Alive or Dead by Heinz Piontek


Alive or Dead
by Heinz Piontek
Translated by Richard Exner
Unicorn Press (1975)

The Olives of Oblivion have a few golden rules when it comes to slumming around used book bins, one of which is to buy every book published by Unicorn Press. Like any risk-taking publisher, Unicorn published the occasional dud; but for the most part, Unicorn published consistantly interesting titles, including Philip Levine’s 5 Detroits, an untitled selection of Gunter Eich, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Outer Banks, Gunnar Ekelöf’s Molna Elegy: Metamorphoses, Daniel Berrigan’s Prison Poems, and John Haines’s Twenty Poems, just to name a few.

The books in Unicorn’s German Series have a classy cover motif–two-color vertical stripes and an understated box displaying both the author and press name. Stacked next to each other on the shelf, these books take on a life of their own–crisp design, interesting poets, uniform size, slim page count. And the pages in the books are smyth sewn (not just glued to the spine), a feature far too uncommon in the flimsy editions made by today’s desktop publishers.

The most interesting aspect of Alive or Dead is that it represented, for the first time, Heinz Piontek’s German poetry to an American audience. Here are two of Exner’s strongest translations:



Someone intimates that he
is against the times.

Someone carries a banner
protesting banners.

Others have equilateral
triangles in their heads.

Enlightenment grows apace.
It is getting dark.

New books beget new

The future, I hear,
is a redhead.

We’ll discuss the future


Someone knows what’s up.
He’s a student.

Old people never tell anything
but old tales.

A seminarian and a usurer
in St. Petersburg:

The classics: splendid stuff
for crossword puzzles.

Nothing is quite so annoying
as what is good.

You cannot always
just chase flies.

To carry a hatchet under your coat
will soon come in style.

Everyone talks of affluence.

I hear there are
superfluous people again.


Everyday the nightsticks rob
someone’s innocence.

Every day we understand each other less.

Dailies are still delivered
every day.

Peace is a comedy.

To emigrate
no longer serves any purpose.

Simple statements don’t get any




Bad weather hanging like hay
from the trees.

And the passwords: that yes is not yes,
that I’m readied for the noose–

More precisely: what I neglected,
what went up in smoke–

our garrotte–

No more messages
from across the mountains.


An apple, with a green peel.
And a glass of Tyrolean wine.

It stops raining.
Yesterday I was desperate.

Now the air is beginning to clear.
My courage grows.

And in advance
I destroy words,

with which I could sail
across the mountains.


Piontek’s writing is one of irony and political wariness. The poet seems all too aware that social power and language have the potential to fail us. Yet the voice here isn’t one of helplessness; it is one of indictment and resistance, and, ultimately, of meaning-making and emotional risk. Though it had a short print run, Alive or Dead is available for around 5 to 15 dollars on abebooks.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


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