Summoning the celestial: The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven by Raoul Schrott

If absence makes the heart grow stronger, absence tinged with the uncertainty of love returned can lead the heart and the imagination to wander into realms beyond the merely mortal. To contemplate romantic perfection. To be filled with a longing for something that may no longer exist. To attempt to counter the earthly with the heavenly. To trust in angels.

The wonderfully titled The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven is essentially a series of missives from a lovelorn poet to a mysterious red-haired beauty from whom he has been separated by time, distance and, perhaps, some recklessness on his part. He is writing from County Cork in the south of Ireland, a place which is not his home, where he is exiled, or has exiled himself, sending into the nightly blackness a chain of love letters ever so loosely disguised as a sensual, passionate and mildly profane angelology accompanied by miniaturized hagiographies. Originally published in German in 2001, this extraordinary work by Austrian writer Raoul Schrott, with its arresting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O, is now available from the inimitable Seagull Books in Karen Leeder’s delicately rendered translation. Fictional, but not a conventional novel, essayistic, but meditative in style, this book is an engaging blend of philosophy, mythology, the classical sciences, saintly heroism, and earthbound human romantic longing.

Our narrator begins, as one would expect, with Dionysius the Areopagite—not the saint, but the fifth century Syrian Neoplatonist who, writing in the name and style of his sanctified predecessor was the first to craft a hierarchy of angels and demons, a celestial stepladder to God for dark times.  Within Pseudo-Dionysius’ model of an angel-sustained universe, he locates himself and his own angelic entity:

For Earth he chose only a single one, which he placed in the lower arc of my ribs where I can feel it now, hard as a little planet. I carry it with me (even now in the train it keeps to its orbit) and sometimes I can see it before me: its mouth, black brows and a storm of red hair over its freckles, an incarnation of St. Elmo’s fire.

Captive and captivated, he writes as if possessed, bringing the Aurora Borealis, Samuel Johnson, Greek and Babylonian mythology and more into his musings as he tries to make sense of his fate, this spell of infatuation under which he is labouring. His thoughts never stray far from his beloved even though his letters have yet to elicit a response. He is continues his conversation into the silence, remembering their moments together. It is not entirely clear how much he really has to build on, how much they ever had, a quality that amplifies the sense of yearning:

Then as I sat next to you in the great hall, I heard you more than saw you beside me; I listened to you; wings folding shut. Do I bore you with all these sophistries and sentimentalities? It is only because the post takes so damned long, because I don’t know whether you will ever respond, not how; because I must eke out the little that I have to create a picture of you: little stones for a mosaic. The angels help me lay it out.

As he wanders the past and waits in the present, meditating on the nature of the role of angels in the affairs of humans, especially his own, our poet paints an image of a windswept remoteness, an isolation actual and emotional. He references local towns, harbours and natural features, like the aptly named Mount Gabriel. The ocean is never far away, and water is a major presence in his memories, his sense of loss, and much of the mythology he calls on. His heartache is pervasive, and achingly beautiful:

I walk through the grass; it brushes against my shoes. All is still, and I wish your voice was with me now, whispered and low so that only I could hear it. Instead the moon starts off on a soliloquy. Where it stands, stubbornly apart, is the southwest and somewhere behind is where you are, as if only I had to concentrate to see that far, peer over the curvature of the earth. But where you are it is an hour later, I only wish I knew how to catch up that hour.

Because the distance that haunts him is temporal, in more than one sense of the word, trusting the angels, even if as he admits, he does not believe in them, has a certain logic. A comfort.

Turning to John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth century Irish theologian, best known for translating and commenting on Pseudo-Dionysius, the narrator reflects on the inverted balance existing between humans and their heavenly counterparts:

the angel finds its form within humankind through the spirit (intellectus) of the angel that is in the man; and man comes into being in the angel through the spirit of humankind within him and so on and so forth for all eternity without a single Amen being granted to us in Eriugenia’s scholastic permutations. We are nothing but the imaginings of angels; and angels exist only in our thoughts: that is our paradox not theirs.

He has entrusted his love and his beloved to the care of angels, to hold her for him in their thoughts. And yet, as her own distinction from the angels becomes less clear in his letters, one has to wonder how much she has begun to exist only in his thoughts. If she, in her epistolary silence is possibly not thinking of him, what existential questions does that raise? For him? For any of us who has ever loved hopelessly another who will never return our affection? At heart, he knows, it seems.

And: no, I am not writing for writing’s sake; no, if my letters were in any way beautiful, there were so only on account of you; no, they are not complete in themselves; all they do is beg for the answer and conceal best they can the question (they tiptoe in stealth as I know they are trespassing on your territory). No, your cheeks were so warm that it felt as if I could have woken up next to you; no, there is nothing that could possibly dis-appoint you from the rank of the angels; no, the Amores will never run out of arrows, although I make a rather unholy Sebastian; and no, the angels will not wear themselves out with words; writing to you brought at least a few hours relief, then you started up again humming in my ears.

