Book Review: Seascape

Seascape

This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.


Seascape begins on a day that, from the data, might seem like any other:

0430 Quad AL 0196, SW 5,
dry, rough seas, good
visibility, broken
clouds.

Seascape

Seascape
Heimrad Bäcker (tr. Patrick Greaney)
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013
20 pp.

Taken merely at face-value, this nautical report portends that this day might be a relief after what might have been a bad storm. Though the seas seem to be a little choppy, at 0430 hours, the visibility is relatively clear and cloud cover is breaking up. Despite the highly technical format, any poet or prose writer might have penned a similar poetic start to a narrative. Except, in context, this is hardly the beginning to a beautiful day. What seems like a simple weather report develops into something quite different – a narrative that is shockingly minimal in its portrayal of wartime indifference and a text that, in his broadsheet tucked into the back cover entitled “After Writing,” Charles Bernstein twice claims an unwillingness to refer to the text as a poem.

But, in the lineup of texts that have been reviewed by the Found Poetry Review, Seascape falls in among those that question the very idea of what a poem is and what it can do. In only 20 letter-pressed pages, Greaney’s translation of Bäcker’s SEËSTUCK (originally published as neue text #32), challenges definitions of poetry in the same mode as Jeff Griffin’s Lost and while creating the portrait of human indifference that invokes the entirety of Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. It calls back to the transcribed inflection points that are the heart of Goldsmith’s 7 American Deaths and Disasters. If these kindred texts are accepted as poems, it follows that attaching the term to Seascape is not only warranted but begged.

Though both a translation and a transcription of World War II German submarine records, it does the same transformative work that is expected of any found text.

Though it may be somewhat brash to refer to Seascape as a long poem, it certainly is a kind of long-form data-driven narrative poetry. In an age when many are conditioned to look at the “story” that data tells, it is not at all beyond claiming Bäcker’s transcription as such. The data-story that confronts the reader is that of German submarine data of U-boat U-71, helmed by Captain Walter Flaschenberg on its first patrol in the Atlantic Ocean. After several pages of roughly benign status reports of changing position and weather conditions, the rhythm is broken by the only prose block of the entire book which appears on its sixth page which acts as the climactic moment of the narrative in which the U-boat encounters three survivors of a torpedoed ship along its patrol route in the northern Atlantic Ocean who had been afloat for 28 days. Amidst the surrounding status reports, the sudden contact comes and goes as briefly as an open-ocean flare. Flaschenberg, a notorious pack captain, reports that he “turned down their request to be taken aboard, provisioned the boat with food and water and gave them the course and distance to the Icelandic coast.”

To hasten reaction times and organize their patrol activity, the Kreigsmarine (WWII German Navy) employed a grid system designating various quadrants with two-letter signifiers placing the crew between the “AL” and “AK” regions, placing the encounter southwest of Iceland. Though in close proximity to the coast, Flaschenberg admits that there are “hardly any prospects of rescue” given the exhausted state of the crew and a “view of the prevailing weather” that seemed to be worsening from the pre- and proceeding passages. After this isolated incident, the crew pushes on eastward, leaving the three Norwegian survivors to their fate. Four pages of records close the book as conditions progress from “southerly swell, / hazy” to a closing report nearly 24-hours removed from the first –

0400 Quad AK, NW 5-6,
dry, rough seas
poor visibility, over-
cast.

What is there to write about a narrative that ends nearly the same way it begins? Despite the brief encounter with the adrift Norwegian sailors, ostensibly the only factor that undergoes any change is cloud cover. Seascape is almost infinitely re-readable – and not simply due to its slim page count. The very minimalism of the book suggests the kind of surprise that the events contained within confer; when presented with the simple choice of taking on lost and lonely souls in need of shelter and the basic promise of survival, human indifference stands in stark relief to the strange wave-like rhythm of the sterile notes made in the captain’s log. The casual note dismissing the fate of the stranded sailors betrays either a stark human indifference or a kind of razor-sharp focus on war. Interpreting the text either way is disturbing.

Even the simple act of reference to “(EXHIBIT GB-481),” a document used as part of the Nüremburg Trials creates the notion that there is a level of complicity in the fact that Flaschenberg, though acting as captain, is certainly not alone in his knowledge of the incident, nor likely in his judgment to send the men they encounter at sea in a lifeboat to their deaths in the pursuit of the impossible goal to reach Iceland. Bäcker seems to be saying to the reader that there is no act that goes unwitnessed. For those that are implicated – no matter how small the crime may seem – at least history is always watching through the legacy of documents left behind.

Much like the translation of text itself, history will translate intent to its most horrifying essentials.

Inserted into a pocket at the back of the beautiful letterpress edition is the “talk-back” entitled “After Writing” that is a natural way to help a reader handle the experience of such a text rather than acting as a justification for it – the danger of providing such a companion piece to a text as short as Seascape. As a capstone, it works well to create a reading experience out of the text that generates a trail of associations and lines of inquiry that establish new contexts around Seascape that endow it with new connotations and mental footnotes reading after reading.

Though published in 1985 in Austria, Patrick Greaney’s more contemporary translation to English creates a tight piece out of an already-sparse work that speaks to the simple horror and shock of the narrative contained within. The 20 pages of Seascape are all that are needed to communicate the simple message that even the smallest act taken for granted can echo through history. As Bernstein states in his after-reading piece, it admits that “to write poetry after the Second War is to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face.”

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