Across The Land And The Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, by W.G. Sebald
Having previously seen that W.G. Sebald could handle longer poems with considerable skill, I read this book hoping that he could handle shorter poems as well and I was definitely pleased with the results. Even though these poems are (mostly) translations from German, they still work as poems. Some of the poems are fairly long, though nowhere as near as long as the poems from After Nature. And some of the poems are tantalizingly short, like this one, “Obscure Passage:”
Aristole did not
apprehend at all
the word he found
When one is dealing with thoughtful poetry like this , one has to recognize the depth of allusions that are being made by the poet. Here the author is making a reference to classical views about the limitations of hearing, limitations that Aristotle did not admit of in his view of human wisdom and understanding. At other times the poet writes what appears to be a beautiful nature ode only to leave a reference to concentration camps from Hitler’s Germany in the area, turning a nature ode into a darker reflection on the relationship of history and memory and poetry. These are great works, and as my library has more books of his, I expect to read plenty more where this came from.
This book of about 150 pages or so of poetry is divided into several sections. The selected poems are from 1964-2001, quite a large span of his writing, and the sections the poems are placed in are labeled as follows: Poemtrees, School Latin, Across The Land And The Water, The Year Before Last, and an appendix with two English-language poems. Indeed, given the title of the sections, it is possible that the parts of this book are chapbooks (or at least could have been) with the poems inside them as part of some collection that was never made in English until this time. This book has the feel of a best-of compilation in the best way, with poems relating to history, philosophy, travel, creation, memory, and other concerns that seem particularly typical from what I have read of the poet thus far. The author shows himself to have been very well-read and also someone who thought and reflected about his place in the world and his country’s place in the world, and the inherited guilt of history lies heavily on him in these pages as well, which appears to be a consistent element of Sebald’s writing.
A couple of examples suffice to point out the deep resonance of the author’s shorter works of lyrical poetry. For one, the author appears to be deeply involved in conversations about other creative people–there are references to Chopin’s doomed romance with a lovely young lady whose father overruled their engagement, at least a couple of references to Kafka, one to Chekov’s death. Clearly, Sebald is someone who recognizes his part of the conversation that writers engage in with other writers, and he is playful in writing in such a way that other well-read people can grasp at the depth of what is being said. The author also mentions German history quite frequently here, and on at least a few occasions there are references to the horrors of World War II. Sebald just cannot seem to shake the dark sense of how even the bucolic German countryside contains numerous places that have been forever (?) scarred by serving as prisons in Hitler’s murderous regime. One wonders how much time is necessary for the land to rest to become pure again, as nature is consistently malign in these poems, always full of some kind of darker angle or reference than the idea most people have when it comes to nature poems.
 See, for example: