Thursday, April 26, 2012

If I told Mr. Deutsch about these things he shook his head and said: “Strange, very strange.” - Sebald's poetry

I have been so "with it" lately, writing about so many new books, even if they are only new collections or translations of old texts.  One more before I return to the archives:  Across the Land and the Water, the selected poems of W. G. Sebald, translated by Iain Galbraith.

The Sebaldian Teju Cole, reviewing the book at the New Yorker website, pretends that the book represents a coherent, meaningful selection, like the “selected poems” of most poets.  It is a useful conceit.  Terry Vertigo’s detailed piece about the differences between the English and German has the truth, though, that this is a book of leftovers, student work, and scraps, as well as the core of a collection Sebald was preparing for publication.  So, really, it is a book for Sebald completists.  A Sebald completist is a fine thing to be.

Across the Land is actually my fourth book of Sebald poetry.  His two little books of little poems, For Years Now (2001) and Unrecounted (2003) are collaborations with artists, each micropoem accompanied by Tess Jaray’s abstract patterns or Jan Peter Tripp’s monochrome lithographs of famous eyes.  An example of this brand of Sebald poem:

In deepest sleep

a Polish mechanic
came and for a
thousand silver dollars made me
a new perfectly
functioning head

This is from Unrecounted; For Years Now has a slightly different version.  These poems have baffled me for years now.  I essentially use them as I use the LED lights on a battlefield diorama – push the button to see where the troops were lining up for the charge, then push the next button to see where they ended up. I use the poetry to better understand the novels.  The little poems set off one aspect of Sebald’s fiction.

His long poem, After Nature (1988), heightens another element of Sebald’s art.  The three sections are biographical, about the painter Matthias Grünewald, the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and the critic and poet W. G. Sebald.  Factual matter pulled directly from Sebald’s reading is shaped into a narrative (this is Steller on his way to what will be known as the Bering Strait):

Unending flights
of screeching birds, which skimmed
low over the water, from afar resembled
drifting islands.  Whales
rotated around the ship, emitting
water-spouts high into the air
in all directions of the compass. (61, tr. Michael Hamburger)

I could be wrong, but from my previous experience with Sebald I would bet as many as three dollars that the most consciously literary part of that passage, the metaphor of the birds resembling islands, is from Steller’s own journal.  Sebald’s art is mosaic-like, but I had to learn to see the edges of the tiles.

The line breaks slow my pace.  I assume that is their aesthetic purpose, along with the visual place of the words on the page.  Sebald’s poetic collaborations with artists have led me to wonder if his sense of the difference between poetry and prose is as much visual as it is verbal or musical:

If I told Mr. Deutsch
about these things
he shook his head
and said: “Strange, very
strange.”  Mr. Deutsch,
born in Kufstein, had come
to England as a child
in nineteen thirty-eight. (102)

The line breaks slow my reading, perhaps even inhibit it a bit, by making me look at the words more carefully.  Honestly, though, I read Sebald’s prose with just as much attention.  The prose rewards the attention.  So do the poems, even if I treat them as appendices to Sebald’s great novels.

I seem to have said nothing whatsoever about the new book, and have likely made Sebald's work sound more randomly organized than it really is.   Terry covers the book well.  I might say a bit more tomorrow.


  1. Are the quoted bits complete poems, or excerpts of longer poems?

    Had Lydia Davis written them, she'd call them stories. I'm not sure if I know the difference between indeterminate microfiction and poetry, aside from typography.

  2. The first one, with the Polish head mechanic, is a complete poem, from a book of poems of similar length.

    The latter two later passages are excerpts from cantos of a longer narrative poem. One is about exploring the Arctic; the other is about exploring Manchester and its "strange things".

    I always assumed that the microfiction writers were trying to reclaim some of these facets of poetry - to get readers to look more closely. I don't know.

  3. I guess if I'd read more carefully, the words "His long poem, After Nature" had already told me what I wanted to know. I like the language of your Mr Sebald. His odds and ends seem pretty fine based on the scraps you supply.

    Microfiction is something I tend to write off because I assume the microfictionists are just trying to be "edgy." Or hiding their lack of skill with longer forms. I'm dismissive that way. Which says nothing good about me.

    Anyway, do you recommend this book to someone with no familiarity with Sebald? Or is there a better volume? No, I don't know what I mean by "better."

  4. His poetry is one I haven't had the luxury to explore, but it was definitely there in the prose. My next Sebald will be Vertigo in June.

  5. Scott - for you, The Emigrants, no question. Because of the Very Special Guest Star.

    Which is not to knock the other chocies. Often, poking around Terry's site, I think "Hmmm, I should have done this instead." But of course he is doing it, just like Rise is keeping track of Bolaño & company.

    You know, I think I have some century-old microfiction on order at the library. So we shall see, soon enough, what the good stuff looks like.

  6. Excellent, thanks. I have ordered The Emigrants from my local indie shop. I have cheated and discovered the VSGS's identity. Damned internet. I look forward to your microfiction series, should you write one.

    My plan to read nothing but Chekhov, Nabokov and Shakespeare this year has gone south, clearly.

  7. I have the new Sebald collection on my night table ready to start. I didn't know he had written poetry, having read only two of his novels. But I love his novels so wanted to try the poems. I will have to read the articles you link to as well, but I really enjoyed your discussion here. Now I know what to expect when I start reading the book in the next day or two.

  8. Stefanie, I have no idea how the book will look to you. I assume like fragments of the novels.