Language Death Night Outside: Poem.Novel. By Peter Waterhouse (trans. Rosmarie Waldrop) Burning Deck Press. 128 pp., $14.00.
Peter Waterhouse’s Language Death Night Outside is a hybrid text whose tensions are announced in its subtitle, “Poem Novel,” where two genres uneasily share space usually occupied by only one. This tension and transgression is reflected in a series of tensions and transgressions in the book which cumulatively amount to a desire for the transgression of boundaries in general, and particularly of the boundaries of the self: “the terrible I,” in Waterhouse’s words.
At the center of the poem novel is an expression of grief that both does and does not want to be expressed: for grief requires identity, and it is against the strictures of identity that the writing restlessly agitates. There is grief for a dead grandfather, for Austria’s dubious and largely unacknowledged past in World War II, for loves that come and go and merit only brief mention. But the greatest grief is reserved for having to inhabit a self at all (“Being-me was a killing experience,” the speaker says), and he dreams of escaping identity and historicity through various means, all of them beginning with trans-: translation, transmutation, transformation, transcendence, transgression, transition, transparency, transfiguration.
Originally published in German in 1989, Language Death Night Outside falls loosely into the tradition of Waterhouse’s fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s monologic novels full of disgust and fury at Austria and its wartime complicity, and also, in its melancholy, bears a resemblance to the novels of W. G. Sebald, who shared with Waterhouse an Anglo-German world. (Waterhouse was born of an Austrian mother and an English father, and grew up bilingual.) The doubleness of such a linguistic existence is reflected in the fact that translation is a major theme in the book (masterfully translated, not incidentally, by Rosmarie Waldrop): three substantial poems—by Andrea Zanzotto, Paul Celan, and Carl Rakosi—are placed in the text in their original languages, followed by translations and brief exegeses. Translation is one of the speaker’s recurring activities (along with going to listen to lectures, driving out of the city, and researching in libraries and archives—all means of procuring knowledge to effect transformation).
The wish for the liquefaction of the self is in contention, however, with the constant actualization of the self through the book’s sentences, fully half of which begin with “I,” and many of which record the speaker’s movements in the world, including the most banal (“I went to bed”): “I bought everything promised in the advertisements. I traveled in all trains. I looked with interest at the newspapers. I left the clothing store, uncorrupted. I leaned against banks. I protected myself as one who gives the country a memory.” As in any diary, the speaker is attempting to write himself into existence, even as he expresses the desire to be rid of the specificity of existence. The often short, declarative sentences proceeding relentlessly from flat statement to flat statement are packed uneasily into long, dense, at times claustrophobic sections barely broken up, and the resulting speed and density turn the sentences into molten syntax, their components made available for reuse and transformation in subsequent appearances. This claustrophobia is the claustrophobia of the mind itself, crowded with perceptions, with the self constructing itself through language. In the book, a world results in which objects are freed of their usual physical properties: a city can touch the speaker’s hair, and a tree can turn into “a staircase, an escalator, a pyramid, a sultan’s palace.” It is this state—the state, in translation, between two languages, where the original and target languages melt and intermingle before freezing again into a new text—that the self wants to inhabit.
Long blocks of interpolated text, inserted whole as if in a form of collage—such as a discourse on ceiling paintings—turn the work into a perceptual space that can be penetrated by heterogeneity. This openness is counteracted by regular outbreaks of deep, repetitive structure: for example, three and a half pages of the book are covered with the repeated words “Consensus” and “Reconciliation,” in an oblique reference to Austria’s political past. It is often in these moments of repetition and variation that the most beautiful writing in the book occurs. For instance, at a funeral, the speaker engages in a lavish exercise in taxonomy that is revealed in all its vainglory at the end:
The grave stood open. I stood aside. I heard the voices of the birds. I identified the voice of the blackbird. I identified the voice of the thrush.
I identified the voice of the swallow. I identified the voice of the starling. I identified the voice of the waxwing. I identified the voice of the warbler. I identified the voice of the brown creeper. I identified the voice of the wren. I identified the voice of the oriole. There was no resurrection of the soul as the priest promised.
Working against the desire for total fluidity is the rigidity of architecture, which is a recurring theme: the speaker befriends an architect, takes trips to visit buildings as an architecture tourist, and meditates on architectural details such as the doorknob (the door: the classic site of transition). Like the poem and the novel in the subtitle, the speaker wants both (and therefore, presumably, neither); he is often driving in a car (mobile architecture) or taking a train, on the move—but there are many moments when he simply lies down, on the ground or the street or a roof, suggesting a rejection of mobility, a succumbing to the stasis of the earth (which, of course, is nevertheless always moving). The self feels most at home when it is not at home: A trip to Zagreb results in exultation: “I was happy about not-speaking-Croatian, not-knowing-the-city, not-knowing-the-looks, being-about-to-leave, being-a-foreigner, having-no-answer. . .” This not-speaking-Croatian liberates the speaker: “We did not know what was talked about. I was set free.” It is significant that it is an ignorance of language that frees the speaker best from the burdens of belonging, from the responsibilities that result from being a participatory, named inhabitant of a named place, a speaking-and-comprehending subject, because in the book’s worldview, language and its powers are deeply ambivalent, as seen in a steady stream of multifaceted ruminations on the subject. Language can exist as “open-sesame words,” creating the world as it is spoken (“I said the word brook-bed. The word brook-bed was, like any word, a sudden opening”), but it is also the essential component of identity formation: “I saw the poem loosen language from the compulsion to identity, the compulsion to death.” Words must be animated by human care: “Without my affection, the river was not possible in the word river,” but, of course, human intention can abuse language: “I saw the name of the bank made of large free-standing letters. I did not understand the difference between Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank: I considered the commerce bank a German bank” (in one of the book’s rare moments of humor).
Ambivalence about language, about identity, about form crystallize in the ambivalence about genre, which is more pointed for Waterhouse than it would be for an American writer, since the prose poem, widely accepted in American literature, has not gained widespread acceptance in the German-speaking world. Though there are moments of seeming autobiography in the book, very little resembling a traditional narrative makes itself felt; there is, however, a great deal of poetry in it, and gorgeous poetry at that. The insistence on calling the work a novel does achieve the assumption of a multifarious imaginary world that counteracts the lyric I‘s hyperreality; still, one cannot help but think of the book as an entry into Baudelaire’s ambitions for the prose poem: that it be “musical but without rhythm or rhyme, both supple and staccato enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of our souls, the undulating movements of our reveries, and the convulsive movement of our consciences.”
In the mini-exegesis of the Zanzotto poem, Waterhouse writes: “Everything in the poem was in transition. Nothing in the poem rested in itself,” and that feels like both a cri de coeur and an ars poetica for Waterhouse’s book.
Donna Stonecipher is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House Press, 2008). She lives in Berlin, and translates from German and French.
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