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Readings in the mist: two November poems by W. G. Sebald.

W.G. Sebald wrote and published poetry from the early 1960s until his death in 2001. Even though Sebald's oeuvre is among the most assiduously studied in Germanistik today, however, his lyric poetry has yet to receive any serious attention by scholarly critics. Through close readings of two representative poems from Scbald s last years ("Ruhiges Novemberwetter and "In Alfermee"), 1 seek to redress this neglect in the present article. These poems deal with well-known preoccupations of the author, such as landscape, memory, history, intertextuality, and death. On closer inspection, however, the details of their poetic form--their versification, phonetic patterning, imagery and semantic ambiguity-make it clear that they cannot be read as mere small-scale versions of his prose. Sebald's poems are complex and evocative works of great literary merit, which simultaneously partake of and question the generic specificity1 of poetry.


The fact that W. G. Sebald, who has come to be recognized as one of the most important prose writers of contemporary Europe, was also a prolific and accomplished writer of lyric poetry remains something of a well-kept secret. Sebald wrote poetry throughout most of his life, from the early 1960s until his death in 2001, publishing it chiefly in literary magazines and anthologies. His first major literary work was the extensive epic poem Nach der Natur, which was published in 1988. Toward the turn of the millennium, after his international reputation had been established by Die Ausgewanderten and Die Ringe des Saturn, he seems to have devoted more and more attention to his poetry. When he passed away, he had just published a collection of brief English-language lyric poems entitled For Years Now, and was also working on a closely related German lyric cycle, which was published in 2003 under the title Unerzahlt. In 2008, finally, all of his published poems (apart from those included in the aforementioned volumes) along with a selection of hitherto unpublished poems, were collected and printed posthumously under the title Uber das Land und das Wasser, which recently appeared in English translation. However, despite the fact that Sebald's oeuvre--including not only his prose fiction, but also, more recently, his scholarly and critical essays--is the topic of one of the fastest-growing bodies of scholarship in Germanistik today, his poetic output has attracted virtually no scholarly attention. (2) When it is not ignored altogether, it is either mentioned in the most perfunctory manner (Long/Whitehead 4, Catling/ Hibbert 1) or evoked solely as a corroboration of what we already know about his prose (Catling, Zisselsberger 8-9).

In this essay, I seek to redress this neglect by devoting close attention to two representative poems from Sebald's final years: "Ruhiges Novemberwetter" and "In Alfermee." I will foreground the specificity of poetic form--the details of versification, interconnection through metaphor and semantic ambiguity that are stereotypically considered core characteristics of poetry--as a crucial aspect of these texts. I will, in other words, read them as poetic constructs with literary significance in their own right, rather than as small-scale versions of his famous prose narratives.

The genre of the poems, however, is far from straightforward. Perhaps no characteristic is more frequently observed in Sebald's work than its conscious and complex relations to the conventions of genre. For one, the form of the poems addressed here--like that of many Sebald lyric poems--carries with it a sense of ambiguity in terms of history and tradition. They seem ballad-like in their typographic arrangement into quatrains composed of short lines, thus evoking the Romantic Volkslied, which was a dominant genre from the period of Herder and Goethe through that of von Arnim and Brentano and into the twentieth century. At the same time, the poems are marked by the rifts and ruptures of high-modernist poetics. These traces of different historical layers are also present on a thematic level: as so often in Sebald's work, the traumas of German history are lurking just beneath the surface of the text, while the poems are nevertheless explicitly anchored in the moment at which they were written. Moreover, these poems abound in subtle references to classical mythology--especially the underworld--thus framing the specific problems of German history within a broader, European cultural tradition.

The question of genre is further complicated by the ambiguous relation of the poems to the categories of prose and verse. At first glance, many of Sebald's poems--including those discussed here--seem to be nothing but prose sentences arbitrarily divided into verses and stanzas and stripped of punctuation in order to look like a traditional type of poetry. There are no rhymes, and the lines are not governed by any metrical pattern. Yet their typographical arrangement is far from a superficial whim: in addition to the above-mentioned effect of historical ambiguity, Sebald's versification choices often make palpable semantic contributions to the poems. The lines and stanzas can be taken to reinforce their own integrity as linguistic units, often working against the sense of the complete sentence. Thus, as I will show, the versification of the poems gives rise to subtle shifts in emphasis and opens up sites of tensive ambiguity that need to be addressed in an interpretation.

The versification, in other words, creates an effect of undecidability: the poems present us with a game of perception, not unlike the duck-rabbit made famous by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Depending on how you look at them, the texts consist of either short fragments paratactically heaped upon each other, or the vast, hypotactic sentences that we know from Sebald's prose. Whether or not every stanza or line break has obvious semantic valence, however, is less important than the fact that the seemingly arbitrary imposition of versification produces an uncertainty about that valence: the reader never knows for sure whether the meaning is intended or not. This evocative undecidability, which will be illustrated in the following readings, can be understood as a specifically poetic structural counterpart to the often-noted preoccupation with coincidence in Sebald's prose. When a pattern appears, the significance of which is only half-sensed or half-perceived, the question of its significance becomes not less, but more acute and unsettling. The result in the texts addressed here is a poetry that simultaneously unsettles its own generic affiliation and utilizes the means of expression specific to poetry.

