Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald
Translated by Iain Galbraith
Random House, 2011 (Originally Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
August 18th, 2012
In his Translator’s Introduction to Across the Land and the Water, Iain Galbraith lists some of Sebald’s concerns (in both his poetry and prose) as follows: “borders, journeys, archives, landscapes, reading, time, memory, myth, legend, and the “median state” (Edward Said) of the exile, who is neither fully integrated into the new system nor fully free of the old” (ix). Journeys and landscapes, in particular, are present throughout the book, starting with the very first poem, which is as follows:
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish. (3)
Galbraith talks about the muteness of the landscape in his introduction; Ruth Franklin also quotes this poem in her review of the book in The New Republic. It’s a striking image, the twist of the landscape watching you, not just you watching it, and the landscape and its silences and the secrets it holds are another thing that Galbraith and Franklin both discuss in depth: Sebald’s work has a lot to do with the troubled history of the twentieth century in Europe, particularly with the horrors of the Holocaust, though not necessarily in a straightforward way: his poems move through the land where horrors took place, and that history is an undercurrent, not a focus.
But the poems I liked best in this volume aren’t the obscurely allusive ones, but rather the more apparently allusive ones: the ones that are lists, that are “found poems” (as Galbraith puts it), and also the images in some of the poems about cities and journeys. I like “Nymphenburg”, about a palace-turned-museum, and I love “Baroque Psalter,” below, which Galbraith notes is “taken almost verbatim from a review by Heinz Ludwig Arnold […] of the Baroque poet Quirinus Kuhlmann’s […] so-called Kühlpsalter of 1684″:
Geneva Smyrna and
he was burned at the stake
in Moscow (50)
I like poems drawn from life and from texts, poems collaged together from bits and pieces from newspapers and historical snippets and things seen or overheard. “Donderdag,” which quotes from a Dutch newspaper report about some murders in the city of Venlo and has the speaker reading about the murders while on a plane, is one example of this kind of style; there’s also a really pleasing poem that draws from events near the end of Chekhov’s life, and a great list poem that features the titles of books “assembled/by chance/in the display/of a junk shop/near a railway/underpass” (101). “My ICE Rail-Planner” is another collage-poem, which quotes bits of various advertisements, with a humorous tone, juxtaposed with lovely landscape-images: it starts like this, and continues similarly:
Herrenhausen is offering
a cruise to Denmark two
visits to the seawater wave-
bath thrown in someone
will be waiting at the station
& will say how nice
to meet you & how
about a Fitness-Week
in Eckernförde. Outside
the light is thinning the
ribbon of a road glistening
in the drizzle […] (123)
Other highlights of this book, for me, were “Day Return” and “New Jersey Journey”, both of which feature really great city-scapes, wonderful observed or invented detail of things/places/signs seen from a train or a car.
July 21st, 2012
Almost Invisible consists almost entirely of paragraph-long prose poems—there’s just one piece, the poem-within-a-poem of “Poem of the Spanish Poet,” that deviates from that form at all. I like prose poems, generally, the way they sometimes could almost be called short-short stories, and I like these prose poems, the way that in bite-sized pieces they blend humor and nostalgia and uncertainty. I like the vagueness of some of these poems, like “Bury Your Face in Your Hands”, with its images of wind and snow and haze, with its sense of being adrift. I like “Anywhere Could Be Somewhere” for its radical sense of uncertainty, which manages to be ominous and funny at once, in the voice of a speaker who doesn’t know where he/she comes from. Throughout, Strand has a knack for striking images, striking lines, like: “The empty heart comes home from a busy day at the office” (15).
Probably my favorite poem in the book is “The Everyday Enchantment of Music”, the cadence and pace of it, and how well it fits with the conceit/images of a thing becoming something becoming something else.
April 10th, 2012
I’m not opposed to feeling adrift when reading, but this book, on my first read-through of it, made me feel more than adrift: I struggled to find a way in, or anything to hold on to. I haven’t read much by Ashbery: before A Wave I’d only read Notes from the Air, which I remembered only dimly, and only as being difficult. (When I look back at what I wrote about it, though, I can see there were bits I liked, and I can see why I liked them.) I didn’t like this book much after my first read-through of it, but I think the final/title poem helps cast light on Ashbery’s approach: the last line of the book is “But all was strange.”—which is I suppose a bit of comfort to take into a re-reading. Also heartening was the first paragraph of Christopher Middleton’s 1984 review of this book in the NY Times, which starts like this: “Reading John Ashbery’s poems is a bit like playing hide-and-seek in a sprawling mansion designed by M. C. Escher.”
