translated by Patrick Greaney
Ugly Duckling Presse ($18)
by Rebecca Hart Olander
The spare white cover of Seascape, with its gray letterpress-font title, recalls the bleached-out, wide expanse of the sea. There is something slightly menacing about this oppressive whiteness that blots out almost all else; the effect of looking at it is similar to the way one is blinded temporarily after looking at the sun. It’s polar though, not warm, and it’s lonely. The sense of emptiness is heightened upon seeing that this volume is categorized as a “transcription” and is part eleven in a series called “Lost Literature.” These details conjure a journal from a shipwreck, once lost at sea, now found.
The opening page terms the book a “War log,” providing a context for the primary feeling of foreboding. The pages go on in sparse detail, as a ship’s log must, covering conditions and locations with clipped language, military time, and navigational codes. What is “transcribed” is a Nazi U-boat log from one twenty-four hour period at sea, the sameness of the entries providing a sense of the repetitiveness of a day amidst the elements, both before and again after the ship comes into contact with a lifeboat from a downed Norwegian tanker, and therefore other humans. The log possesses an elliptical quality; time cycles around to where it started, implying no ultimate progress was made. The lifeboat passengers are not rescued; their sighting and the ensuing interaction barely cause a ripple in the advance of the U-boat.
Seascape is one multi-paged concrete poem, and to place this poem into the “vessel” of a book is to frame it differently than its original form. However, the form is an ideal fit for the function here. The book is produced on “Reich” paper, according to the colophon, a subversion of the product for a renewed purpose. The letterpress type is well chosen for the medium and the message, lending an historic touch, and more importantly, searing each letter into the page. At the same time, the gray print makes the words an echo of language, so that the text is boldly anchored on the page but also conjures whispered voices leaking from the past. The light gray lines of language evoke old telegrams in their concision and mixture of letters and numbers. Each entry sits on its own page, like a boat alone in the sea, a physical representation of loneliness, and of being lost. The pages that contain logs about the conditions resemble Japanese poems, compact three-to-five-line reports of “broken clouds,” “rough sea,” and “poor visibility.” These pages juxtaposed with the log about the lifeboat illustrate a contrast between poetry and prose; the natural world is shown in poetry, while the human world is portrayed as prosaic.
The lifeboat passengers probably didn’t survive for long beyond their contact with the U-boat, as the log reports that, “Boat and crew were in a state that, in view of the prevailing weather, offered hardly any prospects of rescue.” In the end, though, they survive through the log itself. Their “survival” on the page keeps them from drowning in a sea of anonymity, and this lack of rescue in real time rescues them eventually in our memory, as palimpsests of survivors. These three men in the lifeboat made their mark, salvaged from their wreck and obstinately washing up in our collective reckoning with the bracken of the Nazi regime’s aftermath. At the end of Seascape, it is noted that this document was part of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1949. Without this information, the document would still carry the weight of history; this fact tells us how it was used, but the encounter between lifeboat and U-boat remains either way.
This found poem is a multi-layered exercise in translation, rendering in English what is located in tribunal documents as taken from a German nautical log during the Nazi regime. The translator Patrick Greaney is listed as an after note, with credit for the “transcription” given to Austrian poet Heimrad Bäcker, who appropriated this material, and other remnants of Nazism and the Shoah, as concrete poetry. Leaving the explanation of Greaney and Bäcker’s roles until the end allows the work to come first, unfurling for the viewer wave by wave. The log’s chilling entries submerge us in the cold truth of history. It is worth noting that Bäcker has a personal history with the Holocaust, having participated in the Nazi Youth movement. Turning evidence of this atrocity into objects of concrete poetry can be a dangerous business. One reading could be that interpreting history as art makes it possible to fetishize the contents, creating relics from ruins. However, the fact that the text is found poetry that approximates the original source excuses it in part from such accusation. We are forced to see the words less divorced from their making than they would have been in the trial transcripts Bäcker discovered. Within those transcripts, the log’s language is surrounded by commentary; here, we view the log surrounded by white space, rather than explication or excuses. Furthermore, Bäcker’s work can be seen as a corrective or at least critical look at the history that bore him. He is constructing a joint tale, putting his name on the transcription to share in its devastating authorship. When we hold the book, this physical fragment of the Holocaust, we too are made complicit.
An “After Writing” insert, written by Charles Bernstein, comes tucked into a flap in the book’s back cover, placed inside the text like a message in a bottle. The piece remains an addition to a preexisting document, kept physically separate from the text, coexisting but not blending with the transcription itself. The outer layer of the insert reverses the book’s type to white letters upon a dark gray background. The color scheme switch implies a story being reclaimed and retold, the ghostly type allowing the silenced voices of the dead to be heard. Bernstein tells us that “After Writing” is a literal translation of nachschrift, which is what Greaney translated to “transcription” on the cover of Seascape, and what Bäcker called two of his other concrete poems in the series he originally published.
In his first line, Bernstein plays on Theodor Adorno’s claims for post-WWII poetry by stating, “To write prose after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Throughout Bernstein’s commentary, he refuses to call Seascape a poem. As he draws to a close, however, he offers that to “write poetry after the Second War is to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face.” So, prose is barbaric, but poetry is an acceptance of this barbarism, or perhaps a confrontation of it. Bernstein’s final point is that Bäcker’s nachschrift, or after writing, “feels for the ground of a post-Enlightenment, aftermodern poetry, as a blind person feels for another’s face.” Poetry gropes about, feeling for bearings and ballast, not barbaric itself, but a response to the world’s barbarism. Bernstein is also linking the layers of text to one another here, calling his own insert “After Writing” and connecting it to what Bäcker did in compiling “linguistic shards [that] confront, without summarizing or representing, the Systematic Extermination of the European Jews.” Bernstein, too, is groping for humanity.
One feels after poring over Bäcker, Greaney, and then Bernstein that Seascape is the amalgamation of many readings of the original log. There is a story behind the few words here that speaks to a larger war, and, indeed, to the nature of humanity. Yet, story is not most important here. Instead, object becomes paramount, and the way Seascape is assembled provides a perfect union of shape and purpose; it offers the desolation of the open ocean, dredges up the consequences of Nazism, and honors the lives of those lost in World War II. The book is a manifestation of the lonely, vast, cold, bleak world with humanity cast as a mere blip on the radar. In fact, this is not a book that is read so much as it is held and examined. We are made to slow down and consider the events, much more so than if we had read them in the trial records. We are, in effect, plunged in—to the lifeboat, to the U-boat, to the war, to the trial, to what it means to have to look and remember.
Are we left cold after holding such a record? If so, only appropriately so. The fact of the survival of the record, the message unfurled from cold waves, does provide hope. Each new page suggests a healing as we turn from the vast emptiness implied by the front cover, enter the open sea noted through the pages, and arrive at the retelling in the “After Writing.” As much as history stands still as having happened, it also breathes through our reexamination and holding accountable of the past.