July 27, 2012
The current issue (number three) of the Brooklyn-based independent literary magazine The Coffin Factory features a collaborative piece by writer Justin Taylor and artist Bill Hayward entitled “From Notes on the Inconsolable,” in which Taylor performs an erasure based on W. G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants. The result is a fairly short poem by Taylor into which Hayward inserts three of his own photographs, à la Sebald. On Hayward’s blog, the work featured in The Coffin Factory is described as “an excerpt,” which suggests there is more to come one day. Here’s a bit of commentary by Taylor on his process of erasure:
Erasure is a method of delving into the depths of a text to see what can be found there. But the eraser is liberated—as well as made anxious—by the knowledge that said findings are not discoveries but creations. The erasure-text is not a salvage: it has no reality independent of the search for it, the searching is in fact what made it real. Erasure, therefore, is a way of being read, at least as much as it is a way of reading.
For the most part, the result truly is “liberated.” Other than the use of the highly-recognizable quotation “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead…”, one would be hard pressed to identify Sebald as the source for the Taylor’s enigmatic new poem. Perhaps most noticeably, the narrative voice in Taylor’s piece is utterly different. Here’s an excerpt:
and you already know
how things went from never able
to bring myself to anything I still don’t know
for sure what made us drift apart
between his legs, the muzzle
There is a small universe of erasure-based poetry, but probably the most well-known example is A Humument, in which Tom Phillips made an entirely new, illustrated novel by eliminating parts of the text of an obscure Victorian book. Phillips painted on and decorated the original pages of the book as a way of editing out much of the original text, saying that he “plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems.” Taylor’s strategy is very similar, although he’s only using (and retyping) Sebald’s altered text rather than playing with the physical pages of Sebald’s book.
Taylor explains that he asked Hayward “to punctuate my erasure-text with images that would simultaneously pay homage to Sebald at the level of form while undermining or re-imagining them at the level of content.” Unlike Sebald’s snapshots and found photographs, Hayward’s are described as “intentional artworks.” They also deliberately relocate” The Emigrants to the US, where both Taylor and Hayward live. Based on the three photographs in this excerpt, it’s seems fair to say that Hayward has created a parallel imagery that references Sebald’s photographs in several ways. Reminiscent of the many sources for Sebald’s imagery, the three photographs here are done in three distinct styles: a sharply-focused sepia image of a 1940s car on a road in the American West; a dark, over-exposed black-and-white image of a small boy dressed in Western clothing (almost an ironic twist on the cover photograph from Austerlitz); and a slightly blurred image of a young woman making an enigmatic gesture or movement, as if cleaning something from her blouse.
The Coffin Factory‘s website also contains a number of reviews of recent books, including Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa (a novel about Roger Casement), and The Planets by Sergio Chejfec. All in all, a very impressive line-up.
July 20, 2012
In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin writes an extended review of W.G. Sebald’s poetry as collected in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 and translated by Iain Galbraith. I highly recommend the piece. Not only is it probably the most thorough review of the book, but Franklin is an extremely sensitive and thoughtful reader of Sebald. Franklin has some reservations about Sebald’s poetry, which led me to reread Across the Land and the Water (which I have written about several times earlier). “What happens when the context is obscure?” she asks, pointing out the exceptional range of esoteric and sometimes unknowable references that are scattered throughout the poems. “Crucial passages remain opaque,” she worries. “To track all the references is impossible.” In the end, Franklin decides that “too often Sebald comes across essentially as an aggregator, who piles up links and references without probing them for meaning. The connections drawn by the language and the imagery are meant to provide that meaning on their own. Sometimes they do; but not always.”
The truth is, I like the opaque, obscure poems the best. By far. Sebald signals very early on that obscurity is one of the directions his poetry will take, when he suggests a preference for the mysteries of a sealed letter over the answers that might be found by opening it up. Here’s an untitled poem written in the mid-1960s:
The intention is sealed
of preserved signs.
Come through rain
the address has smudged.
Suppose the ‘return’
at the end of the letter!
Sometimes, held to the light,
it reads: ‘of the soul.’
Sebald often writes as if in a kind of shorthand, dashing down the thoughts that flash through his mind and the things that cross paths with his vision. This Sebald seems truer to his core spirit. In these poems, Sebald frees himself of the burden of having readers. These highly compressed, allusive and illusive poems feel more intimate and immediate, pulling me as a reader into unexplained territory and abandoning me there. One of my favorite poems in this collection is Day Return, about a round-trip train ride into London. The first section of the poem describes a descent into the underbelly of the city, if not into Hell itself. In the last few lines of this section Sebald presents us with a familiar litany of businesses that represent decay and death. But then, after these more or less predictable lines, he then launches into a brief but wild improvisation, enumerating a bewildering sequence of images.
Pulling into the north-easterly
quarter of the metropolis
Gilderson’s Funeral Service
Merton’s Rubbish Disposal
the A1 Wastepaper Company
Stratford the forest of Arden
and the first colonists
on the platform at Maryland
skyline of the City
Liverpool Street Station
Are these images of the Forest of Arden and the Maryland colonists suggested by billboards? Are they the result of the narrator simply free associating or hallucinating?** Regardless, the effect is liberating, exhilarating and I don’t find is essential to understand the mechanics of the sequence or the origins of the images.
** A gentle reader has pointed out to this American writer that Stratford and Maryland are, in fact, rail stations along the line that leads to Liverpool Station. Hence there is a real-world basis to Sebald’s stream of imagery here.