The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens reads like an extended meditative conversational prose poem, a playful interplay between earth and the heavens, grounded in the inescapable humanness of romantic love. The rich illustrations and micro biographies of the lives and martyrdom of the saints accompanying the text work together to form a running commentary on the interrelationship between love, spirituality, literature and art. This book could almost be, if one didn’t know better, the work of the angels themselves.

Words on the wind: Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig

If this has been a year of poetry for me, that is, of extending my ear to listen to the voices of contemporary poets, the greatest lesson has come in the form of an understanding that I, as a non-poet, must come to each collection with a willingness to be open to both the language and the silences a poet employs. I have also learned that poetry that leans too closely into the confessional is not as rewarding as that which reaches toward the human condition, be that political, historical or personal. And I’ve found that, like a good essay, a poem should leave space at its centre for questions and meanings to take shape, shift, and re-form. It is that space that pulls me, as a reader, back into my favourite poems, again and again.

At first blush, the work of German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig may seem deceptively simple. One could slip through quickly and miss the musicality, the odd fantastical turns, and the political undertones. Born in 1979, in a rural part of what was, at the time, East Germany, Sandig first emerged as a radical poet, posting poems on lampstands and distributing them as flyers. From the beginning she has been drawn to experimenting with the presentation and delivery of poetry, intent on opening the form to those who might be unfamiliar with or resistant to it. This has led to collaborations with musicians, and visual and sound artists on CDs, audiobooks and multimedia presentations. Her work invites the reader, or listener, into a world of familiar images and shadowy ambiguities.

Thick of It, recently released from Seagull Books, marks the first appearance of Sandig’s work in English. In her generous introduction, translator Karen Leeder, calls attention to the poet’s transformative approach to language:

Blisteringly contemporary, but with a kind of purity too; by turns comic, ironic, sceptical or nostalgic, it is also profoundly musical. The poems explore an urgently urban reality but are splintered with references to nightmares, the Bible, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, hymns, Goethe, Emily Dickinson and Kafka. Sandig abandons the traditional upper-case for sentences and end-of-line punctuation so as to exploit multiple meanings, stretches syntax, plays with idioms… and surfs on patterns of sound…

Titles at the top of pieces are uncommon, rather, the title, as such, is often woven into the poem, indicated by boldface type. As well, she frequently sets her poems in pairs that echo, reflect and undermine one another. The original title Dickicht which means “thicket”, speaks to this intertwining of meanings. Leeder extends this one step further, by bending the English title to “thick of it”.The poems in this collection, which draw heavily on images of nature—trees and birds—and movement—migration and travel—are separated into two sections “North” and “South”, set apart by the “Centre of the World” which contains a single six-line poem. Loss, and certain measured melancholy, runs through her poetry, things and people are misplaced, slipping from memory. Birds, seasons, and people are ever leaving and returning. Throughout the collection, poems often address a “you”, an other. Sometimes an intimacy is implied, but as the translator indicates, Sandig often plays the formal “Sie” against the informal “du”, a distinction lost in translation, so “you” encountered here is allowed an openness that can be understood as specific or general, individual or plural.

The first part is more firmly rooted, as much as any of these poems are ever rooted, in nature and fragments of the everyday, real and dreamed:

behind my eyes the others sit and watch
everything I see. I only see what I can see.

at night I see the marten in the porchlight
under the foxglove tree, not moving a muscle,

becoming invisible in the fading light. I see
no comets, no satellites. I see nothing but

the scrap of moon and my own reflection
in the glass…

— from “behind my eyes”

The second section, “South”, is a less clearly defined space, sometimes more fantastical—visited by ghosts, a centaur and a gardening John the Baptist—other times more personal, although that atmosphere is frequently strained. Nostalgia and sadness run deeper in this part of the world:

can you still see me? you won’t
recognize me. already we are almost
not there. were you the one who looked right
through me?
try again, hard as you can, look closely:
we were
never that pale.

— from “this photos of us”

The world evoked in Thick of It is one that expands with every return visit. Translator Karen Leeder’s enthusiasm for Sandig’s creative and performative energy is palpable—it comes through the more one reads across this collection, moving with and against its currents. Encountering it, as I have, as winter settles in and the year draws to a close has been especially fortuitous. I cannot leave this short review without a poem,  “denuded trees,” perfect for the season, that deserves to be heard in full:

when I left the afternoon was already over. straggling
children tidied themselves from the playground into the
houses. the first rockets hissed invisibly, still almost inaudible
the throb of the bass. the roadside for quite some distance
was overcast with the haze of denuded trees, they smelled

of cuckoo flowers in the woods, and dozing above them the real
clouds in the wind hole, polar light, biting ice. once a chunk
of milk glass fell to the ground in front of me. before I could
tread on it, it melted away. that’s when I finally left. after that
I forgot everything here.                          I was back by new year.

Thick of It by Ulrike Almut Sandig, translated by Karen Leeder, is published by Seagull Books.