The book starts with uncertainty: the opening line of “At North Farm” is this: “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,”—which I actually kind of love, how it’s very matter-of-fact language that nevertheless starts the book with questions and with motion. Each stanza of the poem, too, ends with a question, and the start of the second stanza is something of a puzzle, implying a question. Which is interesting, but I still get a little stuck on the vagueness of it. But OK: I kept reading. I quite like Ashbery’s rhyming rendition of this poem by Baudelaire, but I think the bits I like best of it are Baudelaire’s: images like “chimneys and steeples, those masts of the city.”
There are prose poems, too, like “Descriptions of a Masque,” which is several pages long and mostly bewildering to me except when there are flashes of brilliance. It features characters from myth, from film, from nursery rhymes, from literature, with this great conceit:
Then we all realized what should have been obvious from the start: that the setting would go on evolving eternally, rolling its waves across our vision like an ocean, each one new yet recognizably a part of the same series, which was creation itself. Scenes from movies, plays, operas, television; decisive or little-known episodes from history; prenatal and other early memories from our own solitary, separate pasts; events yet to come from life or art; calamities or moments of relaxation; universal or personal tragedies; or little vignettes from daily life that you just had to stop and laugh at, they were so funny, like the dog chasing its tail on the living-room rug. The sunny city in California faded away and another scene took its place, and another and another. And the corollary of all this was that we would go on witnessing these tableaux, not that anything prevented us from leaving the theater, but there was no alternative to our interest in finding out what would happen next. (27)
And this lovely sentence:
Mostly there were just moments: a street corner viewed from above, bare branches flailing the sky, a child in a doorway, a painted Pennsylvania Dutch chest, a full moon disappearing behind a dark cloud to the accompaniment of a Japanese flute, a ballerina in a frosted white dress lifted up into the light. (28)
There are poems in different traditional forms or variations thereof: haiku, and haibun, and a pantoum, and there are implicit and explicit references to writing, to poetry: I like this, from “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love”:
You can’t read poetry,
Not the way they taught us back in school.
Returning to the point was always the main thing, then. (56)
And then there’s “A Wave,” the long title poem, which seems to be about love and living and about writing, about how to love and live and write. The poem “demands to be met on its own terms now” (79) and “the issue/Of making sense becomes such a far-off one” (70): so maybe feeling adrift is fine. And there’s this: these are probably my favorite lines in the poem, almost my favorite lines in the book:
and we sit down to the table again
Noting the grain of the wood this time and how it pushes through
The pad we are writing on and becomes part of what is written. (73)
Light, Grass, and Letter in April by Inger Christensen
Translated by Susanna Nied; drawings by Johanne Foss
New Directions, 2011
November 2nd, 2011
I read Inger Christensen’s it back in 2007 and don’t remember it very well: I just remember it being difficult, prickly. I picked up this new volume, which is really three volumes in one, as much because of the cover image as anything else.
Light and Grass were Christensen’s first books, from 1962 and 1963; Letter in April is from 1979. I liked the latter the best, though there were moments in the first two that I appreciated. Some of the poems, particularly in the first two books, are too abstract for me; I feel like I can’t find a point of entry or anything to grasp. But there are turns of phrase and images I really like, particularly when Christensen’s writing about the natural world or the turning seasons, like in the first two lines of a poem called “Sandemose,” after a Danish/Norwegian author: “The sun hangs low in the little year/the bracken ponders darkness” (10). I like this, from the end of “Deep Within”: “what are we and to what do we cling/at sea two hearts with flares on board” (38). And this, from the start of “Light”:
Once more I recognize
a light within language
the closed words
that are there to be loved
and repeated until they are simple (45)
Letter in April features drawings by Johanne Fosse, and an interesting structure: as Susanna Nied explains in her introduction, it contains seven main sections, each of which has “five subsections, marked with small circles o through ooooo, and arranged in varying order”—so you can either read the seven main sections straight through or read all the sections marked by o, then all the ones marked by oo, and so on (x). I liked this part of the book for its concrete images: a summer house, pines, cobwebs, dew, pomegranates.
