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.
February 2, 2010
In a post that I wrote more than two years ago about the anthology of interviews and essays The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, I said that Ruth Franklin’s essay Rings of Smoke, from The New Republic, “is the outstanding one by a country mile. She discusses most of Sebald’s books and quickly gets to the heart of each one. She is also capable, as [editor Lynne Sharon] Schwartz puts it, of assessing ‘the risks involved in what she sees as Sebald’s aestheticizing of collective disaster.’” Franklin is Senior Editor at The New Republic and a frequent book reviewer. Her review of Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction for Slate handled that odd volume with great intelligence, I thought. So I am really looking forward to her forthcoming book A Thousand Darknesses: Truth and Lies in Holocaust Literature (Oxford University Press, fall 2010), which will deal with Sebald, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz, and others.
On March 3, Franklin will be speaking on her book in the Baltimore area at Goucher College at 7:00 PM (details here).
For what it is worth, the phrase that Franklin is using for her forthcoming book title – a thousand darknesses – has some curious prior usages. Without saying how she came by the phrase, Franklin herself originally used it as the title for her in-depth 2006 review of Elie Wiesel’s Night, a review written for The New Republic on the occasion of what turned out to be a somewhat controversial new translation by Marion Wiesel, the author’s wife. I can find several possible sources (including a line in a poem by Paul Celan that I cannot locate). First, there is the unattributed Islamic quotation “To light a single candle is better than to sit and complain about a thousand darknesses.”
But for purposes of referring to the Holocaust, a more apt usage is found in James Stephens’ tale The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill, from his 1920 book Irish Fairy Tales.
The night came, and with it a thousand darknesses fell from the screeching sky. Not a round-eyed creature of the night might pierce an inch of that multiplied gloom. Not a creature dared creep or stand. For a great wind strode the world lashing its league-long whips in cracks of thunder, and singing to itself,now in a world-wide yell, now in an ear- dizzying hum and buzz;or with a long snarl and whine it hovered over the world searching for life to destroy.