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Vanessa Place Considers the Poetic & Fetishistic Qualities of Heimrad Bäcker’s Seascape
Vanessa Place reviews Heimrad Bäcker’s Seascape (Ugly Duckling Presse 2013) for Constant Critic. We wrote about the text not too long ago. Bäcker was a teenage member of the Nazi Party, and spent his life examining Nazism and the Holocaust, and “[f]or his part,” Place writes, “[Bäcker] deemed [Seascape] a piece of concrete poetry.”
We can start then with the proposition that Ugly Duckling Presse has presented this lovely book object as a thoughtfully concretized material object, for one thing the National Socialists well understood was that materiality is inseparable from animus. As a contemplative aside, this, in the person of Leni Riefenstahl, was the great art lesson of the time: that aesthetics could not be segregate from ethics as a formed and formal proposition. Along with Duchamp, Riefenstahl altered the landscape of all art après. Bäcker, then, may be also understood as one who understood both their art lessons. The thing, and not for nothing can we use das Ding here, is art because it works as art within the context of art, and the thing as art always speaks as a thing about its event-culture. Fountain works perfectly as a pissoir, which of course renders a public service. While all art is inherently excremental, the readymade captures the aura of excrescence that mass-produces art for appreciation by the cognoscenti and pissing-on by the masses. Fountain in particular thus bears eloquent witness to Hegel’s observation that the penis is Nature’s naïve conjunction of “the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of generation, with the organ of urination.” Switch out art for poetry and we can stop nattering on about what is or isn’t poetry and return to our retinal proclivities and attendant camps.
That may ring familiar, but Place goes on to favor “a rather linear historical exegesis,” over a typical poetry review, detailing found transcripts of the Nuremburg trials and the incident that engines the book, a “documentary account of a U-boat’s failure to rescue three Norwegian sailors.” Eventually, however, she considers Josef Kaplan’s Kill List (or rather, its reception):
There was a dutiful outcry on social media about the poem and its particulars, including some pained individual protests against being labeled as rich/comfortable. But as Brecht knew, the ones who protest their innocence are the guiltiest of all, and as Obama knows, kill lists are by rights idiosyncratic, and as history proves, death is inevitable in service of revolution. So what is objected to in the objection is precisely animated by a bourgeois sense of individual entitlement, that is to say, that death ought be deserved, or at least comprehensible.
And Charles Bernstein’s afterword, which places Bäcker’s text as one of witness:
Bernstein repeats his resistance to characterizing the piece as poetry. It is an Adorno-born resistance: to characterize the work as poetry would be, in Bernstein’s words, “to accept that barbarism is before us, staring us in the face.” Bernstein thus preserves a special place for poetry as potential redeemer; despite its smutted face, the angelus novus, as Benjamin opined, “must look just so.” Aber warum?
In this, my argument is not with Bernstein’s reading—in this, all allegorical readings are as all allegorical readings—but rather with its conservatism. To slightly rephrase the lesson harrowed on our Western backs by Wittgenstein, there is not aesthetics without ethics, there is not ethics without aesthetics. There’s no preservation of poetry in any case, especially not this one: poetry is not reserved for morality or ethics, if there is a difference, and what would that difference be? The aesthetic point of Un coup des dès, the most obvious Continental precursor to Seascape, was whether the captain will cast his dice into the abyss, knowing that such a toss is meaningless, a tribute to pure chance. In Mallarmé’s preface to Un coup de des, he said that his verses demanded their surrounding silences to void narrative and suspend time. And this is precisely what the abyssal and creamy Seascape does: showing the moment when the die is cast without hope. Not out of a desire for this or that histoire (written, as always, in retrospect) but because one must, in the end, always cast the die. It could be asided here that coup also is a blow, as you know, as in de grâce, which may be also a mercy killing. In other words, what do we make of fate where there is no futurity?
Photograph at top by Heimrad Bäcker, courtesy of MCA Denver.