June 5th, 2011
I haven’t yet read Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor, though I own a copy, but I think that’s OK: I think it’s enough to read The Ada Poems informed just by the quotes from Nabokov that Zarin uses throughout, and by the flap copy, which explains that these poems are “inspired and inhabited by the title character of Nabokov’s novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, who was the lifelong love of her half brother, Van.”
I like the way Zarin’s language builds on itself, an associative vocabulary that grows within a given poem but also throughout the book. The very first poem, “Birch,” starts like this:
Bone-spur, stirrup of veins—white colt
a tree, sapling bone again, worn to a splinter (3)
and I like the multivalent feeling of it: as the poem continues (names carved in a tree-trunk: “a child’s hackwork, love plus love” (ibid.)) I have the sense of the birch as a colt and a tree, and the beloved as a colt and the birch: the thin skin of all of them, the curiosity about bones, veins, roots, what’s underneath. In other poems, too, the speaker and her beloved are horses: “we balk and shy,” the speaker says in “Regime,” and then later, in “Letter,” “for days we’ve/sped and shied” (5, 12). Other images that recur are decks of cards, winter-images (snow, fir trees), and summer ones (the beach, insects: a fly, dragonflies, damselflies).
Some poems are explicitly “dreamscapes,” but even those that aren’t have their own dream-logic of love and desire. Sometimes there’s pleasing wordplay, as in these lines from “Christmas I”: “Below, our old tortoise/paces the scorched carpet. On his armoured back/a sparkler shooting red and green. One letter/less, amour is his world” (7). Other times Zarin plays with sound while also giving us gorgeous images, like in this passage from “Fog in Holyoke”:
Four days after Christmas, fog skims the river—
thin skin a skein of yarn after yarn, knotted
with sleet, moth grey. Headlights on. (9)
Elsewhere the sky is “a snow globe where it kept snowing”; rain cascading down a window is “a no-legged race played out to nothing” (10, 24). “Electric Light,” possibly my favorite poem in the book, is about summer and light/heat/desire and dragonflies and memory and is full of great images (St. George and the dragonfly, instead of the dragon). It’s not freely available online, but if you’re affiliated with a library that has access to the Yale Review, you can read it here.
May 23rd, 2011
What is there to say about death, about absence and loss and the space death makes in life? “Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said,” Howe writes, early in “The Disappearance Approach,” an essay about the sudden death of her husband, Peter Hare (11). Then she quotes Sarah Edwards, writing to one of her daughters after Jonathan Edwards’s death in 1758: “O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say?” (ibid.). As the essay continues, Howe considers her immediate domestic experiences after Hare’s death (noticing the quiet of the house that morning, the New York Times still sitting on the driveway, sorting through Hare’s email, papers, photographs, noticing the paperwhites flowering) but also reaches more widely, using Edward and his family’s history and legacy to look at what remains of lives, what death leaves behind. Sometimes what’s left seems to be “a negative double,” the lost loved one coming back in dreams, or through the presence of his possessions, and in his death the traces of other deaths, including those of Hare’s first wife and Howe’s second husband (13). What’s left, often, is bits and pieces: letters, diaries, notebooks, a scrap of a wedding dress, embroidery—and the essay itself is made of bits and pieces, too: a poem Howe wrote in 1998, the dictionary definition of “autopsy,” the official autopsy report of Hare’s death, the birth-dates and death-dates of Jonathan Edwards and his ten sisters. Howe also writes about finding “solace and pardon” at an exhibit of Poussin’s paintings at the Met: the works on view are another way of looking at death, whether in the form of “Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake” or “Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe” (26). Howe writes about reading poems as a child with her mother, how her mother liked the ones where “people disappear into never-answered questions”: and perhaps that’s all everyone does, ultimately (28). This essay is my favorite part of this book: it’s contemplative and quiet and worth reading at least twice (I read it once on the train, too quickly, then again at home on a quiet evening and a foggy morning, drinking tea and taking notes).