"Ruhiges Novemberwetter" and "In Alfermee" evoke a meteorological emblem of such undecidability and half-perception: mist. In Sebald's work, landscape is recurrently suggestive of text, and traveling of the act of reading or interpreting: in Die Ringe des Saturn, for instance, the traveler-protagonist is repeatedly concerned with the unsettling feeling that the landscape has a meaning that eludes him. (3) The analogy between landscape and text is placed in the foreground of the two poems I address here, and it has a particular relevance to their foggy atmosphere. By erasing boundaries, the mist becomes an agent of hermeneutic undecidability--it prevents the observer from domesticating the landscape through exhaustive interpretation. In a 2001 interview, Sebald claims that "natural phenomena like fog, like mist, which render the environment and one's ability to see it almost impossible, have always interested me greatly" (Silverblatt 83). Sebald's interest, I would argue, is more than the pleasure that the melancholic might take in an external ambience that corresponds to his inner gloom. In his poems, the specific configuration of landscape and perception suggested by the mist acquires a self-referential significance: it is an image of the resistance to hermeneutic exhaustion that is epitomized by the genre of poetry.

I. November in Berlin

In "Ruhiges Novemberwetter," a poem that was first published in the journal Akzente (no. 48) in the year of his death, Sebald evokes two distinct scenes from a day in Berlin. The first takes place in the Mitte district, the second in a villa in Wannsee (Uber das Land 92-94):
   Ruhiges Novemberwetter

   in Deutschland anhaltend
   neblig & trub. Tiefstwerte
   zwischen null & drei Grad
   niedrige Wolkendecke

   uber Brandenburg & Berlin.
   Von Norden her streicht
   kalte Meeresluft uber
   den Platz wo fruher

   der Lustgarten war eine
   preussisch symmetrische
   Anlage Springbrunnen
   links & rechts, weisse

   Kieswege diagonal
   Reiterdenkmal genau
   in der Mitte Rasen
   nicht zu betreten.

   Dieses da sagt meine
   Fuhrerin ist der Dom
   sechzehn tote Hohenzollem
   liegen hier unterm Sand

   uberhaupt sehr geschichts
   trachtiger Boden standig
   stosst man beim
   Graben auf Leichen.

   Die Raben dort auf dem
   Grasfleck wissen wonach
   sie suchen. Aus der
   Schlucht zwischen

   Pergamon & Bodemuseum
   rollt die S-Bahn heraus
   ein heller Streif hoch auf
   der Brucke ein zweiter

   drunten im schwarzen
   Wasser der Spree.
   An dem mit Plastik
   blachen verhangten

   Bahnhof nehmen wir
   Abschied. Sie geht zuruck
   in die Bruderstrasse ich
   fahr zum Wannsee hinaus

   wo ich fur die Nacht
   einquartiert bin in
   der literarischen Villa
   & zum erstenmal

   eine leibhaftige

   Dichterin sehe.
   Sie heisst Jessie

   Kleemann steht im
   in rotsamtenem
   Anzug mit einem

   femostlich bleichen
   Gesicht vor den Schatten
   figuren des Publikums
   & formt mit ihren

   Lippen flusternd
   am Mikrophon die
   scheint mir aus
   nichts als aus

   Doppelvokalen &
   doppelten Vogel
   Vaus bestehenden
   die Tonleiter auf

   & abgleitenden Laute
   ihrer gefiederten
   Sprache Taavvi
   jjuaq sagt sie die

   grosse Dunkelheit &
   Qaavmaaq indem
   sie den Arm hebt
   das schimmemde Licht.

The first scene begins with a few meteorological mood-setters that are highly characteristic of Sebald's texts: it is a dull, overcast day in November, full of fog and with temperatures just above the freezing-point. The relevance of this setting exceeds the general atmosphere of dreariness to which it gives rise: if the surrounding landscape is thought of in analogy to a text, as something to be read and construed, its potential message is obscured as the log interferes and blurs the difference that is a sine qua non of signification and significance. Even the first lines of this poem thus evoke difficulties of perception and understanding, which pertain both to the way in which the lyrical "I" will perceive the two scenes of the poem, and to the way in which the reader will perceive the poem itself.

In the first stanzas, the poem gradually calibrates its focus from Germany to Brandenburg and Berlin; to the place where the Lustgarten used to be; and, finally, to the very center of this place: "genau / in der Mitte." Significantly, the "I" begins the description of this place not in terms of what he sees, but of what he knows that the place has been. Places, as Edward Casey reminds us, cannot be reduced to positions in space, but "gather experiences and histories, even languages and thoughts" (327) and may "serve as lasting scenes of experience and reflection and memory" (iii). The places of this poem carry with them the historical memory o fall that has come to pass in them. The history of the Lustgarten is a prolonged alternation between construction and ruination, and between ornamental and militaristic uses: it was conceived as a garden in the sixteenth century and turned into a formal park in the following one. When Friedrich Wilhelm I developed Prussia into a military state, he destroyed the garden to make room for exercises and parades. His successor, Friedrich Wilhelm II, reconstructed the park. Under the French occupation, it again took on the function of a parade ground. Following the demise of Napoleon, it was converted into a formal garden, which it remained until 1934, when Hitler had it paved over and used it as a venue for mass rallies and military parades.

From this spot, the "I" reflects upon the symmetrical garden with fountains, lawns, and gravel paths that had preceded Hitler's vision. His reflections are far from an idealization of a lost Eden; rather, the Prussian symmetry mirrors or prefigures the formations of marching troops or the perfect rows of swastika tapestries that framed the Lustgarten during the Summer Olympic Games in 1936. The splendor of the erstwhile garden echoes Walter Benjamin's oft-quoted observation about the historical survival of cultural achievement: "Es ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein" (694).

