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A Nautical Text of the Avant-Garde: Heimrad Bäcker’s Seascape

By Harriet Staff

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Oh how we are fawning over Seascape by Heimrad Bäcker (Ugly Duckling Presse 2013), which “uses documentary material to recount a minor historical episode from World War II: the crew of a German submarine comes upon three men on a Norwegian lifeboat and refuses to take them on board. Bäcker’s account of Nazi inhumanity uncannily echoes Un coup de dés, Marcel Broodthaers’ A Voyage on the North Sea, and other nautical texts of the avant-garde.” It’s reviewed at Molossus by David Shook:

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.

And if you’re in Denver or near: Check out the coordinating exhibition, Landscape M, at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, up until January. They give us a brief bio:

The photographer and poet Heimrad Bäcker (1925-2003) dedicated his life to documenting the remnants of Nazism and the Holocaust. Bäcker’s photographs look away from the scenes usually associated with the Shoah—barracks, gates, train tracks—and focus on the minute and incidental traces left behind in the Austrian landscape: indentations in stone, twisted steel rods, and concrete foundations. His examination of Austrian history is also a self-critical reflection on his enthusiastic participation, as a teenager, in the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Party. Landscape M focuses on Bäcker’s works related to Mauthausen, the largest concentration camp in Austria. MCA Denver’s exhibition is the first of Bäcker’s work in the US, and it is the first to show the body of work left behind after his death.

Bäcker also influenced Rob Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum (Counterpath Press), which Charles Bernstein thoroughly covered at Jacket2 last year. He discusses there another Bäcker work, Transcript:

Transcript, first published in 1986, is a work made up entirely of quotations or citations (collages of found texts, as Walter Benjamin envisioned), which are often visually arranged in a manner that resembles the grid lists of concrete poetry. These found linguistic shards confront, without summarizing or representing, the Systemic Extermination. In contrast to Reznikoff’s elegiac event-moments in Holocaust, Bäcker’s source texts (which overlap with those used by Reznikoff) are sampled, fragmented, constellated. Narrative is under erasure, but ineradicable. Transcript’s sources are documented in notes that form an integral part of the text.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.