The second section of the book, “Frolic Architecture,” takes both its title and its epigraph (“Into the beautiful meteor of the snow”) from Emerson. (The title’s about snow, too). Thinking about this section in terms of white space, in terms of accumulation, makes it slightly more approachable, but it’s still tricky for me. These are collage-poems, made from fragments of Hannah Edwards Wetmore’s diary, accompanied by spectral gray photograms by James Welling. This section was published as a standalone limited-edition volume by the Grenfell Press, and you can see some images of that book here. The copied texts that Howe uses are fragmented, cut mid-word so you see only glimpses: “her arms” then “could tread” then “air was dark” (41). Is this the distancing of death and time and history, the way that if we’re honest we accept that what we see of the past can only ever be fragments? I’m not sure, but fifty pages of this was too much for me: there are striking phrases (“wild unbounded place,” “ravished with it,” “some parenthesis that darkens the sense”), and the collages as visual objects sometimes have appeal, but I found myself more bewildered than won over. “That This,” the final section of the book, is made of “short squares of verse,” as the back cover puts it. They look lovely on the page but I wasn’t sure what to make of them; I didn’t feel like I could find a way into them.
Elsewhere: for an excellently articulate post that gets more into the collage-poems than I could, go have a look at this piece on John Latta’s blog.
April 20th, 2011
I didn’t particularly like this book after my first reading of it: it seemed somehow both too strange and too ordinary, with more humor and less beauty than I like the poetry I read to have, but I decided to give it another try. It’s a short book, and maybe part of my problem the first time around was that the subway is perhaps not the most conducive reading atmosphere for an unfamiliar book of poems: too many distractions. I did like it more the second time through, though there is still plenty of strangeness (“so paddle with vacuous cheer/into your fat bottle of pink soda and I will plunge/into some sunny buttocks with the grace of God’s eraser” – in “A Poem from Bled,” a slightly different version of which appears here) and ordinariness (a poem about drunkenly texting one’s friends on a bus ride, just to say you’re drunk). But there are also poems whose strangeness somehow entirely works, like “Wild Is the Wind”. And there are bits of beauty, like this, from the start of “On the 730th Day God Made Me Happy,” which I think is my favorite poem in the whole book:
I dreamt we fell in love.
You bought new sheets for the bed
and made dinner from breadcrumbs
and yellow squash. The red-fringed ivy bobbed
as the wind touched it,
stirring the building to feel. (27)
March 30th, 2011
The poems I like best in this book are the ones that deal with places, maybe because these poems are full of satisfying specificity: Vermont and its lake and gulls, Saratoga in summer rain, L.A. with its oleander and “Hockney blue” pools and, perhaps my favorite poems of all, the ones about Paris in the third section of the book—poems like “Jardin du Luxembourg” or poems like “Palais Royal” with its “bankers on lunchbreak/and grandmas with children” soaking up the sun by the fountain.
McLane also plays quite a bit with rhyme and sound and metre, and I can’t quite get excited about her style in some of these poems: “iTunes/Indiana dunes” as a couplet falls flat for me, and many of the more rhyme-y of her poems feel similarly offputting. But some of what she does with poetic form is interesting, and sometimes really great. The book’s first poem, “Roundel,” had me running to my bookshelf to look up roundels in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: from that book I learned that this form, introduced by Swinburne, is a variant of the French rondeau, and by looking at the rhyme schemes I could see that McLane plays in her poem with both Swinburne’s form and the French one. The repetition of words and phrases beyond just the refrain also is interesting, and I like the way McLane changes possessives to plurals to give things a slant, “the sea’s” vs. “the seas.” More exciting to me is a longer poem called “Songs of a Season II,” which is made up of a series of triolets (which I wouldn’t have known had I not read this interview with McLane). The ever-helpful New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics explains that the triolet is a “French fixed form composed of eight lines and using only two rhymes, disposed in the following scheme: ABaAabAB (a capital letter indicates a repeated line).” I like the form lots, the repetition and rhyme of it, and McLane does some great things with it, like this:
To want to be awake
Every hour, to miss nothing
Of the changeable air, the lake.
To want to be awake
In the light and starred dark—
Every instant another thing
To want. To be awake
Every hour. To miss nothing.
