Monday, November 30, 2009

Language Death Night Outside

By Peter Waterhouse
Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop
Burning Deck 2009

An Exclamation & A Few Notes

For awhile, I thought my head would explode. Fucking amazing! I thought, to read with pleasure and considerable zeal a long work by a previously unknown person of around one’s own age. In a way, it’s not unlike meeting the person on a ship (okay, that’s unlikely) or, let’s say, at a conference and then more or less falling in love with their brain, only to become estranged almost immediately, to persevere and then to find again the sense of trust that one retains toward a writer one plans to read more of and with whom one believes oneself (myself) to be, in some ways, congruent.

Let’s start with a passage from Ernst Mach who Waterhouse mentions and the title of whose book, The Analysis of Sensation, could almost serve as a stand-in or subtitle for Language Death Night Outside. Waterhouse writes, “I read Ernst’s Mach’s The Analysis of Sensation as a book on ethics.” (p. 99) He does not quote Mach but here is a passage from the beginning of the Analysis that suggests Waterhouse's book for me.

Colours, sounds, temperatures, pressures, spaces, times, and so forth, are connected with one another in manifold ways; and with them are associated dispositions of mind, feelings, and volitions. Out of this fabric, that which is relatively more fixed and permanent stands prominently forth, engraves itself on the memory, and expresses itself in language. Relatively greater permanency is exhibited, first, by certain complexes of colours, sounds, pressures, and so forth, functionally connected in time and space, which therefore receive special names, and are called bodies. Absolutely permanent such complexes are not.

The Analysis of Sensation
By Ernst Mach(1897). Dover Edition, 1959;
Translation: by C M Williams and Sydney Waterlow

The quality of realism, of relation and of felt experience suggested above is intensely present in Language Death Night Outside. Though Waterhouse evokes experience he does not resort to narrative, exactly. And what is felt might be a person or landscape, often an urban or suburban landscape – there are many of these – or an idea. There is memoir. There is the death of a grandfather and historical deaths. There are meetings, love, endings, beginnings, wanderings. There are many short statements. They often begin with “I.” The “I” is intensely self-aware and, at a certain point, is abandoned. (“The terrible I.”) Then we go on for a time with statements beginning with “the.” “The last day of October. The laugh on greeting people.” Later there are “we” statements and still later the “I” returns.

This is all exquisitely rendered into English by Rosmarie Waldrop. Language Death Night Outside is number 11 in Burning Deck’s Dichten series of translations of German poets. The German text is not included. (The 128 page book would be quite long if it did, but one always regrets the absence of the original, even if the present reader could not read a word of it.) Because Waterhouse is a translator and, I imagine, a fluent English speaker, it would be interesting to know of his experience of this translation

Language Death Night Outside begins with the impact of reading poetry – the poets are named and quoted, often translated by Waterhouse. Andrea Zanzotto is the first poet mentioned, with lines about discovering his work and then the experience of translating him. Later the difficulty of speaking (and translating) from a language in which one is not fluent, Italian in Waterhouse’s case, appears in several places. The British poet and translator, Michael Hamburger comes up. Waterhouse has translated Hamburger and has a great enthusiasm for his poetry. Much later in the text we come to a poem by Carl Rakosi, who Waterhouse has also translated into German. I assume Rosmarie went back to the original for Rakosi’s poem, “Yaddo,” that appears in the book. The gesture of including “Yaddo” seems different in English than it would in German. Waterhouse is, again, an active translator himself. His mother was German and his father British. He has written a book called Living Between Languages and was educated in Germany, the UK and the US. He writes in German but seems to be a multilingual exile and wanderer, like Celan, Hamburger and others. The sense of floating, of wandering and of knowing of but not quite belonging to seem central to his project.

Here is an extended passage of Language Death Night Outside:

I was buoyant. I considered everybody buoyant. I considered only the buoyant as real. I observed my feelings. Separating from a woman, I did not allow myself to grieve. I considered my grief trivial. I trembled at night. I wanted to see the night sink. I wanted to have the night weigh on my eyes. I went out at night. Outside I saw the nightly city. In the middle of the night nobody entered the lit up places of business. The night at four o’clock put a gentle hand on my face. It warmed my face. It gave off a large leveling breath-tone. The night was a serenade. The song of the night was the breath before song. The night was the sound of taking a breath. The night busses drove through the universe. My pain was smaller than the moon. I was unconsoled. I did not know the world. Echoes were flying. I went to bed. I slept into the silence. I greeted the early light. I found the early light on the back of my hand. I found the morning light. The morning light was a skin. The morning light was an echo that remained. (pp. 15 & 16)

So you are getting something of the drift. There is relentless consistency and a just as relentless multiplicity of reference – to experience, to ideas, to cultural detritus, to memory. There is the death of an Austrian grandfather. There is a questioning of what it means to be a German of the post-war generation – which is to say one’s parents and grandparents lived through the world wars. Waterhouse’s interest in Michael Hamburger implicitly connects him with the writers Hamburger translates, as Celan and W.G. Sebald. Sebald’s fascination with architecture and visual art and with traveling was in my mind as I read, with considerable delight, a possibly quoted passage about Italian painting on church ceilings in the middle of Language Death Night Outside.

