- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

Few realized it then and, sadly, not many more realize it now but in December of 2001, the world lost one of the most strikingly original writers of our time. Claimed by the sort of workaday tragedy for which he possessed such a keen eye, W.G. Sebald's brief career was brought to a close by a freakish one-car accident.
Sebald's output comprises four novels "Vertigo," "The Emigrants," "The Rings of Saturn," and "Austerlitz" a yet-to-be-published work of nonfiction about the bombing of Dresden, and this newly released triptych of poems, "After Nature."
One hesitates, however, to assign any of these works to a specific genre. Each of Sebald's novels, for example, contains heavy doses of thinly veiled autobiography, encyclopedic travelogue, and above all else history. (Indeed, if memory serves, New Directions, the house that published the first three of Sebald's novels, included on the dustjackets the heretofore unseen label of "fiction/autbiography.") Each of these elements is present in "After Nature," though what some might consider Sebald's trademark his use of uncaptioned, mysteriously elusive and allusive photographs in his text is absent.
The first poem in the cycle offers a meditation on the life and work of the 16th-century German painter, Mathias Grunewald. Grunewald's most famous creation and the one to which Sebald turns a most attentive eye is the altarpiece he created for the hospital chapel at the Cluniac monstery of St. Anthony in the Alsatian city of Isenheim.
The Isenheim Altarpiece, like many others, takes as its theme the Crucifixion. Unlike any other such altarpiece, however, Gunewald's foregrounds the suffering of the scene in acutely graphic terms. "Of beauty," the art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote of the Isenheim Altarpiece, "there is none in the stark and cruel picture of the crucified Savior." It is, he continued, a picture "in which reality seems to be depicted in all its unmitigated horror."
Sebald, ever attuned to the sufferings, both great and small, wrought by and throughout history, finds in Grunewald something of a kindred spirit. He notes "[t]he panic-stricken/ kink in the neck to be seen/ in all of Grunewald's subjects," and finds therein "the extreme response of our bodies/ to the absence of balance in nature/ which blindly makes one experiment after another/ and like a senseless botcher/ undoes the thing it has only just achieved."
(The reflection of some fundamental flaw in our physical form is a theme Sebald has dealt with in his "Rings of Saturn." There, the narrator's trip to Holland brings to mind the depredations wrought by the Dutch in Africa, and the narrator notes the eerily high concentration of physically deformed people he encounters in Holland, as though it were some punishment for or reflection of that nation's colonial sins.)
In the second poem in this triptych, Sebald introduces the reader to the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who left behind his theological studies in Wittenberg for the life of a naturalist on the1741 Alaskan expedition of Vitus Bering. (What fame Steller retains is in the discovery of a northern species of sea cow common in the Bering Straits, known to this day as Steller's Sea Cow).
Bering's expedition was a brutal affair, and in Sebald's hands it becomes a kind of inverted "Heart of Darkness," with the lush, brooding blackness of Kurtz's Congo replaced by "the Bering Sea/ where there was nothing and no one but them. All was a greyness, without direction,/ with no above or below, nature/ in a process of dissolution, in a state/ of pure dementia."
Under the command of a man, Bering, "who throughout the voyage/ had lain in his cabin staring/ at the ceiling beams above his head", Sebald's Steller encounters the vastness of the Alaskan northwest and finds there the strange allure of oblivion: Going ashore, "[h]e came close to simply proceeding/ towards the mountains, into/ the cool wilderness, but the constructs/ of science in his head,/ directed towards a diminution of disorder in our world,/ ran counter to that need."
Sebald's account of Steller's post-expedition experiences, however, demonstrates the folly of directing oneself toward "a diminution of disorder in our world." Returning from the unexplored Alaskan expanse, Steller tarries awhile among the indigenous people of Kamchatka, in far eastern Russia. Faced with the mistreatment of the natives at the hands of Russian authorities, Sebald writes, Steller "now wholly grasps the difference/ between nature and society."
The difference, of course, is the presence of humankind which, with its myriad imperfections, makes the "diminution of disorder" an ultimately fruitless task. (The passage recalls for the reader the "panic-stricken/ kink in the neck" observed earlier by the narrator in Grunewald's work, or still another earlier observation, this one about the city of St. Petersburg, that describes "buildings that began to subside/ as soon as erected, and nowhere/ a vista quite straight.")
The third and final chapter in this cycle of poems bears us away from historical personages and into the presence of the narrator who may or may not be Sebald himself (as with his novels, the line here between the work and its author is a blurry one). It opens with a somewhat jarring contemplation of fossils which serves, perhaps, as link to the previous segment about the naturalist Steller:
"But if I see before me/ the nervature of past life/ in one image, I always think/ that this has something to do/ with truth. Our brains, after all,/ are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint,/ and it is from this that an order/ arises, in places beautiful/ and comforting, though more cruel, too,/ than the previous state of ignorance."
But the "winged vertebrates of prehistory/ embedded in tablets of slate" of which the narrator speaks call to mind figures closer to our American home than the German-born Steller: One thinks of Henry Adams describing in "The Education of Henry Adams" his moment of terrible epiphany as he sat perched high above the English wilderness, contemplating the implications of natural history for humankind; or of Robert Frost who takes up similar themes in some of his darker poems, "Design" among them.
With this evocative diversion into prehistory as a prelude, Sebald never far removed from the realities of recorded history returns us to more recent events, and to themes more familiar to readers of his work. He describes "a class photograph taken/ in the war year 1917" on the reverse of which are inscribed "the words 'in the future/ death lies at our feet,' one of those obscure oracular sayings/ one never again forgets."
This is vintage Sebald: He seizes upon a fairly mundane artifact and, by spotting the odd detail, turns it into a haunting slice of history at once general the boys in the picture would grow up to serve in Adolf Hitler's army and intensely personal: One of the young faces in the picture, the narrator hints, is his own father.
Sebald's triptych makes for difficult reading. Its themes are severe even bleak and the language itself, while spare, is highly allusive. Readers are introduced to such obscure historical figures as the Merovingians, Paracelsus, Chamisso, and Sandrart. (This reviewer, for one, was grateful for the presence of a one-volume encyclopedia at his side, to say nothing of a dictionary, which enabled him to learn, among other things, that "septentrion" is another word for the northern regions of the globe.)
Readers ought not be deterred, though. The occasional difficulty is part of the experience I do not use the term lightly of reading great writing. The effort is made worthwhile by a piercing observation here, a subtle truth uncovered there. Near the end of the third poem, for example, the bleakness is pierced momentarily: "Still/ perhaps on your travels/ you'll see a golden coast/ a land veneered with rain or/ a schoolboy on his way home/ over a beautiful meadow. Then/ another joy will have been lived,/ thinks one who recovers a little."
That final qualification, identifying the author of the foregoing as "one who recovers a little," at once tempers the appreciation of beauty while making it all the more profound. The double entendre in the word "recovers" implying both a taking back and a getting well gives the reader a sense of calm that is otherwise absent in Sebald's poetry, and one that is all the more welcome for it.This is, to be sure, great writing. Would that Sebald had lived to give us more of it.

Kevin Driscoll is a writer in Northern Cal

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