Across the Land and the Water

W.G. Sebald

Translator Iain Galbraith’s introduction is one of the best parts of this book, as it includes “an example … of the difficulty of translating Sebald’s poetry”:

Many of the poems in this volume—which opens with a train journey—reenact travel “across” various kinds of land and water (even if the latter is only the fluid of dreams). Indeed, several, as the writer’s archive reveals, were actually written “on the road,” penned on hotel stationery, menus, the backs of theatre programs, in cities that Sebald visited.

He goes on to talk about a poem titled “Somewhere” that involves a small town called Türkenfeld, which is an area Sebald would have passed through often, yet:

… it is well for a translator to be aware that landscapes in Sebald’s work are rarely as innocent as they seem…. In the metaphorical sense, the poem puts the traveler’s gaze itself at the center of its encounter with a cryptic landscape, exploring the difficulty of inciting a historical topography to return that gaze by divulging its secrets. Many of Sebald’s poems enact the battle of the intellect and senses with the hermetic or repellent face of history’s surface layers. The impression is one of traveling across a land in which the catastrophic events of the twentieth century have left a pattern of shallow graves under the almost pathologically hygienic and tidy upper stratum of civilization. What, then, is “behind” Türkenfeld?

Galbraith finishes by revealing the area’s connections to Dachau and how “[o]ur first unknowing reading of the poem … points to the perilous consequences of our loss of cultural memory.”

This is maybe the only volume of poetry I’ve read that includes endnotes, which I referred to sporadically, though none of them deconstruct the poems with as elegant depth as above. Though this collection includes many descriptions of central European locales, I think one of my favorites was this one, recounting travels a bit closer to my home:

New Jersey Journey

Spent two hours at the end of December
on the Garden State Highway
In the ancient Ford’s trunk
nothing but my heart grown
heavier year by year

A protracted catastrophe:
the constant river of traffic
the endless business of overtaking
vicious eye-contact
with total strangers
in the adjacent lane

Driven by yearning
for its prehistoric brothers
a Jumbo climbs out of Newark
airport over marshes and lagoons
a giant smoking
mountain of rubbish
and the countless lights
of the refineries

Mile after mile of stunted trees
telegraph poles fields of blueberries
a Siberian countryside
colonized then run to seed
with moribund supermarkets
abandoned poultry farms
haunted by millions and millions
of breakfast eggs
harboring the undeciphered sighs
of an entire nature

Near the retirement town of Lakehurst
a safari park soundless
under its coat of frost
cemeteries as spacious
as the world war killing fields
funeral parlors dubious
antique shops and a bus station
for last trips
to Atlantic City

In the twilight of the settlement itself
ten square miles of faintly
luminous bungalows
lawns dwarf-conifers
Christmas decorations
Santa Rudolph the Reindeer
and in front of one of the houses
my uncle feeding songbirds

Drinking schnapps
he later tells me
of the conquest of New York
Drinking schnapps I consider
the ramifications of our calamity
and the meaning of the picture
that shows him, my uncle
as a tinsmith’s assistant in ’23
on the new copper roof
of the Augsburg synagogue
those were the days

Next day we drive out to the coast
Seaside Park Avenue at noon
the boardwalks deserted
boarded up diners
Alpine-style summerhouses
with circulating draughts
yachts rattling in the cold
the sub-urban migration of dunes

With the brown house-high waves
in the background my uncle
leaning forward in the wind
snapped me again
with his Polaroid

Do we really die
only once

more from this author