There is a desire here to be inclusive that makes the book a sort of masterwork. The focus is wide and has the broad heavenly scope of ceiling art. Waterhouse desires everything, includes everything, refers to, longs for, is accepted, rejected, abandoned, compromised by and finally had by anything and everything or one and yet the book is very individual and particular. This particularity locates itself in Europe, in Germany, where a trip or series of trips is discernable.

Something surprising about this book for me was that it evokes Gertrude Stein, who Waterhouse doesn’t mention, and, contemporaneously, (and this might surprise you) Juliana Spahr whose use of flat statement (I am thinking in The Transformation) seems to rhyme in some way with Waterhouse’s use of it. His book was published in the late 80s and not translated until now so there is no question “influence” in either direction but, perhaps, of a commonality of sources. Or --interestingly – of different sources, from somewhat different experimental traditions, resulting in at least some surface similarities. (The question of what traditions these are is a longer essay, but suffice it to say that Spahr’s work comes more out of Stein than Celan, more out of Williams than out of a writer like Hamburger and the many writers he translated. This is a simplification and, for example, one wonders if Spahr is a reader of, say, Bataille? I will ask and get back to you with that other essay.) Like Waterhouse, Spahr writes in longish paragraphs. Waterhouse’s paragraphs are, in fact, very long and are not separated by a stanza break or space but set end to end with an occasional partial line’s worth of empty space, creating a wall of words that made me think of Peter Weis’s Aesthetics of Resistance but Language Death Night Outside, with its sense of anti and non-narrative prose, is much more of a poem than Weis’s novel.

Full disclosure: I also use short declarative sentences in a lot of my work – hence my fascination with it. An interesting point about Aesthetics of Resistance is that Spahr and I were early, passionate readers of the new translation. I forget who recommended it to who. Weis’s sentences are circuitous and endless. They gave and give me the courage to be as clausal as possible in my current fictional efforts . My own Spicer’s City is an example of my use of short declarative sentences and phrases – more phrases in my case. Nude Memoir is another. I have done it freely and often and as recently as yesterday. I am doing it now. These short choppy sentences of mine have annoyed friends enough for them to mention the practice disparagingly, whereupon I swear off, but there is a tendency to return to it. My own practice makes Waterhouse’s ability and determination to sustain the technique for an entire book, not only impressive but, how to say this -- it makes me strangely happy. Our sources are probably divergent but, again, there are similarities.

Okay, time has gone by while I have been looking for material to quote by Juliana and myself but I am now questioning my impressions above and am inclined to say (again) simply that the similarity I am seeing of Waterhouse’s work to that of Spahr or myself is mostly the result of bunching a lot of declarative sentences together in paragraphs that resemble both poetry and prose. There is a certain assertiveness. It is probably not appropriate to note that we are all the same sign, Aries. Forget I said that.

I’ll end with another section from Language Death Night Outside, part of a section about Leibniz I particularly enjoyed. I want to make the point here that the experiential aspect of Language Death Night Outside is often in relation to a kind of abstract thinking or reading that is as compelling a part of the non-narrative as cityscapes, colors, art, people, the seasons, meetings etc.

I saw the abyss of things at the beginning of harmony. I saw the ungraspable as the beginning of certainty in the universe. I saw being-almost-nothing as being-totally-there. I saw the miniscule as the real. I saw the not-I as the I. I saw the lost place as the area of Europe, hospitable. I saw destruction as a norm to be overcome. I saw the flicker of consolation to be discovered in Leibniz, the whisper, the discretion, the ferment, the decades after the Thirty-Year’s War, Leibniz in Charlottenburg, his patroness Sophie-Charlotte of Prussia, Leibniz in Vienna, failing in his attempt to found an academy of sciences, Leibniz in Dresden, failing in his attempt to found an academy of sciences, Leibniz in Hanover as a librarian. I placed my task in the non-continuum. (pp. 86 & 87)

And, finally, here is the cover, by National Book Award winner (congrats!) Keith Waldrop.