Kenah Cusanit

- Germany -

Kenah Cusanit (b. 1979 in Blankenburg) is an orientalist and ethnologist and was awarded numerous prizes for her essays and poetry. Her texts appear in various magazines such as Edit and Bella triste. Her poetry collection aus Papier was published by hochroth Verlag Berlin in 2014, followed by Chronographe Chorologien I in 2017. She won the Uwe-Johnson-Prize for her debut novel Babel. The book was published in 2019 by Hanser Verlag, received euphorical press in Germany and was shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2019. She lives in Berlin.

invent a pen from reed/ and start writing with it

An essay on the poet Kenah Cusanit


The "original meaning" of "place" is, according to a poem from Kenah Cusanit's first book on paper, "a place that holds all/ other places together. even the forgotten,/ old, replaced ones." (21) Cusanit's poems are such places in which spatial and temporal connections are exposed and recreated.


The author's sense of possibility, which can go into the future, the unfamiliar and also into the strange, the surreal, interacts in each poem with her sense of reality, which excavates past conditions and places, loci, researches historically and explores the natural world. Through this literary archaeology, which she also has attributed to the main character of her 2019 debut novel Babel, the archaeologist Richard Koldewey, the past is brought into the present, which searches for itself in history, only to become alien.


From her first book of poems to a more recent cycle of poems on plants and their fruits, which the author read in Berlin in November 2022, Kenah Cusanit's poems have always been dedicated to natural phenomena. Flora such as blueberry bushes, buckthorn, chickweed, mugwort, poppies, oaks, spruces, larches or apple trees, fauna such as jays, coots, pigs or cats, landscapes such as mountains, seas, lakes and fields and the environmental conditions appear in Cusanit's poetry comical, threatening, strange, worthy of protection, a world longed for. But her writing is not nature poetry, in which an already well-formed subject finds itself in the environment and observes it.


Rather, the poems explore the dynamics of the relations in which the lyrical speaker herself is enmeshed through her lyrical speech. Subjectivity is unfolded, the layered self is branched out into the environment. Figures of subject-change can be found in which the agency has entered entirely into the agents of the environment, "the north rolls over the fields of God/ swept together" that "pressed themselves against the earth" (18). Or the weather becomes its own "project" and eludes the observing humans (19).


Therefore, Cusanit's texts do not aim at an unbroken finding of oneself, but also at alterity and strangeness. Instead of fitting well into the world, into one's own time, the latter contracts "before me", so that the I is "after the/ earth", as it is spatially not in the fields or under the trees, but "behind" them (22). Thus brought to a distance, we are not in the flow of thoughts, but stand at times "before our own immemorial thoughts" (31).


Moreover, all nature in Cusanit's texts is linked to culture, both technical and artistic. In subtly tilting moments that one hardly notices on first reading, the poem shifts from imagining a scene to a medial self-reference. Thus, in each unique lake, "the same alphabet,/ the same letters" are "picked up" (aufgeboben) (20), leaves as foliage are evoked in the reader's imagination, into which a white one "of paper" (23) inserts itself as the medium of the poem.


The poet also frequently addresses other arts and media technologies such as cuneiform writing, letterpress printing, cartography or photography. In the process, scenes of media reflection are linked across her books. Sceneries of open-air painting in the late 19th century, especially by Impressionists such as Monet, are invoked in her poetry (aP, 32; Chronographe Chorologien I, 38) and her prose (Babel, 39f.). There, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's first photograph of his study in 1826 is described, which in turn can be read as a poem evoking the photographer's perspective (CCI, 10).


What applies to the realm of nature also applies to that of history. In Babel, deeply probing constellations from Mesopotamia, antiquity, the Enlightenment, Wilhelminism and Europe before the First World War question and illuminate each other. And in her second volume of poems, Chronographe Chorologien I, earlier points in time answer later points in time and vice versa, without chronologically invoking the modern myth of a linear development of history.


The historical time of the poems, each headed with a year, ranges from the early history of sedentariness around 7000 B.C. to the year of the book’s publication, 2017. In addition, the time span goes back to the end of the Earth's Middle Ages 65 million years ago, when more than 70% of all animal species became extinct, including the ammonites: "nothing/ has been the point of being there for three hundred million years (searching the/ seabed for crabs) to leave an imprint for another/ three hundred." (35) At the same time, Cusanit's poetic deep-time imagination casts its light on the 1000th year after her birth: 2979, from today's perspective of the early Anthropocene, "surprisingly, nevertheless, the birds are alive. at this time/ in this widespread place, flying at trees" (7).


These poems are descriptions of times and places, each in a poetic thought image (Denkbild) following Walter Benjamin. The settings include a hill outside LA, Haiti in 1767 or the stable of Bethlehem at Jesus' birth. People like Diego Velásquez, Jane Austen, Carl Gustav Jung or the author herself are called up. In her erudite texts, which never lecture, "different (speech) situations" are juxtaposed, "sometimes telegram-like, sometimes diary-like, sometimes emotional", the reviewer Alke Stachler writes. At times, in intimate-private or public scenes, the reader does not know where they occur or who is involved. Cusanit seduces us not to orient ourselves safely outside the text, but to walk within it, only to be allowed to harvest more from these poetic thought images.


The relationship between the flow of reading, suggested by the block-like composition of her poems with their mostly complete syntax, and its interruption by interpolations, slowing rhythms or typographical devices such as blocked sentences, whose occasionally increasing or decreasing character spacing in turn creates movement, is effective for the reader's dwelling. Invented words, too, are sometimes easy to read over, so that one needs to return to them. Like the word "kapitellaren" (aP, 3), which condenses the connection between outside and inside, between stone architecture with plant decoration (capitals) and living tissue (capillaries).


Kenah Cusanit's writing is a highly conscious and critical reflection on the globalised present and its historical traces and ecological-cultural destructions: "just look at all the things that cannot be industrialised" (CCI, 16). Her poems make visible much of the, as she herself said in a conversation with the poetry critic Michael Braun, "confusing world" and at the same time refuse to be easily grasped. This applies to her poetry as well as her essayistic and narrative prose, the reading of which, according to the critic Dirk Kniephals, "is itself like an expedition."


Several critics have identified a fine, unagitated, restrained, delicate style in Cusanit’s work. With it, she cautiously seduces us to enter the complex web of relationships in the bodies of her poems measuring just a few lines, these little places of poetry. We are invited to experience how deeply we are already entangled with our world, which we "carry around inside us" (32) – and how we can nevertheless transform ourselves in it while reading and listening.

essay by Asmus Trautsch