It is no wonder, therefore, that the speaker's arrival at this point is immediately followed by a caveat: "Rasen / nicht zu betreten." The ground is ripe with macabre historical memories, and visitors should think twice before treading there. As the guide starts to speak, her sparse commentary identifies the Berlin Cathedral on the eastern side of the Lustgarten before observing that the ground harbors an abundance of corpses--including, among others, sixteen members of the House of Hohenzollern (the dynasty to which both Friedrich Wilhelms belonged). Since the phrase "uberhaupt sehr geschichts / trachtiger Boden" is implicitly explained by the roll owing one--"standig / stosst man beim / Graben auf Leichen"--history seems to be equated here with death.

Sebald's lyrical "I" is incapable of heeding the implicit warning. When he sets foot in this place, its dire history absorbs him nolens volens. It even threatens to pull him into the ground. Just after the mention of the grass and what lies beneath it, a chasm opens: "Aus der / Schlucht zwischen." This is an example of the way versification can give the fragmentary meaning of a line or a stanza primacy over the completeness of syntactic structure. If the interrupted line is considered as a meaningful unit in its own right, the language of the poem temporarily comes to a halt after "zwischen," and something unnamed emerges from the abyss between two unknown points of reference. Since we have just learned that the ground here is full of corpses, the caesura leads us to expect the emergence of an uncanny revenant from this abyss.

Having crossed the gap to the next stanza, however, the reader realizes that the chasm is not located in the ground after all, but between two of the museums on the so-called "Museum Island." If the landscape is approached as a text, the "Schlucht" is a misinterpretation, both foregrounded and symbolically represented by the typographical breach that separates these words from the remainder of the sentence. It is a metaphorically significant misinterpretation, since it attributes the savagery of natural landscape to the opening between the two man-made buildings. The "Schlucht," which is typically natural, splits open here between two museums--paradigms of collective memory--thus undermining the control exerted over nature by supposedly civilized culture.

What finally emerges out of the chasm is the seemingly commonplace S-Bahn train, hardly an unexpected apparition in this place. The train, however, is no innocent vehicle. In an interview on October 16, 1997--about a month before this poem was probably written--Sebald speaks of "ways of expressing heightened sensations, as it were, in the form of symbols which are perhaps not obvious." To illustrate his point, he turns to trains: "The railway played a very, very prominent part, as one knows, in the whole process of deportation. If you look at Claude Lanzmann's Shoah film, [...] there are trains all the time, between each episode" (Wachtel 53). Since "Ruhiges Novemberwetter" abounds in allusions to German history and its murderous implications, these layers of meaning are just beneath the surface of the text. When the train appears from out of the "Schlucht," it carries with it the references with which it was loaded during the years of the Holocaust--not directly, but as vague, unsettling echoes. As Sebald continues: "The more obvious you make a symbol in a text, the less genuine, as it were, it becomes, so you have to try and do it very obliquely, so that the reader might read over it without really noticing it" (54).

The S-Bahn is also what connects the two geographical points of the poem: after the lyrical "I" bids his guide farewell at the railway station, it is presumably this train--line S1 or S7--that takes him southwestward to Wannsee, where the second scene takes place. The venue, which is called the "literarisch[e] Villa" in the poem, is the house of the Literary Colloquium, founded in 1963 as a center for literary events and seminars, as well as a guest house for writers and poets. Surely it is not insignificant in a poem concerned with German history and its graves, that just across the water, one mile away, lies the villa where the Wannsee Conference was held on January 20, 1942. Even today, the so-called Endlosung remains a strong connotation of the word "Wannsee," and its unsettling overtones reverberate through Sebald's text.

In the Wannsee villa, the lyrical "I" attends a reading by a Greenlandic poet named Jessie Kleemann. Kleemann--the "real" one--was born in Upernavik, Greenland, in 1959, and her work often draws on Inuit mythology and tradition. In November 1997, she visited the Literary Colloquium and gave a reading at the Wannsee villa. (4) Sebald spent a weck in late November in Germany that year, and on the twenty-fourth he went to Wannsee to read in the studio of the Literary Colloquium (Sheppard 645). Presumably, he attended Kleemann's reading, which included extracts from her recent book Taallat ("Poems"). (5)

The Jessie Kleemann who appears in the poem takes on the function of an Other in which multiple alterities intersect. Hers is an exposed position in the limelight, observed by an audience hiding in the shadows. The "I" introduces her as the first living Greenlandic poet whose work he has heard "live," clearly suggesting that he experiences her reading as something rather exotic. Moreover, in spite of Kleemann's Inuit descent, he describes her face as having a far-eastern paleness, thus projecting upon her an orientalistic aura of the strange and mysterious. Finally, it is no surprise that such otherness, tinged by the striking impression that her pale face and red velvet dress seems to make on the male spectator, is ascribed to a female figure.

The most palpable aspect of Kleemann's otherness, however, is her language, which Sebald grafts onto the body of his own text: the words "Taavvi / jjuaq" and "Qaavmaaq" are Inuktitut quotations from Kleemann's Taallat, a trilingual edition in which they are translated as "great darkness" and "gleaming light," respectively (Kleemann 106). The Inuktitut sounds are emphatically foreign to the lyrical "I", and he describes them with two extended attributive clauses: "die / scheint mir aus / nichts als aus//Doppelvokalen &/ doppelten Vogel/Vaus bestehenden / die Tonleiter auf//& abgleitenden Laute / ihrer gefiederten / Sprache." This noun phrase serves an illustrative example of the estranged quality that Sebald's hypotactic constructs acquire when they are presented in the guise of poetry: versified, enjambed and without the guidance of punctuation, the sentence becomes difficult to read. While the syntax is possible to construe, it nevertheless threatens to fall apart into fragments, and its strangeness correlates with that of the Greenland poet's language as perceived by the lyrical "I."

