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from the October 2014 issue

Ernst Meister’s “Wallless Space”

Reviewed by Christopher Shannon

"In contrast to the poets, the philosophers look incredibly elegant. In fact, they are naked, piteously naked when one considers the meager imagery with which they have to make do most of the time."

—Durs Grünbein, Das erste Jahr, 2001

***

What happens when a “piteously naked” philosopher-turned-poet decides to pursue philosophy in the form of verse? This is the task of Ernst Meister in Wallless Space, a jarring book of poems in which Meister explores death, decay, and existence in an austere poetic vacuum. Through the book’s three sections—featuring a total of fifty-seven untitled poems, each no longer than fifteen short lines—Meister probes the philosophy of Heidegger and, to a lesser extent, Hegel and Nietszche.

While on occasion these poems feature quotidian objects, allusions to archetypal characters, and elements of the natural world, for the most part they resist narrative or anecdote. In part because they deal with Heideggerian terms, the diction of these poems is a limited mixture of abstract terms such as time, spirit, Earth, existence, nothingness, humanity, eternity, and Being. For example, the poem from which the collection draws its title:

To be spirit
or dust, it’s all
the same in the universe.

Nothing is, with
which to reach the edge
of the emptiness.

That edge is
not even there.
What is is

and is bottled up, blotted out
in the wallless vessel
of space.

Excerpted here in its entirety, the above poem is typical of others in this collection, notably because we see Meister’s most obvious poetic tic—word repetition—but he does not do this for phonetic effect alone, here or elsewhere. Rather, his aim is to press and condense language and concepts in an ongoing exploration of a central paradox—articulated here in the tenth poem of the book’s third section:

What’s most extreme and
most difficult is

having to think
Not-being-here.

How is one consciousness
to learn to die,

to give in to its
opposite?

In the above poem, as in others in Wallless Space, Meister attempts to use language to describe the nothingness of death, even though (and he acknowledges this) nothingness is a state of being that prevents thought itself.

Born in 1911 in the West German city of Hagen, Ernst Meister grew up the son of a manufacturer. His studies drew him to many cities—Marburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg—where he learned art history, German philology, theology, and, most of all, philosophy. At Marburg, Meinster studied with Hans-Georg Gadamer and nearly completed a dissertation on Nietzsche.

But it was Martin Heidegger’s work that became the central preoccupation of Ernst Meister’s poetry. In their preface, the translators Foust and Frederick note that this collection’s title, Wallless Space, is taken from “The Thing,” an essay included in Heidegger’s Poetry, Language & Thought. There, Heidegger writes that “the empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel.” In much of this book, Meister seems to be testing this theory out on the human body—are human beings best defined by the eternal nothingness that is their fate? Heidegger’s influence is absolutely conspicuous here—especially as Meister wields variations of important terms from Heideggerian philosophy. In Wallless Space, many poems rest significant weight on multiple forms of the verb “being” (sein, Nichtsein, Dasein, Seiendes)—the central term discussed by Heidegger. In addition, in their preface the translators point to Meister’s unusual usage of Wesen (engl: essence) as a verb. In the fourth poem of the first section, see the seventh line:

Wo das Kreuz ist
der Sanduhr,
wurzelt der Blitz.

Hier in dem Punkt,
der sieht,
wie du stehst

west alle Zeit.
In ihm
wärest du
immer geboren,

und nicht
mit Scham
möchtest du sein.

 

Where the cross is
of the hourglass,
lightning takes root.

Here at this point,
which sees
how you stand,

all time unfolds.
At it
you would be
forever born,

and you’d
like to be
without shame.

Foust and Frederick explain that Heidegger used this archaic verb frequently in his later work because “it allowed him to emphasize that being is not an entity but is rather that which makes being at all possible.” By deploying this term to round out his hourglass metaphor, Meister is testing and demonstrating a Heideggerian idea—a difficult task for any poet, and one that Meister accomplishes in the context of one of the collection’s most memorable poems.

Published in a dual-language edition by Wave Books, Walless Space was originally published in 1979 and is Ernst Meister’s last book of poems as well as the third volume in a loosely connected trilogy. In 2012, Wave published the second book of that trilogy—In Time’s Rift, also translated by Foust and Frederick; and in 2015, Wave, Foust, and Frederick aim to release Of Entirety Say the Sentence, the trilogy’s first book.

This reverse chronological approach seems appropriate for Meister, a twentieth-century German writer who until very recently remained obscure both in his native country and throughout the world. Despite having won a number of honors for his work, including the Rilke Prize (1978) and the Georg Buchner Prize (1979—the year of his death), Meister wrote poetry rooted in abstraction, ambiguous allusion, and ontological investigation, which readers and critics of his time found too difficult to approach.

After reading just a few poems in Wallless Space, we can almost see a morose Ernst Meister, wearing a black turtleneck as he managed his father’s railroad spike factory, boring his fellow workers over his fascination with death—"the very place/of storytelling." It’s true—over the course of the book’s three distinct sections, Meister’s relentless testing of Heidegger’s ideas can be taxing. But the earnestness and aplomb of Meister’s poems—which might also pass muster as a philosophical tract—create a space that allows for meditation on mortality and the eternities that bookend all existence:

The story
of that which was
is contained only
in ruin.

The dead, namely,
they’re incapable of
the circuitous
fable of themselves.

