To the book itself, to the new collection of W. G. Sebald poetry, Across the Land and Water. Few of the poems in the book had been previously published before the 2008 German version. The footnotes for most of the poems refer the interested graduate student to the appropriate folder in the Sebald archives in Marbach-am-Neckar. So most of the poems are more interesting as process, as evidence of the creative functioning of a great artist.
Many of them, for a reader who knows Sebald’s work, are quite intensely interesting. “Remembered Triptych of a Journey from Brussels,” published in 1965, includes a visit to the Waterloo battlefield. The Sebaldish narrator of Austerlitz will revisit it thirty-five years later. The poet notes
a stately home, sheltered by ivy, transformed
into the Belgian Royal Ornithological
Research and Observation Unit
of the University of Brussels.
Sebald’s novels, the first of which is twenty-five years in the future, contain dozens of similarly unlikely metamorphoses.
“New Jersey Journey” (from Folder 2) corresponds directly to a specific passage in the “Ambrose Adelworth” chapter of The Emigrants (1992), the narrator’s drive through New Jersey to visit his uncle:
a Siberian countryside
colonized then run to seed
with moribund supermarkets
abandoned poultry farms
haunted by millions and millions
of breakfast eggs
At the end of the poem, the uncle photographs Sebald; the actual photograph appears in the novel.
What is really fascinating to me is how important the writing of these poems obviously was to the writing of the novels. Perhaps this is not as unusual as I think.
Point 1, I will call that. Point 2 is that the poems in the last third of the book begin to look more interesting on their own. I am still not convinced that they are separable from Sebald’s corpus, and they sometimes feel like pieces that might have been drawn into Sebald’s next novel, whatever that might have been. “On 9 June 1904” describes Chekhov’s decline:
but the spelt porridge
and creamy cocoa
brought no improvement.
And then his death and the transport of his corpse:
in a green, refrigerated
freight car marked
in big letters.
“Marienbad Elegy” includes an incident from Goethe’s biography, a late, hopeless love affair, “In the Summer of 1836” a similar episode of Chopin’s life while he suffers from tuberculosis. It is easy enough to imagine all three stories combined into a Rings of Saturn-like chapter. Or perhaps they were meant to be left as they are now.
The poems are all about traveling. Even Goethe, Chopin, and Chekhov are on the road. Sebald is in his hotel room (e.g. “Hotel Schweizer \ hof, in Hinüber \ Straβe Hannover,” “Room 645”) or in an airport (“among globetrotters \ from Seoul & Saõ Paulo \ Singapore & Seattle,” “On the Eve of”) or waiting for a train at a small station where I myself have waited for a train (“One Sunday in Autumn 94” – but I was there six years later).
What I am likely doing, of course, is searching the poems for clues to the next Sebald novel, now imaginary, an activity entirely in keeping with Sebald’s fiction. Everything is a clue to something else.