"Dada history is a writer's dream: choosing among versions, one has to make the story up. Following accounts of how in March (or April) 1916, Huelsenbeck, looking for a name to give a there-and-gone Cabaret Voltaire canary (Shall we call her Divina de la Nuit? Sally Hot Jazz? Irene Dogmatic?), chanced upon the word in an open dictionary (German? French? English? Romanian?) and immediately realized it would blow modern art, literature, and culture to pieces, one can imagine him edging into a pharmacy the next day to buy a pack of contraceptives, only to come face to face with 'DADA SHAMPOO', fine product of Bergmann & Co., on sale at Bahnhofstrasse 51 since 1913. Oh shit, Huelsenbeck must have said - or, Of course! Dada shampoo! The universal cleansing agent!

Johnny Rotten is a pop star who cannot make his fans forget the Sex Pistols, why Guy Debord writes books about his past, why the Hacienda is a nightclub in Manchester, England, and why, a few years before he died, Dr. Charles R. Hulbeck again became Huelsenbeck, left the U.S.A., and went back to Switzerland, hoping to rediscover what he'd found there more than fifty years before (not believing for a minute that he would), trying, he said, 'to go back to some kind of chaos,' half-convinced that 'liberty really never existed anywhere.'

If all this seems like a lot for a pop song to contain, that is why this story is a story, if it is."


(Greil Marcus - from the liner notes, originally from 'Lipstick Traces. A secret history of the twentieth century')



Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck

by William Seaton

                  (This appears in the current issue of Adirondack Review.)

Dada staked out very nearly the entire territory that has since been occupied by the avant-garde: multi-media, abstraction, bricolage, performance and conceptual art, found objects, use of tribal and popular culture, the cultivation of a privileged “hip” vision. Despite their seminal influence, though, actual dada works are often known only vaguely at second-hand. I have found in recent live performances of my translations that dada poetry can still bring an audience to attention. Even after nearly a century, competing with all the current varieties of spoken word, the works of Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp , Hugo Ball, Emmy Jennings, and their colleagues remain scintillating with rebellion and spectacular in the eruption of unlikely images, but also ambitious far beyond their immediate shock value.
The title of Richard Huelsenbeck’s autobiography Memoirs of a Dada Drummer defines his role both literally and figuratively. Huelsenbeck was a principal performer in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. In Germany he participated in the provocations of the extravagant Oberdada Johannes Baader. Condemning the church and the Weimar regime, they demanded a brand of “radical communism” that sought “progressive unemployment,” circuses “for the education of the proletariat,” establishment of a Dadaist sex center, and “daily meals at public expense for all creative and intellectual men and women.”
Known for his insistence even during the 20s that "Germany must be defeated," he was to the Nazis a clear example of the “degenerate” artist and an obvious target. After emigrating to the USA (with the aid of Albert Einstein), he transformed himself into a Jungian analyst, later practicing “existential psychiatry,” in Manhattan, using the name Charles R. Hulbeck.
Huelsenbeck’s poems are declamatory in their rhetoric and pyrotechnic in the speed and flash of their images, but they also have a kind of propulsive passion sometimes lacking in avant-garde works. The following poems are from his Phantastische Gebete [Fantastic Prayers] which was published first with the author’s own art in 1916 and reissued in an expanded version with wonderful drawings by George Grosz in 1920. In his 1959 preface to a new edition Huelsenbeck describes religion in terms that apply in fact to other symbolic manipulation such as art and particularly to his “prayers”: “It is the experience of constructive will in the world which lends wings to the course of the stars despite all the fallen angels and helps man in the course of his life to understand the archetypal symbols of his existence.” I believe these poems do no less.


