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Heavy Rain, Rising Sea

Heimrad Bäcker, whose book transcript has been featured on molossus, first published Seascape as an entire 1985 issue of his magazine neue texte. Composed from the text of the 1949 International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Seascape (Ugly Duckling Presse, $25) recontextualizes the captain’s log of a German submarine during World War II. Each page of this letter-pressed edition features a single log entry:

1215   Quad AL 1973, SW 4/5,
heavy rain, rising
sea, moderate rough
swell, clear

These brief, specialized annotations give way just once, to an extended—contextually, at exactly 90 words—account of the submarine happening on three Norwegian sailors in the lifeboat of a torpedoed tanker. Rather than allowing the men, who had been adrift for four weeks, to board the submarine the U-boat captain “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,” before noting his opinion that given their condition and the weather their rescue was unlikely (read: impossible).

It is easy to speculate that the precise language of the logbook reflects and perhaps even contributes toward the detachment demonstrated by the terse prose description  of the small book’s central event.  Patrick Greaney, an associate professor of German at the University of Colorado Boulder, achieves a straightforward translation from the German, and offers a brief contextualizing note at the book’s end, noting that Seascape is the first of Bäcker’s four works cannibalizing and recontextualizing texts about Nazism and the Shoah. Bäcker’s “concrete poetry” could be a work of contemporary Conceptual Writing: there is nothing new under the sun. The sudden intrusion of human narrative, which could only have been uncovered through exhaustive research (Bäcker cites pages 340 – 41 of Vol. XIV and 623 – 25 of Vol. XXXV of the trial transcripts.), endows the work with a didactic quality without blatant moralizing: this is the dehumanizing nature of war, now you decide how to feel and respond.

In a tipped-in, two-fold broadsheet, Charles Bernstein declares, after Adorno, that “To write prose after Auschwitz is barbaric,” then explains that Bäcker’s nachschrift literally means after writing. After briefly cataloguing precedents and influences—Swedish poet Åde Hodell’s Orderbuch (1965) is a particularly haunting example—Bernstein writes that Bäcker’s nachschrift “feels for the ground of a post-Englightenment, aftermodern poetry, as a blind person feels for another’s face.” He’s right, and Seascape succeeds not just as aftermodern poem, but as an emotionally compelling work of literature.

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