“My memory asks me, and I stare at it.” A Review of Ernst Meister

In which I review: Of Entirety Say the Sentence by Ernst Meister, Translated by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick

The cover of the book.

I first encountered Meister through the first translated volume of Foust and Frederick, In Time’s Rift (Wave Books, 2012) and then, a year later, Walless Space (Wave Books, 2014). The latter volume, which concludes the trilogy started with Of Entirety Say the Sentence (which I’m writing about today), may be composed of some of the most elegant, chilling existential poetry I have encountered. The volume I’m writing about today is not nearly as dense, crisp, and heart-wrenching, but it fills in the gaps and gives life to a poet’s—Meister’s—journey through understanding meaning and existence.

Through each of these books, Foust and Frederick present adept though challenging representations (the translations) of the philosophizing wordsmith. Almost as remarkably enjoyable to read in the original German (provided in each volume, thank god) the book is captivating and mysterious, often times morose, in its translated English.

What is found in the 2015 book is the muddy and necessary prelude to Meister’s cause and effect. Many of the poems here are homages, if not direct and indirect elegies, to poets Celan and Hölderlin, of whom Meister not only held affinity, but maintained an almost spiritual bond with. I won’t dive into those details, as I’m not the German scholar Foust and Frederick are, and I direct you to the threw magnificent intros in each of the Wave books. Formalities aside, I will say I’m neither huge fan of Celan nor Hölderlin but found acclimation to Meister’s verse a swift affair, and one mysterious. Connecting poems of this volume with the third, book end to book end, beginning to end, prelude to conclusion, the utterance and utter shock of death, both through societal cause, but also through nature, reveals the triggers for Meister’s own contemplations.

While Walless Space is not without its dim segments, there is a resolution found there. In Time’s Rift gets us to that resolution, but in order to find a space within contemplations (and the resulting conclusions can occur), Meister had the have that impetus—those hair-pulling, teeth-chattering bits of knowledge that would cause him to wrack and writhe in the poetic ether. I wrote down a note at the beginning of Of Entriety Say the Sentence that reads: “Celan perhaps inspiration to speak?” and so we are confronted (at least in my opinion) with an engagement, a pressing one, to the death of someone, or the loss of something, but the breaking of a bond, or at least through a severing there is a strengthening. Meister through an anti-muse, a negative inspiration, cries out:

“Wär ich nicht selbst / satt von Elend, ich // bewegte / die Zunge nicht.”
“Were I not myself / replete with misery, I // would not / move my tongue.” (pg. 9)
This portrait of Ernst Meister was found at poetrysociety.org.

Further in the book, the idea of the dead muse once again forces Meister to speak. Meister’s channeling the energy through loss, but in a way to elevate, coax, believe supporting these writers he has come to love. And it does certainly feel like love:

“Ich bleibe / dort beim Grund  / mit deinen Augen, // gesunkenem Gebein / und Zeug / der Oberwelt.”
“I’ll stay / there by the bottom / with your eyes, // your sunken bones / and stuff / from the world above.” (pg. 37)

As the book continues, the reader encounters Meister’s contemplations on work and everyday life, but the book’s highest moments are initial confrontations with death (similar to those above). From metaphors about the human body being existence-as-coffin, to the muse as the actual corpses of those we cannot forget, to a strange riddle of a mirror at the end of the volume (see below), Meister moves through murky territory. But the book does not fail or fall flat in its hesitations and erratic/displaced themes. Meister is working his way through mourning, loss, remembrance the way most of us do: on tip-toe with eyes as wide as windows.

Picking up this book and reading it along with the other two volumes transformed me into my own musings about death: of families, of heroes, role models, mentors, and so on. The Nihilistic and Buddhist certainties are a welcome end and saving grace to what could have been a collection of gut-wrenching morbidity, but, as this volume demonstrates, multiple angles in the emotional process are needed to form the complete image. Fortunately for completionists such as I, whose id is satisfied by clarity and totality, Meister provides us with all. His humanity is undeniable, and I wonder if most people who take the journey with him will agree.

Oracle goes
the end
mirrors the beginning.
Thus a mirror
would have
two seeing
At the intersection
of these moments’ glances
the riddle’s face
will appear. (pg. 163)

Without further spoiling the experience, you can buy all of Foust and Frederick’s translations of Ernst Meister, and know what the riddle really is all about, via Wave Books here.

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