Yevgeniy Breyger

- Germany -

Yevgeniy Breyger (b. 1989 in Kharkiv/Charkow) studied Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism in Hildesheim, Literary Writing at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut (German Literature Institute) Leipzig and Curatorial Studies at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main.

 

His debut collection flüchtige monde was published by kookbooks in 2016 and was selected as one of the poetry books of the year in the Literaturhaus Berlin and one of the best poetry debuts of the year in the Haus für Poesie. In 2019 he won the Leonce-und-Lena Prize.

 

His second poetry collection gestohlene luft was published by kookbooks in 2020 and was supported by grants from Deutscher Literaturfonds and Herrenhaus Edenkoben. He was awarded the Munich Poetry Prize 2021 and was a fellow at Villa Massimo / Casa Baldi in 2022. Breyger teaches Literary Writing and translation in Hildesheim, Bochum and Leipzig and lives in Frankfurt am Main.


A Tongue Tangled up Between Russian and German

On Yevgeniy Breyger's Poetry

 

Yevgeniy Breyger was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1989. Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his family moved to Magdeburg, Germany. His first poetry collection, entitled »Fleeting Moons | Flüchtige Monde« (2016), offers poems that exhibit a bewildering array of stylistic and formal variety. Having met Yevgeniy in Frankfurt am Main a few years ago, I had come to appreciate his dry humor and his fondness of junk food. I was surprised that this jovial, even at times gleefully excessive character could birth such serene and hermetic poetry as it was found in that first collection of poetry.

 

There was an evolution in his work though, which I didn’t begin to understand, until Eugen El interviewed Yevgeniy for the Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung (The Jewish Weekly Gazette) last April. Yevgeniy makes an interesting assessment regarding his own work. Looking back at his first collection of poetry, he says: »My first collection of poetry Flüchtige Monde still stems from the time of creative writing courses, during which I was still learning a lot for the first time. It feels like a very beautiful, but impersonal book full of stuff that only indirectly has to do with me[1]

 

So here’s is this nascent writer in the early 2010s who – in search of a place to shape his artistry – applies for various university programs. Having been a stipendiary at the Literaturlabor Wolfenbüttel, he initially enrolls in a course aimed at Cultural Journalism and Creative Writing at Hildesheim, stays two years, needs something else, and transfers to Leipzig for the more literarily-oriented program at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut. While acknowledging how these curricula helped smithy his voice, looking back, Yevgeniy pinpoints their shortcomings, too. It takes confidence to look at your own work in that way. There was, to his mind, something missing in his work, and even though his poetry received recognition by critics and award committees alike, something was still within this poet that hadn’t yet found its deportment, rhythm, and melody.

 

Rereading all of his poetry for this essay in the past few days, I realized how dramatic the shift in his voice actually is, because his poetry evolved from a cognitive and literarily trained virtuosity, from an intellectual and aesthetic exercise into a deeply personal mode of expression that by now has gathered a diluvial force.

 

In the case of Yevgeniy Breyger, a drastic shift occurred in the span of three publications, a total transformation in temper and purpose. Sure, there was a pandemic and the war in the meantime. But still. I'd like to offer a few observations that might highlight the contours of this metamorphosis. I'd like to do so not only, because it affords me the opportunity to discuss a wider context of his writing, but because it shows how crucial it is for an artist to be involved and entangled in the fate of the world – even if it is solely for the purpose of creating tantalizing literary art.

 

A Synagogue in Magdeburg

In the aforementioned interview, he discusses how is grandparents spoke Yiddish in the Ukraine, but how his parents instructed him not to downplay his Jewish identity. He talks about how he never really connected with his Jewishness, until his family moved from Kharkiv to Magdeburg. As unlikely as it seems, the city with the most disgusting antisemites in Germany, was paradoxically the place where this young emigree formed elements of his religious identity, aided by the local Rabbi Benjamin Soussan.

 

Faced with the ugly polemics of neo-fascists in Germany on the one hand, and a toxic German debate among Jews like Maxim Biller and Max Czollek on the other hand, Yevgeniy tells Eugen El how the debate about Jewishness moved him to take his own stand, to claim his own sense of identity. He experienced a moment in which the impersonal forces of prohibition within him and beyond him, forever questioning or suppressing or hiding or doubting his Jewishness, gave way to a deep personal sense of selfhood. He moved to Israel for some time with his wife who speaks Hebrew excellently and explored who he was on his own terms and at his own pace.

 

There is something at once typical and unique about this story, for Yevgeniy Breyger belongs to the motley diaspora (or plethora) of European poets in search of who they are, suspended between multiple national identities, tethering on the tightropes of increasingly incredible religious traditions, torn between languages of origin and languages of belonging, uneasy with any literary canon presented to them, and feeling somewhat queasy about history in the face of the rapidly changing intellectual and existential atlas of the Continent. »Flies on the hide of Leviathan«, as Denise Levertov once put it.

 

There was a sudden influx of confidence and new found self-esteem in the life of this young poet that not only provoked a deeply personal style, but had done so in the face of adversity. On the heels of winning the prestigious Leonce-and-Lena-Prize in 2018 and other major awards, Yevegniy published a book filled with deeply personal work. Insa Wilke identified an intense »corporality«[2] in this new work of his. While discussing this poetry of the flesh, Insa Wilke observed in DIE ZEIT that the poems presented by Yevgeniy Breyger in »Gestohlene Luft | Pilfered Air« (2020) not only convey the slings and arrows of historical traumata that have been passed down from one generation to another, but source or root or anchor the historical and transhistorical material in the personal subjectivity of the poetic voice itself, that is, in an unique act of authorship.

