A Woven Poem, “Night Song of the Fish” after Christian Morgenstern (personal experience)


 Translated by Aviva Peres 

This work is a meeting between a joy of the mind–poetry, and a joy of the hands–weaving. During my years of work as a librarian in a youth department, the “Poets’ Springtime” event was an important week dedicated to make children sensitive to this kind of literature. During such a happening I once discovered a real poem, “Night Song of the Fish,” that caught my attention. I kept it.
Thus, it slept for years in a drawer until that winter 2010 when I recovered it. It probably had left an “angling” deep inside myself, not a miraculous one but mysterious and unfulfilled. This is when I felt a deep urge to make it mine by using my way of expression: tablet weaving.

Christian Morgenstern (1871- 1914), a German poet, is the author of humorous and satirical poems: “Night Song of the Fish” (Fisches Nachtgesang) was published for the first time in “Songs of the Gallows,” in 1905. In the poet’s manner, I could have woven a white page, in this case the fabric background, then write, which means adding the figures. I had already chosen to realize this project with fine beads (loose stones). But this poem which cannot be read aloud, presents itself as a whole. This was the reason of my decision to carry out simultaneously weaving and beading.

Every creation implies a choice. But was it only a mere creation? No, because it had an origin that I wished to respect, on one side by selecting a neutral warp color that would not impose a background on the subject but rather fit in. On the other hand, the subject could have been woven, for instance, in a double-face weave, with warp threads in a different color than the one used in the background. But like ink has a different aspect from paper, a different material was necessary: fine beads seemed to be adequate to my research.

Process of realization

This method of transfer from written text to woven textile requires many technical steps in order to realize the project. If so, to switch from written paper form to beaded weaving I had to translate the work, which means following the steps of creating a fabric: drawing the design, threading the cards and drawing up a weaving program.

The use of card-weaving (called TAP – le Tissage Aux Plaquettes in French): The harnesses of a traditional loom are replaced by cards (of bone, wood, cardboard, etc.) most of the time square, punched at the corners. The warp is threaded through such holes. By rotation of the cards one quarter or one half turn towards the front or backwards, the threads are gathered by the weft and appear successively on the face to become a narrow fabric.

According to the thickness of the chosen yarn, I threaded 56 cards in an S direction, with four cotton threads per card, for a length of 80 cm. The cut warp threads were not attached to the front beam – a personal idea- as I wished to gather all the “turns” to suggest a conventional fish head. On the other hand, warp ends were knotted to the back-beam in order to serve as cut fringes and recall fins.

Only one cotton weft yarn was used for the plain background, whereas a nylon thread was added for the beaded part. The beads were first threaded on the nylon (as both cotton and nylon yarns are rolled up on the main shuttle). Beads are then handed down according to design necessities. Straight lines used hard tension, whereas curves remained loose.
The subtle difficulty of this work was to give to each sign, whether straight or curved, its right proportion. On one hand, the beads have no regular shapes, and on the other hand the weft tension is modified by the warp movement at each successive shot, a fact that displaces the beads and leads to frequent re-adjustments of those beads. Finally, the plastic yarn is not as flexible as cotton and does not always easily fit in the curve I wish to obtain.

Some weaknesses or errors appear in the fabric. A poor rotation of the cards results in floating yarns in the last two curves. On the reverse side, some loose yarns were not caught by the weft and a few beads were lost in the fabric.

This project was carried out within a week, without sampling, some experience in tablet weaving making such a spontaneous step possible.

Under the fish sign

Curiously enough, it is during a happening of the Poets’ Spring that I discovered the “Night Song of the Fish,” and many years later it came back to me at the same season. Isn’t the Poet’s Spring under the sign of the fish?

Another point of amazement relates to a friend’s comment saying that maybe the poet had been inspired by the conventional graphics that serve to grade the rhythm of syllables, short and long, a Greek and Latin verse principle. Arbitrarily, the long ones are represented by a short dash “_,” the short ones by a small arch open upwards “U.” Now the German poetry is based upon the same principle of rhythm variations.

Besides, the space-lines are not regular and delimit the boundaries of three strophes out of four, six and three verses successively simulating the head, the body and the tail of the fish. Let us admire the extreme simplification reached by Christian Morgenstern to evoke his fish. It is quite difficult to know the poet’s thought when he was composing the “Night Song of the Fish.” Following the title track, the fish is immediately suggested by the curves of the scales, the short ones, while the whole draws an oval. Less evident, would the straight scales be there for the rhythm and remind the song? And why nocturnal? A question of color?

If so, this fish is taking its roots in ancient cultures… but it belongs to the present as well. An outsider’s look might judge this realization as not the most spectacular of my works and I agree. Yet it sounds deep inside me like one of the most accomplished cohesion between thought and gesture. Without the support of the poem, I would never have spontaneously realized the weaving of such a fish. And I was far from imagining the waves and sensibilities it was about to raise up in me and around me.

This process of weaving was an occasion to discover some dimensions of this performance that otherwise would have slipped from my attention. I dreamed of this “Night Song of the Fish,” because in a single rhythm were united music, poetry and weaving, as the eventual work was especially calm and relaxing. It is this atmosphere that I tried to recreate, and I wish that this fish nurtures your faculties of creation.

1. In respect for Christian Morgenstern, and to consider everyone’s part of the creation, a brief legend is sewn to the back of the work.
2. Published in “Copy and imitations in the textile production, between practice and limitation.”
3. The texts were assembled on the occasion of a colloquium organized by “The French Association for the Study of Textile”, 2010

© 2019 by Claire Gérentet

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