Kleemann's language, moreover, is described in terms of both orality and inscription: its consists, on the one hand, of orthographical characteristics--double vowels and v's--and, on the other hand, of sounds gliding up and down a scale, which she "formt mit ihren / Lippen." Moreover, the ornithological reference persists in the visual and auditory realm alike. It is the mark of the letter v, similar in shape to a bird, which is referred to as "Vogel-Vau," to specify that the sound [f] is written in her verses as in "Vogel." Kleemann's speech is also associated with birdsong by way of its melodious glissandi, and what the lyrical "I" hears, finally, are the sounds of a "feathered" language. All characteristics ascribed to Kleemann are aimed at portraying her as a fremden Vogel, and her language constitutes the core of her alterity.

Yet for all these markers of difference, there is something familiar about Kleemann: her family name, which is typographically foregrounded by the blank space severing it from "Jessie" in the preceding stanza. The given name is left behind, while the more impersonal surname is highlighted: "Kleemann steht im / Scheinwerferglanz." The name has a distinctly German ring to it. The Greenlandic poet, whose language is unknown to him and whose face he describes as having an eastern-exotic character, bears a name that brings with it well-known echoes of Heimat. Kleemann's mythical image becomes an uncanny yet captivating conflation of the familiar and strange, an over-determined Other whose disconcerting aura sterns from the fact that her alterity resonates with the traumas lodged within the memory of the Self. (6)

These, then, are the two scenes of which the poem consists. But in order to understand Sebald's text, one needs to consider how they relate to each other. On the one hand, they constitute a straightforward, linear story by being geographically, temporally, and causally related: they take place on the same day, under the dreary weather with which the poem is superscribed. While each scene is described in some detail, the transition between them--the railroad trip to Wannsee--is fast-forwarded. The railroad track forms a spatio-temporal connection between the two scenes, thus endowing the poem with the contiguity characteristic of linear narration. On the other hand, as I will argue shortly, the two scenes also abound in analogous images and thematic correspondences, which are crucial to the understanding of the poem. One might be reminded here of a common structuralist generalization, according to which narrative discourse is dominated by causal-metonymic relata and lyric poetry by thematic-metaphorical ones. (7) On this view, the combination of these distinct types of relata could be interpreted as another aspect of the generic interplay between prose narrative and lyric poetry in Sebald's text.

The most immediately striking thematic analogy is that of the female characters to whom the lyrical "I" listens in both scenes. The "Fuhrerin" and the "Dichterin" mirror each other, and if one reads the scenes as metaphorically related, their characteristics come to mutually illuminate and modify each other: while Kleemann takes on the role of a cicerone, the tour guide's account of the corpses of German history seems as bewildering to the lyrical "I" as the Inuktitut language. The women are both trying to impart something that remains incomprehensible to him. In both scenes, moreover, the opposition of light and darkness is aligned with the polarization of above and below. The S-Bahn train passing above the Spree is "ein heller Streif / hoch auf der Brucke," mirrored "drunten im Schwarzen/Wasser;" Kleemann stands in the limelight of the stage while the audience watches her from the shadows below. She speaks of "d[er] grosse[n] Dunkelheit," then, while raising her arm, of "d[em] schimmernde[n] Licht." Finally, the first scene is inhabited by ravens--carrion-eaters and birds of ill omen--while the second evokes birds as part of its verbal imagery. The ascription of bird-like characteristics to Kleemann's language--"Vogel Vaus," "gefiedert[]"--recalls the mythologically over-determined ravens and establishes an analogy between poetic discourse itself and the overwhelming pull of, or even obsession with, death.

These analogies arguably foreground the mythological resonance of the descent into the underworld in the poem. The journey into the land of the dead is a recurrent topos in classical literature--most famously in the works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante--and those poets' epics seem to echo through Sebald's poem. Similar resonances also occur in Sebald's prose, where his travelers often associate an environment with myths of the kingdoms of the dead: in Die Ringe des Saturn, for instance, this is true of the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam (111) and an island outside the Orford Ness coast (279-82); and in Austerlitz, of the Liverpool Street Station (187-89) and Terezln (276-80). (8) As in the passage describing Terezin, in "Ruhiges Novemberwetter" the dead of Germany's past occupy a central position. In addition to this, however, the speaker of the poem locates death and darkness below--the corpses in the ground, the darkness of the river under the bridge--in opposition to the light above. As a consequence, the act of remembrance and reconstruction, crucial to Sebald, implicitly becomes a descent into the shadows.

The link between the upper and the nether regions is the S-Bahn, which takes the "I" to Wannsee, and which has two parallel appearances: one streak of light on the bridge above and one in the darkwaters below. Here, the Spree might be taken to evoke the Styx and Acheron. The "Schlucht" between the two buildings, from which the train emerges, would then be a contemporary counterpart to the gorge that opens into the underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid: "There was a vast cave deep in the gaping, jagged rock" (VI:237). Moreover, the "I" actually has to pass through the same "Schlucht" in order to get to Wannsee by train: if he boarded the train from the closest S-Bahn station, Hackescher Markt, the train would take him across the Spree with the Pergamon Museum on his left and the Bode Museum on his right. Interestingly, the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station was being renovated in 1997-98, presumably during Sebald's visit to Berlin in November 1997, which might account for the "Plastik / blachen" that are draped around the station where the lyrical "I" parts with his guide.

