivating.

We wouldn’t have taken part in this business

We would have held back

Would have stayed at home

With our women, our children, our houses, our herds

We wouldn’t have worn brown or parted our hair or

Worn that unfortunate moustache

We wouldn’t have called Sieg and wished Heil

We wouldn’t have screamed loudly. We would have gone swing dancing

But wait, we did swing dance and boogie woogie


I’m telling you

I wouldn’t have shoved a toothbrush into anyone’s hand and said

Scrub the damn platform, all of it

Wouldn’t have said, just one suitcase and you’ll get your things back after the disinfection

Would never have said, faster, faster to the lame old men and never you left, your sister right, would never have spat at Herr Jacob in the face


I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t have stayed silent once too often rather than open my mouth one to many times

I wouldn’t say that

I wouldn’t have taken part in this business


I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t have taken part

[From ‘We wouldn’t have taken part’, p 43]

Nora’s poetry is also political and feminist. She writes about the female body as if following the call for women and their bodies to be written about by women, for women to have their own voices heard and not be contained and constrained by men’s view of them. She reclaims women and their bodies in her poems. Her descriptions of bodies and sex are full of irony and often sardonicism; they are uncomfortable, even painful, but often also funny and joyous. They are personal and they ring true.

took me along

lifted from the box

led by the hand

water from the saucer

placed a collar of cultured pearls around my neck

taught tricks: baking, cooking, sewing on buttons

then one day

abandoned me

after a long drive in a blindfold

or a stick thrown too far 

[From ‘Bitch’, p. 57]

This is such beautiful, insanely intense poetry; I can’t remember when I was so drawn into a poetry book, so absolutely swallowed by it, hooked to the point of walking around the house and reading this or that poem out loud, to myself and to anybody who was willing to listen.

This is another important feature of this poetry – Nora Gomringer is a performer. And it shows. So, if you ever have a chance to see her reading her poetry live, do not let the opportunity pass you by. It really is something very special. We had her performing a couple of months ago at the British Library and I definitely hope we will see her more often in the UK.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak


Written by Nora Gomringer

Translated by Annie Rutherford

Published by Burning Eye (2018)

This review was originally published on European Literature Network website in April 2019.

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