December 28, 2011
when I am here
it always seems to me
as if we were
in the throes of a silent war
(from A Galley Lies off Helsingbore)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001, the new English edition of W.G. Sebald’s poetry, has arrived and I’ve been making my way through it for the last week. Iain Galbraith served as editor, translator, and scholar-in-residence. The volume opens with his Translator’s Introduction, in which he talks about his approach to translation and some of the issues he faced editing Sebald’s poetry, and it closes with some forty pages of very useful notes that he appended which will help readers with many of the literary, historical, and geographical allusions embedded within Sebald’s work. Between Galbraith’s bookends of Introduction and Notes lie some ninety poems by Sebald spanning thirty eight years from his school days to the year of his death.
This volume makes it abundantly clear that poetry was never a peripheral enterprise for Sebald. He consistently wrote poetry throughout his writing life and the themes that infuse his poems are the very same ones that can be found in his prose. He quickly established his own voice, which then evolved much as his prose style evolved over the years. But there are some differences. In contrast to his famously long prose sentences, Sebald honed a very sparse form of poetry, creating poems that tended to be short, dense, and – to the general reader, partially obscure. As a result, the difference between the surface of the poem and its archaeology can sometimes seem more dramatic than in his prose. While every Sebald poem has a satisfactory surface reading that any reader can appreciate, every Sebald poem gets incredibly richer as you unpack it. The challenge with his poetry is that there are few clues as to what can profitably be unpacked and the unaware reader will simply pass right over the unseen depths. As Galbraith’s many notes indicate, the range of Sebald’s multilingual allusions is mind-boggling, making me think back to the poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. But more importantly, unpacking a Sebald poem often causes a drastic undoing of the surface reading, and the most innocent landscape can turn into a place of horror. As Sebald says in the poem Calm November Weather,
in fact this ground
is steeped in history
they find corpses
every time they dig.
Sebald’s poems also strike me as more intimate than this prose. There is much less of the structural framework that puts Sebald’s prose narrators at a slight remove from the reader. The poems are less mediated. But I would add that I can’t decide if this makes the poems more personal. There are moments when certain poems feel more confessional or private, when Sebald the poet seems to lean close and speak quietly in the reader’s ear. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate that what he is saying at that point is truly a personal secret.
If you knew every cranny
of my heart
you would yet be ignorant
of the pain my happy
(from Poetry for an Album)
Here’s how some of the reviewers in the British Isles are responding.
Boyd Tonkin in The Independent (he also discusses Saturn’s Moons): “Iain Galbraith’s gracefully unsettling translations.”
An unnamed reviewer in The Economist: “Mr Galbraith does a good job translating these shifting tones and influences. However, it is a shame that this volume does not include Sebald’s original poems in the German.”
Gerald Dawe in the Irish Times: “Sometimes the viewpoint is so cryptically concentrated that the hard facts of what we are looking at pass by, but in these landscapes, shades of light and weather merge like Constable into chilly elusive reality. “
Melani Challenger in the New Statesman: “Both Celan and Sebald were masters of rich understatement, conjurors of the dark, hidden sense of words, names and phrases profoundly marked by history. At their best, Sebald’s poems engage thrillingly with the private archives of Germany’s memory of the war. In an age of distrust for abstruseness or overabundance in poetry, the force of suggestion in the seeming simplicity of his word-choice and phraseology contrasts with many modern poetic idioms, which aim to be instantly accessible.” And: “Galbraith’s translations are both guarded and diligent, and he succeeds in the considerable task of conveying the atmosphere of Sebald’s unmistakable prose voice into the poetic form.”
Andrew Motion in The Guardian: “Galbraith’s versions are scrupulous but incisive – catching…the gloom as well as the intermittent bleak comedy of the original, and the directness that arises from its indirections.” And: “the old consolations of nature are no longer stable.”
Eric Ormsby in Standpoint: “Galbraith has skilfully caught the cadences of the original and in doing so, reveals Sebald’s indebtedness to a long tradition of German and Austrian elegy; this is not nostalgia but evocation in asperity, akin to the double-edged laments of Georg Trakl, of a past at once illusory and much-cherished. Galbraith provides a perceptive introduction and copious notes; all that the reader of Sebald needs is here.”
My limited “tourist German” doesn’t let me comment if Galbraith is a better translator than Michael Hamburger, the only other major translator of Sebald’s poetry, but I think Galbraith was the right choice to assemble what will long stand as our foundational understanding of what constitutes the core of Sebald’s previously untranslated poetry. As I noted earlier, Galbraith literally reinvented this book, even though it would superficially seem to be nothing more than a translation of its German predecessor of 2008 Über das Land und das Wasser, edited by Sven Meyer. Galbraith went back to the Sebald archive in Marbach and found additional poems to include (some never before published in German), resulting in fifty percent more poems than in the German edition. This permitted Galbraith to create a volume with real integrity.
Finally, I must comment on the oddly pastoral title of the book and the very unfortunate choice of cover art used by Hamish Hamilton. Über das Land und das Wasser was the title that Sebald himself tentatively selected for one of the volumes of poetry that he never got around to publishing, but that seems like a poor excuse to use it for a volume of his selected poems. Certainly for an American, the phrase evokes all the wrong images, from Longfellow to Hemingway (I’m thinking of his novel Across the River and into the Trees), not to mention the mid-nineteenth century poem that has become a commonly heard Christmas song “Over the river, and through the wood,/To Grandfather’s house we go;/ The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh/through the white and drifted snow.” The marketing department at Hamish Hamilton apparently hope that by choosing a placid image of two canoes passing on a lake and placing the Andrew Motion blurb “Marvellously warm, exciting and compassionate” on the back cover they can sell more copies. (Curiously, Motion says nothing remotely like this in his review, cited above.) Perhaps the US edition, due out in April 2012, will do justice to Sebald’s dark, challenging, and deeply intellectual poems.