Even though
the grave would be
the very place
of storytelling.
—from the third poem in the second section of Wallless Space

In 1932, Meister published his first book of poems—Ausstellung (Exhibition)—with Marburger Flugblätter, a small press. At the age of twenty-one this ambitious poet was already suffusing his work with surrealism, abstraction, and philosophy. But the difficult nature of the work proved the book’s demise: a reviewer labeled Meinster’s poems as “Kandinsky-Lyrik.” In another place and time this may have been an apt and insightful comparison, but Hitler had just risen to power and in 1933 the Reich Culture Chamber began its abhorrent work of culture cleansing. Meinster’s connection with Kandinsky, whose work had already been censored by the Reich, prompted the publisher to take Ausstellung off the market. They returned the books to Meister, who apparently destroyed most copies. He would not publish another book of poems until 1946—and he had those volumes printed privately.

But the reviewer who compared Meister’s poems to Kandinsky’s paintings was on to something. Like much of Kandinsky’s work, Meister’s poetry in Wallless Space takes on the complexity of death and apocalypse in a distilled vocabulary that avoids narrative. Addressing his poems’ conspicuous lack of setting, history, or personal anecdote, in a 1975 interview with Karl Van D'Elden, Meister said, citing Auschwitz, that “. . . if the facts were horrifying, it would be wrong to veil them aesthetically.” The poems in Wallless Space do not directly speak of Auschwitz—doing so would be out of character for this poet, who rarely alludes to history, culture, or society. That said, it is fair to believe that the horrors of the Holocaust influenced Meister’s writing. After his studies, he was called up to serve in the German army in the Second World War, and during a tour in Italy he was captured by the American army and held as a prisoner of war. Though the atrocities of the early twentieth-century German era hover on the outskirts of these poems, Meister’s frequent use of morbid imagery (“Whether time / consumes itself as time, / the corpse / does not ask”) seems to allude to genocidal horrors without directly naming them.

The translators of Walless Space were brave to take on Meister’s dense and unusual poetry, and so far their work has been excellent. The two-person team includes Graham Foust, a poet who has published five books, and Samuel Frederick, an Assistant Professor of German at Penn State University. (Frederick has also written extensively on Robert Walser). Foust and Frederick have preserved the phonetic elements of Meister’s verse—assonance, alliteration, rhyme, anaphora—without sacrificing the poet’s distilled diction and powerfully short dimeter and trimeter lines, as we see in the eighth poem of the book’s second part (excerpted here in entirety):

Original German:

Da ist kein Schöpfer,
da ist kein Zeuge,
da ist sie selbst
aus sich selbst,
Natur, sie allein--
und ich
wäre einsam
in ihr?


Foust/Frederick Transl.

There’s nary a Maker,
there’s nary a witness,
there’s only Nature,
who brings herself
about herself, she alone—
and I’m
supposedly lonely
in her?

 

Foust and Frederick have made decisions drawing upon substantial German scholarship on Meister, citing scholar Stephanie Jordans, an editor of Meister’s Gedichte: Textkritische und kommentierte Ausgabe, the recent authoritative critical edition of Meinster’s poetry in German. Therefore it is striking to stumble on the few moments in this collection that somehow seem off or clunky—as in the second poem of the third section.

Original German:

Gewiß, ich war
ein Same, ich denke
alles von diesem
nicht aus. Erde

werde ich sein, ich
denke sie, in welcher
wachsen die
unwissenden Binsen.

 

Foust/Frederick Transl.

As is known, I was
a seed; I think
all things from out of
this not. Earth

I will be, I
think it, in which
sprout up the
unknowing rushes.

 

A more literal translation of this would be slightly less oblique, and might read, “Truly, I was a seed, above all, I am not imagining this. Earth I will become, I think her, in which unknowingly the rushes grow.” Perhaps the difficulty in some of these poems is partly owed to uneven translation? For instance, by placing a semi-colon in this poem’s second line, Foust and Frederick have arbitrarily inserted a strong caesura in an otherwise almost fluid iambic line.

But overall, Foust and Frederick have given us an English version of Meister’s poetry that readers might believe to be original poems written by a distinctive English-language poet. Full of an austere sort of high drama, these renditions are faithful without being slavish, and through their consistent style and diction they are of one poetic voice. On the whole, these poems are unlike any I can think of in the English language, now or in the past.

Wallless Space is the final book of a trilogy, and the poems within are inseparable from those in In Time’s Rift, the second volume in the trilogy, previously published by Wave in 2012. Reading the books consecutively is challenging but rewarding; in order to take in these poems all at once, readers should attempt what Meister describes in the eighteenth poem of Wallless Space:

To jump so far,
breathlessly:
into the next
neighborhood, the
one right next to
the last
spoken syllable.

Only by making that jump can one follow Meister into that neighborhood abutting the last / spoken syllable of existence. There, on that precipice looking down into the abyss of death—a place that Heidegger called the “closest neighborhood of man’s being”—readers will see a philosopher-poet trying to pin unwieldy concepts of nothingness and existence on to an aesthetic, poetic experience.

If these or other translators continue bringing this strange and ambitious poet to life in English, we have much more Ernst Meister to look forward to—including Wallless Space and In Time’s Rift, Meister wrote sixteen volumes of poetry as well as works of fiction, theatre, and even song lyrics. I look forward to reading more of him, and in translations as accomplished as these.

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