100 pages, Seagull Books, 2016
it’s not really an i that speaks, it’s
the soft fingertips which
grow out alongside the doors, it’s
the doves’ scissor-like wings
which push their ribcages out & yet
still they climb, slowly
(from “when you have the benefit of hindsight” on page 9)
Of former East Germany, Lutz Seiler is described in a new collection, in field latin (translated by Berliner Alexander Booth), as a poet whose life and ideas bridge the provincial and the urban. The works in this portfolio of a selection range from covering the pastoral to the architectural, from the personal to the biographical. This book, featuring material originally published in the German in 2010, is compelling through its representation of an artist whose work covers wide ground in form and content: a novel, stories, essays, and of course poetry are the output of a wide-reaching, potent vision.
And why does vision matter? And where do you come from? And where is home for you? And what is your relationship to movement? To migration? To transience? To the blood that pumps you across the landscape? These questions came to me. These and many more, as I paged through a German’s mind the way people page through my presence, the way they page through your presence too. We are positioned. We are all planted. We are all eyes, bundles of them, looking in all directions, the network of eyesight looking back, a reflection, a giant cavern of mirrors: and it is not as grotesque as you would imagine, is it?
every un-beheaded dream
awakes & my tilted skull
pulls me pure white
flaked darkness & on
the roof of my mouth’s a
melted mass of sweet lust
i soar up into this realm
(from “to the sky” on page 68)
Take in. Cough. The reader holds the book. It is smoothly covered. It has a sturdy built, a healthy weight. It feels foreign, but familiar. It feels otherly, but similar. It is as much about how it found you, the book is, as it is about you finding the book. Gradation. Gradual pondering. A maturation: the type of poetry that grips you, and you never thought it would, did you? Until it did. And then you’re there, lost within it, within a binding, a bound sense of order. It is this rigidity. I am reminded of it, as one often is, confronting a monograph so carefully planned.
Such elevation and reach may come across as short-handed in a mere 101 pages; however, a careful arrangement of seven sections, each including between one and 11 poems, allows Seiler’s poetry to speak for its richness, assertions visible like reflected, projected light through a prism. At times dense, and at other times utterly accessible and distilled, in field latin is as much about playfulness in themes and core ideas as it is about challenge and a personalized representation of the self.
writer. open the window.
eyes straight ahead what
do you see? you see seriously
disappointed hot-air balloons above alaska, no
one able to land, propeller-
planes, endless flight . . . writer
(from “hypnotized modern” on page 89)
A read through Seiler is as much a description of place and image and experience as it is about the formula and pattern of everyday life that brings the self into the place and image and experience. Even at the various opening of the book (which occurs before the first section of poems), “departure,” we have an exploration of a form of life, an existential breath is taken:
bed against the window, the trip
into the wood, eve more softly
shifting gears & sleep: every
dream begins uphill, at the fence
onto the street where
someone squats like you, [. . .]
As I writer reading Seiler, I felt like he was speaking as much about my own life, a la conscience or schizophrenic muse, as he was speaking of his own life. Perhaps this prototypical position, an almost archetypal/root-like relationship with the world, creates such dynamic and startling lines. Lines are here that pull the reader in, cast off the reality of the world in exchange for Seiler’s reality, and then the grotesque realization that good or bad, the world Seiler paints is so similar to that of the reader. For some, there is inevitably a sense to Seiler’s poetry that the verse maintains a form of a conduit. This conduit is at work in channeling in two directions, back and forth, as in a feedback mechanism or dialogue.
The words that are brought back and forth: the internalization. The rationalization. The performance of understanding. “Balance of empathy and entropy.” These are concepts, these are the offerings of the fragmented and staggered lines, pyres or statuettes, for a blink or for a forever.
those angst-steps into the courtyard where
days his laughter
would hammer into the wood, his beckoning stutter, my
homeless heart [. . .]
(from “hand-wonder & diary” on page 30)
Curiously and complexly, much of Seiler’s work here is interwoven with German and other writers who have come before and come alongside Seiler’s own life. The references are frequent and subtle, brief but notable. Booth’s translations include these notes at the back of the volume to open up over twenty additional doorways of expansion for Seiler’s writing. That said, the poems stand alone and hold themselves up with or without the greater dive (and, arguably, greater divide). The personalization and projection of the poems into a space of universality rarely feels threatened by the greater world Seiler lives within and references, describes, examines.
the wrong punctuation in the blood. over there
the bottles on the oven, here
the wood chips, half chewed to bits, the smell
of the freshly sawn—every
character scrapes the things
back into your bones through graphite, only
you never get any closer to crying
(from “inventory” on page 79)
One poem stuck out to me as being the keystone (or representative center) of Seiler’s incredible vision in this collection: “whoever walks behind.” The poem speaks to the perspective of the poet as the visionary or sentry, who waits to observe the change in action. As a societal and potentially spiritual role, the poet who carries the world from behind has the ultimate position of independence, and is alone the one to capture their own world. I was reminded of Frost’s diverged paths, taking the one less traveled, and yet, remarkably Seiler’s journey, dependent upon an “other” and sense of boundary and sense of following, comes off as far more compelling. Regardless, Seiler has crafted many paths that have been taken and can continue to be taken, and invites the readers to explore the thoughts of this journey calmly, with new potential.
Undeniably paramount: we feed off of what we receive. Suck out its nutritional substance. Concepts of energy, of life, of momentum. Sent spiraling into the ether, the reader not necessarily tasked but necessarily upright, tongue hanging from the mouth, the stars appearing in some kind of code, the words shattering image and anti-image. The freakish contortions of language the ultimate, dominant beauty.
their eyes in the back
the mountains set off with them
from their existence
(from “whoever walks behind” on page 84)
You can learn more about and/or order Lutz Seiler’s in field latin on the Seagull Books website here.