My first thought was that Sebald (1944-2001) might have been a great novelist but he wasn't too good as a poet. And my second thought was that the good people at New Directions are really milking his posthumous fame to try to sell this puzzling "keepsake," as they call it, for $22.95, when it is so manifestly inferior to his other books. But luckily I kept the book on top of my desk for awhile and presently found myself returning to it again and again, trying to puzzle out what made it different than other books of poetry I had read. These "micropoems," as the translator calls them, do creep under your skin.
in the night
through the windows
the flickering light of
That's it! As New Directions lays them out, these lines are all centered a la Michael McClure (it's hard to tell if Sebald planned this effect.) By the way the translator (Michael Hamburger) must be British and I wonder what a good US translator could have done with the German of these poems which the editor has supplied as an appendix for our eluctation at the back of the book. They are so short you could copy them all out on your lunch hour, but they gain weight and resonance by their placement next to the lithographs that inspired them-33 portraits by Sebald's best friend Jan-Peter Tripp) of people's eyes. (A lot of the poetry is about questions of seeing, perception, realization, etc) I thought I recognized some of the faces and I was right in one case only. The eyes are mostly those of famous artists (Francis Bacon, rembrandt, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman) and writers (Capote, Borges, Burroughs) and some of the juxtapositions attain a transparency as luminous as ice water. But you don't find out whose eyes they are until the end, so the volume has the aspect of a parlor game to it. By the way, check out page 74. It says those are the eyes of Proust, but they look like Rex Harrison to me!
So you're reading these haiku and puzzling over whose eyes are whose and before you know it, you are swept away into the land of the Unerzahlt for the ride of a lifetime.