Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001

Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001
W G Sebald
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £14.99

When Paul Celan, the great poet of the Holocaust, declared that the German language had emerged from the atrocities of the Second World War as the one thing unmarked by loss, he signalled its sublime alliance with human memory. The late W G Sebald's Across the Land and the Water, which compiles his poetic output from his student days through to the last years of his life, derives much of its strength from his recognition of this relationship. The title of the collection points to the peculiar carriage of the mind when reading Sebald: a fine-grained movement of intelligence in the act of recalling and deciphering, the swift transition from sure-footedness to the littoral territories of belief and out across the unsteadying waters of significance and insinuation.

Both Celan and Sebald were masters of rich understatement, conjurors of the dark, hidden sense of words, names and phrases profoundly marked by history. At their best, Sebald's poems engage thrillingly with the private archives of Germany's memory of the war. In an age of distrust for abstruseness or overabundance in poetry, the force of suggestion in the seeming simplicity of his word-choice and phraseology contrasts with many modern poetic idioms, which aim to be instantly accessible.

It is a testament to the muted skill of these poems that the appearance of the word "train" in the opening of the collection strikes the reader as neither vulgar nor blatant: "For how hard it is/to understand the landscape/as you pass in a train." From this first disclosure of Sebald's concern with landscape and meaning, however, we are steered to both familiar and unfamiliar sites from Germany's past - the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, or Schatt­wald, a Tyrolean village on the line to Wertach, Sebald's home town and the place to which the Sebaldian character in his debut novel, Vertigo (1990), returns in its closing sequence. A few poems further on, we witness another homecomer, "astonished to find/he had strayed to a country/not his place of origin".

Each poem, in its way, reaches towards the irreducible truth of a large number of indivi­duals, Jewish and non-Jewish, brutally transported from home and out of recognition and existence. These poems are careful to allow our memories of the reality to trespass along the indirect routes of Sebald's thinking.

In "Solnhofen", he recalls the 19th-century geologists who uncovered the fossil of archae­opteryx, the ancient creature that provided the missing link between dinosaurs and birds and transformed human understanding of evolution and our place in nature. Yet the reader cannot escape the intimation in images of "White fields/in winter sometimes/strewn with ash". Sebald uses a single word and its potency to reorder our place in nature, members of a supposedly enlightened civilisation capable of unspeakable acts of violence.

Iain Galbraith's translations are both guarded and diligent, and he succeeds in the considerable task of conveying the atmosphere of Sebald's unmistakable prose voice into the poetic form. While the poems, taken by themselves, lack the mastery of Celan, they show a humane and complex intelligence at work and deserve a place next to Sebald's prose output.

In his excellent introduction, Galbraith writes that poems "remained an important medium to Sebald until the end of his life". Before his death in 2001 aged 57, he was preparing a collection of his poetry for publication. In Galbraith's estimation, the poetry, a considerable body of which was written before Sebald's suite of astounding prose works appeared, formed a kind of "cascade" of creative intention, which made possible his maturation into the longer narrative forms for which he is best known today. This volume offers readers of Sebald the chance to witness some of the progressive stages of intellectual and artistic development that coalesced powerfully in such prose projects as The Emigrants (1992) and The Rings of Saturn (1995).

Trains recur throughout the collection as means of displacement and reflection, as warnings against assumed knowledge derived from careless observation, and as suggestive of habit, commerce, civilisation and reflection. More importantly, perhaps, trains embody the carriage of more than a single passenger.

It is significant that, in "The Year Before Last", Sebald writes of "our eyes" taking in the "distant landscape", nudging us towards the humility of the lone observer who is unable to carry the magnitude of the world beyond his or her sight. For Sebald, poems act as a collective consciousness, and he is ever mindful of the intercessory role of his.

Melanie Challenger's book "On Extinction: How We Became Estranged From Nature" is published by Granta Books (£20)

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war