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A Silent War: Sebald’s Poetry

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 his 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
memories bring

(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.

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