i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have
smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
. out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years
before the text.
(from “sentry duty”)
Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.
Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.
within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
. rests of bones: how
it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.
(from “what I possessed”)
The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.
the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
step by step recording
the silent outline. for
the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
(from “the very first affection”)
Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:
do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?
this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider
hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.
Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.
in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.