Wednesday, June 1, 2011

W. G. Sebald and the crummy gift of history

A seacow. Stellar saw and described them
for the non-indigenous.
I had some challenges getting into After Nature, W. G. Sebald's first and final work (first book written but last published), which is historical, biographical and autobiographical. No daffodil fields in After Nature, even if Sebald did move to England from Germany in his twenties and stay put until his accidental death some thirty years later.

I set the book aside as a full-on read and dipped into portions randomly, and a few weeks later started at the end with the final of three sections, the autobiographical poem. His parents being adults during WW II, Sebald had the crummy gift of history going for him.

Then I returned to the second section, about Georg Wilhem Steller, a botanist who accompanied the brooding explorer Bering into the Arctic. Here are melancholy, troubled Herr Bering, Europe's savaging of indigenous peoples, and Stellar's gloomy death, and poetic ambiguity. Nature has her way. Oh? with a godless ??? Lutheran (of course) from Germany.

At Tyumen they carry him out of the sledge,
drag his half-petrified body
out of the ice into the fire,
into a furnace house.
Now begins alchimia,
Steller recognises the mortem improvisam,
the stroke and all its appendage,
sees his death, how it is mirrored
in the field-surgeon's monocle.
Such are you, doctores,
split lamps,
thus nature has her way
with a godless
Lutheran from Germany.

Back to section one which had at first won my heart, being poetry and art history all-in-one. It's about Matthias Grunewald, a late-medieval painter of, needless-to-say, sorrow, the man of sorrows, His holy mother, angels. Like Stellar, Grunewald saw European barbarity: pogroms and quashed peasant rebellion.* The lines feel telegraphed, a not uncommon sensation for a reader of poetry, but this reader didn't think they had been telegraphed on the same day.

But the bodies of peasants piled up
into a hetacomb, because. As though they were mad,
they neither put up any resistance
Nor took to their heels.
When Grunewald got news of this
On the 18th of May
He ceased to leave his house. Yet he could hear the gouging out
Of eyes that long continued
Between Lake Constance and
The Thuringian Forest. For weeks at that time he wore
A dark bandage over his face.

What made the reading difficult is the almost arbitrary nature of line breaks and stanzas in the first section. I thought it was me, fresh off of three some months of researching streams of information for a client. I thought I could not bear one more fact. But on looking at it again and on noodling around the Internet to read other impressions of the book I feel safe in agreeing with myself about the first section. (Michael Hamburger's translation is not the issue.)

On the first of October the moon's shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Grünewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy blues of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter's memory.
These colours unfold as the reverse of
the spectrum in a different consistency
of the air, whose deoxygenated void
in the gasping breath of the figures
on the central Isenheim panel is enough
to portend our death by asphyxiation; after which
comes the mountain landscape of weeping
in which Grünewald with a pathetic gaze
into the future has prefigured
a planet utterly strange, chalk-coloured
behind the blackish-blue river.

I also feel confident in recommending After Nature. A little struggle and disappointment in a beautiful read is good for a poet.

*[An exceptional exploration of the Grunewald section by Dorothea von Mücke is available here.]

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