Both Aeneas and Dante are ushered into the underworld by a guide: the former by the Cumean Sibyl and the latter by Virgil, who introduces himself as both "poeta" and "guida" in The Divine Comedy (I:73, I:113). If Sebald's poem evokes a mythical descent into the realm of the dead, "Fuhrerin" and "Dichterin" appear as two different incarnations of a Plutonian cicerone, brought together by the thematic analogies between them. Like those of the Aedeneid and the Divine Comedy, Sebald's guides indicate and explain what the traveler sees: "Dieses da ist der Dom," the tour guide says, before naming the dead who inhabit the place; Kleemann, meanwhile, points out the darkness and the light to her audience.

This audience, furthermore, is a host of shadows: she speaks "vor den Schatten / figuren des Publikums." These lines are another instance of how Sebald subtly exploits the possibilities of versification: the enjambment in the middle of the word "Schattenfiguren" places the livid face of the poet "vor den Schatten." In classical accounts, both the dead themselves and the darkness in which they dwell are referred to as shadows (Lat. "umbrae," It. "ombre"). (9) In the second scene of the poem, the "I" is part of the audience, seated in the dark. His position has shifted: on the Museum Island, he stood above the ground where the bodies are buried, but after journeying through the "Schlucht" and on to Wannsee, his place is among the shades. His descent into the undiscovered country has been completed.

This poem, then, evokes some of Sebald's principal themes: the troubled history of his native country, the difficulties implied by memory and perception, the poetics of travel, and the landscape that calls for interpretation. Yet this particular visit to the German underworld has subtly different implications from those that take place in Sebald's prose fiction, precisely because it is not prose, but poetry. The figure of the Greenlandic "Dichterin" in the second scene is charged with self-reflexive significance, and her poetic discourse mirrors Sebald's own. The poetry of the over-determined Other becomes a metaphorical image of the estrangement of Sebald's speaking "I" within German language and history. The closer the "I" gets to the traumatic core of German history--represented by the place where the Endlosung was conceived--the more incomprehensible its place-specific meaning becomes. Above ground, the prosaic discourse of the tour guide is semantically intelligible, but when the lyrical "I" has descended into the darkness, the poet's language eludes him. He hears only vowels, consonants, and strangely meandering melodies.

At the same time, the very passage into the underworld is bound up with this strange poetry; it is at a poetry reading that the lyrical "I" finds himself surrounded by the shades of the dead. Furthermore, he describes the bird-like, "feathered" language that he hears as gliding up and down along the scale. These sounds move freely between the realms of light and darkness, defying the horizontal ordering established by the text. Poetic language--precisely because it stereotypically tends towards patterns of "musical" sound rather than reference--is thus portrayed as that which may traverse the boundaries between the world above and the world below.

The speaker's focus on the auditory aspects of language also reflects on Sebald's own poem. The question whether patterns emerge arbitrarily or not--whether there is an ordering principle behind them--is relevant not only to the poem's meaning, but also to its sound. At certain points, phonetic regularities, such as instances of alliteration ("Brandenburg & Berlin," "Dieses da [...] ist der Dom," "standig / stosst," "wissen wonach," "Vogel / Vaus"); internal assonances or rhymes ("Meeresluft uber den Platz wo fruher," "Graben auf Leichen / die Raben"); epiphora ("scheint mir aus / nichts als aus"); and anaphora ("doppelvokalen & / doppelten Vogel") draw attention to the sound patterns of the poem (and, potentially, away from the semantic aspects of its language). The point is not to conclude that such patterns are always significant, but that the text prompts the reader to ask whether they are and that this question cannot be decisively answered. Their importance grows when certain generic cues--the thematization of the musical sounds of poetry, the visual impression of versified text--are taken into account by the reader.

This poetic resistance to the unambiguously meaningful and the hermeneutically exhaustible can itself be understood as the linguistic correlate of the mists, shadows, and darkness that obscure perception in the two scenes of this text. Sebald's interest in log and mist manifests itself here as the evocation of such phenomena as self-reflexive emblems of poetic discourse. The paradoxical conflation of a labyrinthine, meandering sentence with a lineation that divides it into short linguistic fragments opens the poem to ambiguity. Regardless of its syntactic role in the sentence, each line seems to acquire an integrity of its own, giving rise to multiple possible meanings beyond the constraints of grammatical completeness. The absence of punctuation marks, which would normally guarantee the clarity of complex, hypotactic syntax, further obscures the structure of the sentence, making it increasingly difficult to parse. Such characteristics correspond to the mists and clouds that shroud the cityscape of central Berlin, and to the shadows that finger in Wannsee on this day in late November, 1997.

II. November in Alfermee

The second poem that I will address here conjures another mist-covered November landscape, this time located in the north-western regions of Switzerland. (10) It was among the very last manuscripts that Sebald submitted for publication before his death (Meyer 109). Here, Sebald continues to explore the analogy between poetic text and landscape, as well as the phenomena that interfere with the perception and interpretation of both (Uber das Land 98-99).
   In Alfermee

   spat im November
   die ganze Nacht
   rauscht der Regen
   uber den Jura herab

   Quer durch den Schlaf
   die Buchstabenspur
   einer Sprache die
   du nicht verstehst

   Das todmude Auge
   der Schreiberin die
   Finger der Hand auf
   der Tastatur der Maschine

   Wie morgens das Dunkel
   sich hebt von der Erde
   da ist kein Unterschied
   zwischen Luftraum & See

   Am Ufer die Reihe
   der Pappeln dahinter
   an einer Boje ein
   einziges Boot

   Jenseits des grauen
   Wassers unsichtbar
   in den Schwaden des
   Nebels das Dorf Sutz

   ein paar erloschende
   Lichter & eine
   Saule von schnee
   weissem Rauch.

