After Nature, by W.G. Sebald
I find it rather serendipitous how I encounter some writers. As a fond reader of good contemporary poetry , I might have encountered his works eventually at random in the library. However, it so happened that I joined a Goodreads challenge to read books translated by German, and when searching my local library database for translations from German (since I do not read German well enough to tackle it for book-length reading), I found some works by the late German poet. This was the first of the works that arrived after I put it on hold and so in reading it I got a feeling for Sebald’s work as a prose poet (a type of poetry I enjoy writing myself). I found the works to be sufficiently intriguing and enjoyable to read, and thought-provoking as well, that I requested another couple of books to read as well, and if those go well also it is likely that I will read the entire body of work by the author that is available in my library, with another great modern poet added to the list of writers whose work I wholeheartedly appreciate.
This work of slightly more than 100 pages consists of three very lengthy poems. The first poem, for example, reflects on some very different aspects of the life of the painter Grünewald, looking at him from the point of view of an art critic or an art historian, looking at his unhappy marriage to a converted Jew, his misanthropy, the loss of some of his works to Swedish invasion and theft and shipwreck, his fondness for drawing the male form in great detail rather than the female form and its implications, making a complex and long series of odes about a mysterious figure. The second poem is similarly a lengthy and complex series of poems about Georg Wilhelm Steller, whose travels to Russia ended up leading to his death during Bering’s expedition to explore Siberia and points beyond and involved some problems between him and Russian imperial officials who had different ideas about what treatment of local peoples was acceptable and proper. The third poem is a work that muses upon the German cities of their families and their destruction in World War II and in the industrialization in the Midlands of England that led to that destruction, and further musings on death and destruction.
As a whole, these poems are all melancholic odes and the poems are of a sustained length, allowing for many different but connected reflections on the same people and incidents of history. The poems are written in free verse but although the form of the poems tends to be prose sentences that are divided upon a running line fashion, the poetry is powerful and connects concerns of death, beauty, human relationships, the corrupt behavior of political figures, art, history, and the relationship of ordinary laborers and Jews and indigenous Siberians (to give a few examples) to economic and political systems that exploit them for deadly purposes. The weight of history on the Germans is clearly on the author, as all of his poems relate to the historical burden on Germans either in terms of their artistic and scientific achievements, their role in the troubled relationship of Jews and Christians as well as concerning global imperialism, and in the fateful events of World War II which gave a dark stain to their national honor, which the author appears particularly sensitive to. If you like your poetry very heavy with freighted historical and political meaning and you can appreciate reflective Germans dealing with their complex past, this book of poetry is certainly a classic.
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