Ravens circle lemon yellow
deepdark cold shadow-walls
of the shadow-walls has masks
o o ho oho in legs carved of wood
association and Baudelaire Mafarka blooms
the cherry tree blooms a blue clock-strike
slowly it rises from the dark it falls from the white against him faster it closes and violates perspective loosens itself posthaste in the vast surfaces teaches to worship cries the yellow the red o that Indian’s red of the totem cries the death knell for the condemned the umbrellas call out rose madder slide swim over the fountains sitting and seating and seating and laughing and seating and laughing the quee-ee-een of porcelain the quee-ee-een the dragons toss their tongues over the capitals – o – o – o – the capitals are on fire the blue flames of the capitals strike across the seas so colorful together the seas amid the sound of flames o – o – the lassos whiz far off to the equator

For Li

Death is greater than a porterhouse
he goes with monster eyes like two clouds of cinnabar
through the land
so that the sun goes down in fainting fear the cop
stands amazed
and the sea cries a great wonder! from his sleep
yes the hearse’s procession with well-nourished corpses
jostles carts
also virgins whose kisses froze on their lips and
mother’s body in fits god made the measureless
o he sings more powerfully than the priest’s litany
and steam rises and trumpets call
peoples disperse little crybabies o the helpless beg
god god god he ties his coat round his haunches
breath comes in the cities where weeping on beds, brokenhearted,
we have no choice but to wrap our minds about the inconceivable
he’s on our shoulders and necks before we suspect anything
caresses tender cheeks and mouth dog
all-powerful killer revolutionary
we are attention and we are disregard as well
in that we’re made in your image

End of the World

Indeed things have come to such a pass in this world
that cows sit atop the telegraph poles and play
the cockatoo sings so sad under the Spanish dancer’s
skirts like a trumpeter from HQ
and the cannons complain
the whole day long
it’s the lilac landscape Mr. Mayer spoke of
when he lost his eye
only the firefighting squad can drive the nightmare from the
but their hoses are all cut
yeah yeah Sonya you think the celluloid puppet’s a changeling
and shout, “God save the king!”
All the Monist Club is meeting on the steamer Meyerbeer
the helmsman alone can conceive a high C
I pull an anatomical atlas from my toes
and set to serious study
have you seen that fish who’s loitered by the opera
in a morning coat these last two days and nights?
Oh, oh, you great devil – oh, oh bee-keeper, base commander
wants a wow-wow-wow, wants a woe-woe-woe who doesn’t know
what Daddy Homer wrote
war and peace I hold in my robe but I’ve decided
that mine will be a cherry flip
no one knows today if tomorrow he’ll have been
the rhythm’s beat on the coffin-lid
if someone had only the balls to tear the feather-tail
from the streetcar it is high time
zoology professors gather in the fields of grass
they avert rainbows with upturned palms
the great guru places tomatoes on his brow
you fill again the castle and copse
the roebuck whizzes the horse leaps
(who wouldn’t go crazy at that)

To Ludwig the Flirt

Your leg hangs over me like a crescent moon;
it’s altogether clear: your breasts pant like beasts
under the best Belgian lace
hey, waiter, café au lait and the paper and a glass of water
at bottom you’re like your sisters with the swaying
who creep along the gutters, ears pricked
for the whistle of morality and the flesh-eating pimps
the cowboy whose pants you took (with his alligator
told me all I need to know about your
hey you old pig you’re fifty years old,
but the high schoolers dream of you nightly
they dream – you come sneaking with a supple
heating them up behind with what their hearts desire
hey you dirty old men you manipulator of girls you gypsies and
hotel thieves
pray yes pray if you get a kick that way
or swill yourselves smashed till the houses rise their drains
let the firefighters thunder driving rivers from their sleep
old bums I approach a bottle under my arm crazy
and is it you once more oh precious swine has the surgeon
caught sight of your belly grappling iron all ready torch and anaesthesia
dada dada no one lives but you, oh my tender beloved
* all translations by William Seaton

* Seaton is a poet, critic, and translator. In 2008 his Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems was published by FootHills Publishing. He is also the author of Tourist Snapshots and Cold Water, as well as scholarly work (including a volume on medieval love poetry). A book of essays and translations, Dada Poems from the German, has just been published by Nirala.