Like "Ruhiges Novemberwetter," this poem begins with a description of the weather. The conditions are just as gloomy here as they were in Germany: the rain is pouring down throughout a winter's night, and the morning is wrapped in grey mists. Again, this mist is emblematic of the poetics of uncertainty pursued by the text itself. Once the title and the first stanza have situated the poem in time and place (a typical opening move in Sebald's oeuvre), the contours immediately start to blur. While the speaker's observation of continuous rain suggests a mind awake throughout the night, the events narrated in the second and third stanzas take place in sleep, like a strange dream. However, the reader is never allowed to decide conclusively if or when the dream has given way to "reality": the poem takes place in a hypnagogic or hypnopompic borderland.

The dream, which is about writing and language, wants to communicate something, but the message cannot be deciphered. A trace of letters moves across--"[q]uer durch"--sleep, as if the dreamer encountered the footsteps of a traveler following a path different from his own, a trajectory of writing that defies understanding. Who, then, is the recipient of the message? As opposed to "Ruhiges Novemberwetter," this poem makes no mention of an "I." Its only personal pronoun is the second-person singular: "die Buchstabenspur / einer Sprache die / du nicht verstehst." This "you" seems to point in two different directions. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for an introspective lyrical monologue to address itself, in particular when there is no "I" against which it can be defined. The speaker of the poem, then, would be the one faced with an incomprehensible text; the dream and the landscape. On the other hand, whenever a poem is read, it is of course directed toward a reader. The "you" could therefore also be understood as an explicit interpellation of whoever is reading "In Alfermee." Thus read, the poem takes on the role of its own referent: when it speaks of a trace of letters, the text itself becomes a part of what this image represents. When the speaking voice addresses the reader as a lyrical "you" whose route is crossed by an incomprehensible language, the resistance of the text to understanding is foregrounded. At the same time, however, a strange sense of significance typically associated with dreams--as if they contained a secret message from the unconscious--still remains.

As the dream continues, an agent behind the writing appears, who is referred to as the "Schreiberin." The tour guide and the Inuit poet of "Ruhiges Novemberwetter" have already illustrated Sebald's penchant for mythicized female figures, and this elusive woman of letters belongs to the same cluster of figures. She, too, is a writer with an intimate connection to death. The "tod-" in "todmude" is more than a mere adjectival intensifier; in a condensed yet seemingly casual manner, it picks up the timeworn association of sleep and death. If one takes this association seriously, the hypnagogic stare evoked in the poem corresponds to the grey zone between life and death, inhabited by the puzzling figure of the "Schreiberin." Since all the reader knows about her is that she writes, her deadly fatigue must be taken to pertain to writing. Her language, like that of the poem, is located on the verge of death and incomprehensibility.

Following this nocturnal vision, the speaker notes how the darkness lifts from the earth in the morning, and how one cannot tell the air from the water. Here, one might assume that the punctuation, had it not been lacking, would have been an exclamation mark: the sentence seems to convey the observer's marvel at the break of day and his definitive awakening from the dream. Upon closer inspection, however, the distinction is not clear. The poem is not a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, and the absence of dividing marks should not entice the reader to reconstruct the "proper" punctuation but, on the contrary, to acknowledge this absence as a source of potential meanings. Even if one takes the capital W to mark the beginning of a new sentence, the "We" need not only mean "How"--it is also a Vergleichspartikel.

Read as such, this word becomes the pivotal point of an extended metaphor. What precedes it (the exhausted "Schreiberin" and the traces of indecipherable language) is likened to that which succeeds it (the misty morning depicted in the remaining stanzas), so that the dream would not necessarily end with the third stanza. How, then, would these images relate to each other? The answer lies with the association of landscape with language, of walking with reading or writing, and of particular weather conditions with difficulties of interpretation. Within the theoretical framework of semiotics, a fundamental prerequisite of meaning is difference. Both at the level of signifiers and at the level of signifieds, signs must be distinguishable from each other. Such distinction is precisely what is put into question here: "da ist kein Unterschied / zwischen Luftraum & See." As shadows of doubt are cast even upon this difference--elemental in every sense of the word--the very possibility of reading and interpretation is undermined. If landscape is thought of as analogous to text, this particular landscape is illegible; its signs cannot be distinguished from each other, and meaning evaporates. The incomprehensibility of the landscape, then, is analogous to that of the language encountered in the dream; the mist-covered signs of the scenery are revealed as a "Sprache die / du nicht verstehst." Reading the line "da ist kein Unterschied" as a unit of its own, one might even understand it as an attempt to radicalize the comparison set off by the previous lines: there is no difference between the oneiric vision and the "real" morning. Much like air and water, the states of sleep and wakefulness flow together and coexist in an undifferentiated, hypnopompic haze.

Another analogy between the two images, which are conflated into a large-scale metaphor by the "Wie," can be found in the notion of death. The fatigue that we see in the eye of the "Schreiberin'" is a mortal one, and the vision of the grey morning subtly continues this thematic thread. The two final stanzas describe a "Jenseits" represented by the Swiss hamlet of Sutz, located across the water from Alfermee. In Sebald's poem, Sutz is shrouded in mist, and all that can be seen are "ein paar erloschende / Lichter," perhaps the fading embers from which the "Saule von schnee /weissem Rauch" emanates. Both of these images--the land of the beyond and the dying of the light--are commonplace emblems of death, and as the lyrical "I" perceives them, his gaze is akin to that of the "todmude Auge / der Schreiberin."