March 6th, 2011
I think Adrienne Rich was the first poet I really enjoyed reading: I read “Diving into the Wreck” in a high school English class, then bought The Fact of a Doorframe later in high school and read and re-read my way through that book in late high school and early college. I haven’t read so much by her lately, but I was browsing my shelves trying to decide what to read next on a delicious spring-like evening (windows open, the smell of woodsmoke wafting in from somewhere) and this one caught my eye.
One of the later poems in this book includes a phrase from Simone Weil, and the full sentence the phrase comes from is given in the Notes: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’” The idea of answering or imagining or feeling one’s way into that what are you going through? is a central idea of this slim volume of Rich’s poems from the late 1980s and early 1990s: it’s there from the very start of the very first poem and keeps coming up. The first poem, the title poem, is probably my favorite; it and the other long poem of this book (“Eastern War Time”) are to me the most compelling because there’s room in them for a broadness of experience and/or time, a sense of both the big picture/history (industrial agriculture, the Holocaust) and the personal, and also room for both the horrors and loveliness of the world:
(from the first section of “An Atlas of the Difficult World”):
I don’t want to know
wreckage, dreck and waste, but these are the materials
and so are the slow lift of the moon’s belly
over wreckage, dreck, and waste, wild treefrogs calling in
another season, light and music still pouring over
our fissured, cracked terrain. (4)
Some early favorite lines, from the same section of the same poem:
voice of the freeway, night after night, metal streaming downcoast
past eucalyptus, cypress, agribusiness empires
THE SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD, gurr of small planes
dusting the strawberries, each berry picked by a hand (3)
I like, too, how Rich writes about nature, wind and weather and apple trees and succulents, the different feel of different places (a cabin or a brook in Vermont, the California coast).
December 12th, 2010
Before reading this book I’m not sure I could have told you the name of the founder of the Shakers. Now I can: it was Mother Ann Lee, and this book of poems tells the story of her life. The three sections of the book are arranged chronologically: the first, the Word of Life, tells the story of her early years in England, starting not with her birth but with her baptism (at the age of six). We learn she had a brother, lived in Manchester, worked in a cotton mill. Most of the poems are narrated in the first person, most in Ann Lee’s voice but some in the voices of others (her brother William, for example). I love this, from “Early Work”:
I walk home when night is folded tight like a prayer;
wrapped in the woolen overcoat William wore before his arms got too long,
wishing I knew the names of trees; (5)
And this, also early in the book: a young Ann is arguing with her mother (who’s baking bread) about marriage—after screaming and slapping her mother, Ann talks about wishing
I could fold the world over
and make it rise up right. (8)
On a first read-through, though, the book as a whole was more mildly interesting to me than exciting. I liked the mix of prose poems and free verse with line breaks; I liked the use of Mother Ann’s own words and the use of other texts—reworked fragments from Sappho, advertisements and news from a 1773 newspaper (The Manchester Mercury). I thought it was perhaps that Mother Ann feels so distant: distant in time but perhaps more distant in values and experiences. I thought also that maybe I wasn’t in the mood for reading poetry, or in the mood for this specific kind of historical narrative-filled poetry. On a second reading, I still felt that way, a little. There were moments where it felt like too much information was crammed into the poems when I’d rather have gotten it via the end notes or an introduction: one poem, “Found,” includes this: “We, the poor, sit in the back pews, sometimes even stand for the full two hours. My mother is a pious woman, brushes our hair Sundays (all five boys and three girls) and ties it up with ribbon she keeps in her good wood box. Made us scrub down the night before: knees jammed high in the washbasin, scouring backs and necks on the young ones till they’re red and raw, shivering more from the rough touch than cold” (9). That “We, the poor” sentence seems too heavy-handed for me, as does the parenthetical note about how many siblings Ann had, though I love the images of the rest of it, the ribbon, the wood box, the Saturday night scouring.
But as I kept re-reading, I found more to like: the solid details of “Egg”, the ecstasy of “Learn to Sing by Singing”, the cruelty and abundance of the world and of nature, the grace of “Mother Ann Tells Lucy What Gave Her Joy”, the lines, below, from “Make the Bridge the Truth That Is Coming”:
I left to walk among the trees
that edge the stream, singing God,
I am a woman listening.
A kingfisher lit on a branch
and I stood still, watching his breath
rise and fall in his breast, my breath
rise and fall in my breast. I turned
to see more clearly, but he flew
upstream. A branch broke from the tree. (47-48)