Sean Patrick Hill
Ernst Meister. Trans. Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2012. 91 pages. $16.00.
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Ernst Meister’s poems were often overshadowed by history: when he was first studying Heidegger and other thinkers whose ideas would inform his work, his native Germany was descending into fascism; his first collection of poems appeared the year before Hitler became chancellor. The Third Reich branded his work “degenerate,” and Meister gave up trying to publish. Instead he was called into military service, suffered a series of illnesses, and eventually became a prisoner of war. After the war, working in his father’s factory, he continued to write in isolation. This isolation was at least partly exacerbated by the fact that he was not asked to be a member of the famous Gruppe 47, a poetry collective that included Günter Eich, Günter Grass, and Paul Celan, poets who determined the direction of literature in postwar Germany and are widely read today. Meister had disappeared, and not by choice, from the literary landscape.
Meister didn’t publish his second book until 1953. More followed, but public recognition continued to elude him. Even in the second half of the twentieth century, Meister’s verse was viewed, according to translators Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick, as “apolitical and nihilistic, and therefore unsuited to the prevailing literary climate” of the idealistic and revolutionary 1960’s.
While many of his postwar European contemporaries, especially Paul Celan, received immediate praise and had their renown increase after their deaths, Meister has remained less well-known, despite being posthumously awarded the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 1979. This translation seeks to fix Meister among the important midcentury European poets.
There is much that is admirable in Meister’s dark and cryptic work. In their introduction, Foust and Frederick compare Meister to George Oppen; like Oppen, Meister avoided publication for a long period and attends closely to brevity and the energy of individual words. What makes Meister’s poems potentially relevant to American readers today, as the translators point out, is the similarity of his concerns—with consciousness, a lack of interest in historical time, the awareness of eternity—to American poets Wallace Stevens, Laura Riding, William Bronk, Robert Creeley, and Emily Dickinson.
Originally published in 1976, In Time’s Rift, Meister’s penultimate collection, revels in brevity and terseness. This nine-line poem travels quickly from perplexed supplication to assured avowal:
does this sun want
with us, what
from the strait gate
of that huge glow?
no greater darkness
than the light.
Though the readers of his time may have regarded Meister as overly nihilistic, the turn at the end of this poem suggests his ability to accommodate darkness, not wallow it. As the translators point out, there is no trace of Romanticism in Meister, and he does not necessarily effect a negative view of life. Rather, Meister attends to the world of light and concrete reality, but he knows that world can be a distraction; Meister seems far more interested in “what sometimes / concerns / the eyes inside.” An American reader might be reminded of the interiority of Wallace Stevens, of an inner reality that the outer world’s blaring sunlight occasionally disturbs. At the same time, Meister recognizes that ours is a sensual world, in which “No sense of hearing / has a home / beyond the earth.”
For Meister, however, the central questions are ones of consciousness itself, which emerges from one’s experience. His questions often focus on the mysterious generation of this “son of thinking,” its dependence on sensory phenomena that it also remains separate from:
How then should
a brain and bone
produced how, who
knows, you flowers,
adapt in the
street of stars, where it
milk and most sufferably
births itself from it,
This twisted syntax resembles some tendencies in twenty-first century American poetics; I suspect many current poets will find much to appreciate in Meister’s techniques. They are also likely to feel an affinity with his attention to “the endeavor we call consciousness” in its many problematic dimensions, in which “the familiar / will eternally be / an unknown.” This statement of identity theory in its barest form offers a spare, even obliterating gaze. “No one who ever was / knows anything yet / about being,” Meister writes in another poem, though this existential negation doesn’t even leave one with the comfort of the infinite (“Even eternity / is not the present for him”). Imagery in these poems is rare; Meister prefers what Foust has called “the Music of Thinking.” His poems can read like stripped down glimpses of Stevens’s most brooding poems.
Perhaps Meister recognized the chance occurrences that marked him for literary obscurity; he seems interested in the Lucretian idea of the “swerve,” of the abrupt changes that make establishing a narrative, let alone forecasting the future, impossible:
But it happens:
in an uncertain direction
a jerk. A crook
changes the flight of the bird.
The one doubted
gleams in fortune
toward something earthly.
And it’s likely Meister was cognizant of his own thwarted flight, the “jerk” from which the bulk of his career never fully recovered. Though Meister’s poems seethe with the grimness of our earthly existence, they insist that we still can reach, if tentatively, beyond it. Ultimately, In Time’s Rift is a book that seeks to reconcile the contradictions of life and to define the “rift” that lies between light and dark, life and death, the shadowy world we exist in. Meister struggles for acceptance of mortal difficulty, and even achieves it, if only briefly in a poem. “You are too weak / to honor the secret” he says, “but stillness comes / after thoughts, / casually.” This new translation of his work honors Meister’s secrets and it also honors his stillness.