Furthermore, the notion of a great body of water as the borderland between the living and the dead is ubiquitous in classical mythology. One might recall upon reading the lines, "Am Ufer die Reihe / der Pappeln dahinter / an einer Boje ein / einziges Boot," that black poplars grow in Persephone's grove, which is located by the waters of the river Oceanus, where the entrance to Hades lies. It is there that Circe instructs Odysseus to beach his boat before continuing to the underworld (X:558-60). The boat in "Im Alfermee" could also be associated with that of Charon; according to Circe's description, the rivers Acheron and Styx, across which he ferries the dead, lie not far from Persephone's grove. (11) Significantly, the "einziges Boot" in Sebald's poem is followed by the word "Jenseits," which stresses the dose association of the vessel crossing the water with the realm of the beyond. The dissolution of borders, which is a key preoccupation of Sebald's in this poem, ultimately involves even the border between the living and the dead. The very paragon of the definitive boundau--the bourn from which no traveler returns--is rendered indistinct.

An analogous blurring of differentiation can also be noted in the text itself. Here, the most obvious correlate of the landscape's lack of circumscription is the aforementioned absence of punctuation. The fall stops, commas, and colons--which usually serve to clarify syntactic boundaries, restrict ambiguity, and guarantee the coherence of meaning--have withdrawn from sight much as the dividing line between sky and water has. If the "Wie" is read as the fulcrum of a large-scale metaphor, moreover, the self-reflexivity of the poem also comes to involve the relation between the constituents of this metaphor. If the border between dream and reality is unsettled because "da ist kein Unterschied," this fact calls into question the distinction between tenor and vehicle, between principal and subsidiary subject. As supposedly distinct signs melt into each other, the simple categories of the literal and the figurative are unsettled.

The final lines of the poem mirror this unsettlement in a concentrated manner. Suddenly, a word is caught in the middle of an enjambment: "eine / Saule von schnee / weissem Rauch." The most obvious reading of these lines is of course the literal one: a pillar of snow-white smoke is sighted across the water. But what does one do with the odd word break? Perhaps the rupture should give us pause: "schnee" begins with a lowercase letter, and thus does not have the look of a noun. At the same time, a noun is what these six letters normally amount to. Since there is no punctuation, there is no hyphen to disclose it as the first part of a compound adjective. However attracted one may be to the common-sense meaning (the pillar of smoke), the disruptive versification emphasizes the meaningfulness of each line in isolation: a pillar of snow, figuratively described through a subsequent apposition as white smoke. Here, the generic specificity of poetry is again underscored by the integrity of the individual line. The dichotomy of literal and metaphorical expression is destabilized: as the mist disturbs perception, it is difficult to decide whether that which is seen across the lake is a snow-like pillar of smoke or a smoke-like pillar of snow, and the landscape cannot be given a single, definitive interpretation.

In conclusion, I would note once more that smoke, clouds, and mist serve here as the principal images of the poetic principles underlying the text. The specific undecidability of this text, of which these natural phenomena become emblematic because of the difficulties they pose to perception, depends on the particularities of the genre of poetry, which are thus brought to the fore. The concentration and contraction of gesture and image, the relative privileging of thematic-metaphorical relations over causal-metonymic ones, the undermining of everyday syntactical structure by means of versification and the absence of dividing marks--these are all generic cues paradigmatically associated with poetry. These characteristics--as well as their alignment with smoke, cloud and mist--are succinctly illustrated by the implications of the words "schnee/weissem Rauch," the meaning of which can only be approached if one takes into account the abrupt enjambment in the middle of the word. Sebald's poems are rife with such details of typography, grammar, figure, and versification, which are bound to go by unnoticed if they are read with an attention calibrated to prose.

Ruptures such as the "schnee / weissem Rauch," moreover, make clear that Sebald's poetry, while retaining the memory of a far older literary past, has passed through and reached the other side of modernism. The ballad-like arrangement of the verses, which seems to evoke the Volkslied poetry of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and, by extension, the German literary tradition, is combined with a sparse idiom suggestive of the fractured language of European post-war poetry. At the same time, Sebald is neither a Romantic nor a modernist. Rather, the stylistic and historical ambiguities in Sebald's poetry suggest, like its self-reflective preoccupation with genre, a nostalgically tempered version of a post- or late-modern aesthetic sensibility. Much like Sebald's protagonists, these texts convey the sense that they do not naturally belong anywhere. Instead, they engage themselves in the different literary traditions, geographical positions, and historical moments that form their points of reference, be they ancient Greek and Roman mythology or contemporary Greenlandic performance poetry.

While an essay devoted to close reading obviously cannot purport to do justice to Sebald's lyrical output as a whole, it is nevertheless my hope that the two readings presented here may serve as a placeholder for and incentive to further study of his poetry. These two late poems illustrate the fact that this neglected part of his oeuvre does not just contain in highly concentrated form the concerns that haunt his more well-known books--topography, intertextuality, trauma, memory, history, death --but also, and more importantly, that this very concentration of form demands close critical attention on its own merits. Sebald's lyrical writings deserve to be read not only as footnotes to his canonized prose, but, specifically, as complex and evocative poems that reflexively thematize their own generically ambivalent status.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives." Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 79-124.

Barzilai, Maya. "Facing the Past and the Female Spectre in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants." Long and Whitehead 203-16.