 

Having made this transition from the impersonal to the personal, Yevgeniy set up shop in Frankfurt am Main and earned another degree in Curatorial Studies at the local art school, the Städelschule. Just in case. The curator Yevgeniy Breyger now combined his vast artistic talent with organizational skills and quickly became a fixture on the literary scene. He contributed to magazines, edited a series of chapbooks, assisted literary festivals, and directed various events in arts and letters. He also co-founded the collective, Salon Fluchtentier, involving poets and musicians, such as Julia Grinberg, Robert Stripling, and Martin Piekar.

 

So far, I've only mentioned Yevgeniy Breyger's birthplace in passing, but discussing it will lead us into the ever deeper purpose of his writing, as it evolves. When considering Yevgeniy Breyger's poetry in January 2023, it's worth remembering the astounding sea-change that has occurred in the German public. During the past twelve months Germans went from pledging a few hundred tactical helmets, mothballed in some warehouse in Brandenburg, for the Ukrainian war effort to finally supplying Leopard 2 tanks and heavy artillery. As much as this shift in policy is remarkable, it still sadly hasn’t arrived in most quarters of German (and Austrian) letters. It's crucial to remember that the Goethe-Institute intelligentsia sat on its Dichter und Denker-laurels comfortably, waning itself cleansed from the guilt incurred for past atrocities, destruction and genocide. Before February 2022, German writers couldn’t stress the POST in postwar literature enough.

 

»Peace Without War«

Looking at German literature from the perch of this hard truth, the lines in Yevgeniy Breyger's verse dairy, entitled »Peace Without War« (2023), bear witness to the contradiction at the heart of German letters in the early 21st century. Language – the very vehicle of his artistic expression – is the swivel of his complicated, contradictious, and yet readable and by way of language accessible existence.

 

»in the evening I'm sitting in a restaurant, talking a little Russian,

when I remember, I talk two languages now,

German, Russian, one language killed off my people en masse,

the other language wants to step into those footsteps and kill my other folks, too.«

 

The verse dairy journals persons and events that unfolded since February 2022. His poetry is thus suddenly flooded not only by a stream of urgency, but also by an acute and liberated sense that everything has finally come into focus. Tragically, the lie is bright as day. He takes aim at the naive hubris and supercilious attitudes among the German intelligentsia, dismantling the mediocre, arrogant and self-satisfied vestiges of what I'd like to call Goethe-Institute diplomacy, in which “postwar” German intellectuals thought that every crisis might be solved by a symposium or a humanitarian summit.

 

Even though Yevgeniy has honestly and openly described his ambivalent feelings towards his birthplace, before the invasion, he had nothing but clairvoyance with regards to the existential attack upon its people by a barbarous and inveterate enemy. In early March 2022, he penned an essay decrying the German foreign policy in the daily newspaper DIE WELT, attacking the German government for appeasing the Russian regime for too long in exchange for crude oil and natural gas.

 

»Shame on You«

Alongside this very personal dairy in verse, Yevgeniy Breyger also included a number of poems that expand the theme of shame. But this time it is not a poet pained by self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy in a new homeland, but a poet who exactly knows where the blame is to be placed. But instead of merely linking the German complicity to Russian violence to historical violence perpetuated by the German people themselves, Yevgeniy Breyger took a step further and created an entirely new mode of expression for himself.

 

Using the three languages he speaks well, German, Russian, and English, he developed a multilingual poem, a long-poem, entitled »Aprillen« that hopefully will be fully appreciated and widely read by future audiences. Here’s a sample: 

 

»вспышка света в небе откликается химическим

сиянием в воде. retrograde tumore – retrograder

komet, der himmelsfossile zu pulver zerstäubt

auf dem weg in einen mehrfach destillierten

see und verdampft in schamblicken, in

freudentränen, im verzweifellachen, im müde

hinsinken mit der wange auf der fläche

der linken hand als wär’s ein allererster neu

geborener schlaf – луноход, верный друг. *

telepathic thinking on war. 100,000

people on the run on saturday, 300,000

on sunday, on monday 500,000 people on the run.

with a gentle touch on back of the head.«

 

Although, of course, there are numerous examples of multilingual poems in recent German literature, such as Uljana Wolf, Léonce W. Lupette, or Giorgio Ferretti just to name a few, there is a radical act of selfhood expressed in the long-poem »Aprillen.« Certainly, current events coauthored Yevgeniy Breyger's work in this case, but the shift is consistent with his enduring interest (or project) in merging the personal mode of expression, merging the biographical and subjective with the impersonal objectivity of poetic form. This has already been evident in Yevgeniy's wonderful experiments with crypto-art and crypto-poetry which spawned the poetry collection »Kryptomagie« in 2022.

 

Essay by Paul-Henri Campbell

 


[1] »Mein erster Gedichtband Flüchtige Monde stammt noch aus der Zeit der Schreibschulen, in der ich vieles noch kennengelernthabe. Es war ein sehr schöner, aber unpersönlicher Band mit Sachen, die eher indirekt mit mir zu tun haben.« (JA, 18.03.2022)

[2] Insa Wilke, „Sie war Still, hat Gebirge verschluckt“ (Die Zeit, 17.02.2021)