Though American readers may not be familiar with Lasker-Schuler’s poetic output, a new edition, Star in My Forehead, should quickly acquaint us with her astonishing literary gifts. The youngest of six children, Else Lasker-Schuler was born in the Rhineland in 1869 and spent her youth in Berlin. Though trained as a painter, she soon turned to poetry, publishing ten books of poetry and prose during her life; in 1932, at the age of 63, she won Germany’s coveted Kleist Prize. Months later, this much-honored poet was struck by a band of Nazis waving an iron bar. Without packing a bag, Lasker-Schuler went straight to the station and boarded a train for Switzerland. Arriving penniless in Zurich, she was arrested for vagrancy and was rescued by the Swiss literary community, which organized public benefits on her behalf. By painting and writing, she was able to eke out a meager living.
In this slim but piercing dual-language volume, culled from four collections, Lasker-Schuler is by turns tender and bitter, rapturous and melancholy. She was long drawn to the ancient biblical lands and made three trips to Palestine, where she spent the last six years of her life and died in January 1945. Her poetry reflects this affection: In addition to love and loss, she takes on biblical figures as diverse as Hagar and Mary of Nazareth. Throughout all these poems there hovers a unique and mystical sensibility; for her, God was not a distant and aloof presence but one with whom she could feel intimate, even playful. “If He knew a remedy,” she said to someone in her last years, “surely He would tell it to me.” Powerful black and white illustrations, nearly all done by the poet herself, amplify her poetic vision. Lasker-Schuler is a poet whose wildly lyrical and original work deserves attention on both sides of the Atlantic: read it and weep.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is Fiction Editor of Lilith. She is the editor of The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty (Touchstone), and is currently working on a novel.