Beck, John. "Reading Room: Erosion and Sedimentation in Sebald's Suffolk." Long and Whitehead 75-88.

Benjamin, Walter. "Uber den Begriff der Geschichte." Gesammelte Schriften. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser. Vol. 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974. 693-704.

Bond, Greg. "On the Misery of Nature and the Nature of Misery." Long and Whitehead 31-44.

Casey, Edward S. Getting Back into Place." Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Catling, Jo. "W. G. Sebald: ein 'England-Deutscher'?: Identitat--Topographie--Intertextualitat." W. G. Sebald: Intertextualitat und Topographie. Ed. Irene Heidelberger-Leonard and Mireille Tabah. Berlin: LIT, 2008.

Catling, Jo, and Richard Hibbitt, eds. Saturn's Moons: W. G. Sebald--A Handbook. London: Legenda, 2011.

--. "Introduction." Catling and Hibbitt 1-13.

Corkhill, Allan. "Angels of Vision in Sebald's ziffer Nature and Unrecounted." W. G. Sebald: Schreiben Ex Patria. Ed. Gerhard Fischer. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 347-68.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Robert M. Durling. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Gomer, Rudiger. "After Words: On W. G. Sebald's Poetry." The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W. G. Sebald. Ed. Rudiger Gorner. Munich: Iudicium, 2003.75-80.

Hamburger, Michael. "W. G. Sebald als Dichter. Drei Annaherungen." Pro Domo: Selbstauskunfie, Ruckblicke undandere Prosa. Ed. Iain Galbraith. Vienna: Folio, 2007.109-23.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Itkin, Alan. "Eine Art Eingang zur Unterwelt': Katabasis in Austerlitz." Zisselsberger 161-85.

Kleemann, Jessie. Taallat. Digte. Poems. Trans. Karen Norregaard and Richard Caulfield. Frederiksberg: Fiske & Schou, 1997.

Long, J.J. and Anne Whitehead, eds. W. G. Sebald--A Critical Companion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.

--. "Introduction." Long and Whitehead 3-15.

Meyer, Sven. "Fragmente zu Mementos. Imaginierte Konjekturen bei W.G. Sebald." text + kritik 158 (2003): 75-81.

--. "Portrait ohne Absicht Der Lyriker W. G. Sebald. Nachwort." Uber das Land und das Wasser. Ed. Sven Meyer. Munich: Carl Hanser, 2008. 105-12.

Neubauer, Hans-Joachim. Ein Haus in der Mitte der Literatur. Berlin: Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, 2003.

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon, ed. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald. New York: Seven Stoffes Press, 2007.

Sebald, W. G. Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzahlungen. Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1992.

--. Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1997.

--. Logis in einem Landhaus: Uber Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser und andere. Munich: Hanser, 1998.

--. Austerlitz. Munich: Hanser, 2001.

--. Uber das Land und das Wasser. Ed. Sven Meyer. Munich: Hanser, 2008.

--. Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001. Trans. Iain Galbraith. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Sheppard, Richard. "W. G. Sebald: A Chronology." Catling and Hibbitt 619-58.

Silverblatt, Michael. "A Poem of an Invisible Subject." Schwartz 77-86.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Wachtel, Eleanor. "Ghost Hunter." Schwartz 37-61.

Zisselsberger, Markus, ed. The Undiscover'd Country." W. G. Sebald and the Poetics of Travel. Rochester: Camclen House, 2010.

--. "Introduction: Fluchttraume/Traumfluchten. Journeys to the Undiscover'd Country." Zisselsberger 1-29.


Sodertorn University


(1) The author would like to express his gratitude to the Sven and Dagmar Salen, Birgit and Gad Rausing, Ake Wiberg, and Magnus Bergvall foundations. Their generous support made the writing of this article during a research semester at Stanford University possible.

(2) The exception is the scholarship devoted to Nach der Natur, which is still typically read as an appendix to the subsequent prose works. The only other work on Sebald's poetry of which I am aware are the essays by Corkhill, Gorner and Hamburger, as well as Meyer's afterword to Uber das Land und das Wasser.

(3) Cf. Beck 78, Zisselsberger 17-18.

(4) A photo from Kleemann's reading is reproduced in a pamphlet from the Literay Colloquium, with the caption "Jessie Kleemann und ihre Ubersetzerin Margitt Lehbert im November 1997" (Neubauer 34).

(5) Kleemann has no recollection of meeting Sebald, however, and did not talk to or correspond with him after the reading. Personal correspondence with Jessie Kleemann on September 5, 2011.

(6) Cf. Maya Barzilai's analysis of similarly ghostly women--and their connection with Jewish-German historical trauma--in Die Ausgewanderten.

(7) See, for example, Roland Barthes's suggestion of three broad types of discourse--metonymic, metaphoric and enthymematic--whereby the first two are exemplified by narrative and lyric poetry, respectively (84).

(8) Cf. also Alan Itkin's exploration of myths of the underworld in Austerlitz.

(9) Cf. Itkin, who comments on the use of the word "Schatten" in Austerlitz (169).

(10) Sheppard's chronology of Sebald's life and travels does not record a visit to Lake Biel in the month of November. In Logis in einem Landhaus, however, Sebald recounts a visit in the summer of 1996 to the St. Petersinsel, located at the south-western end of the lake, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau stayed in 1765 (43-46).

(11) Greg Bond also mentions Sebald's use of the image of "crossing the water" as a "stock image for death" in Schwindel. Gefuhle (35).
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Author:Englund, Axel
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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