Issue > Book Review
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (Black Lawrence Press, 2012). He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "Oppressive Light" by Robert Walser

Oppressive Light
Oppressive Light
by Robert Walser

200 pages
Black Lawrence Press


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Like the fort-da of Freud, the "I" of a poem both proclaims and conceals. Swiss-born Robert Walser, the novelist, short-story writer, poet and member of the generation that included Kafka, Trakl, and Hesse, wrote small poems of uncanny subjectivity, a trait he shared with the knowing, endlessly alienated, endless accommodating imaginations of his peers. But no one would confuse the limpid style of his poems with that of anyone else. Fancy, if you will, a balloon and let that balloon represent the speaker in Walser's poems. The surface of the balloon manages almost to cast back something of the environment in which it floats, while simultaneously registering the movements of the mime-like creature within that creases and distends the surface. Walser is both the speaker who describes—in a roundabout way—his surroundings and records, often in ways that feel like inverse sculpturing, the man who makes his pilgrimage. This man both is and isn't Everyman: you may hear your thoughts in accents other than you are used to, but at the end of the day, you will find Walser has composed in that "final vocabulary" where meanings stop their spin, and the balloon surface becomes, finally, a mirror.

Daniele Pantano, himself a Swiss poet who has previously translated Durrenmatt and Trakl, does a superb job in making the English speak in German, even as it speaks in English, so that I found myself lifting my eyes from the text, saying, wait a minute: this is not in English: it's in German! Only then does "this" refer to the original, which is indeed not here. It is usually the case that a translation becomes at once an elegy for the poem that isn't there: the striver's sense of linguistic duty that emanates from the translation only reminds one of the fact. Pantano's renderings are free of that sense of the loss of meaning. Oppressive Light also comes with handy references and an afterword, and the introduction by Carolyn Forche is superb in placing Walser's poetry, not only within his oeuvre, but within the several phases of his life, the years of perigrinations between Switzerland and Germany, only to end in an asylum. It was there he famously averred, "I'm not here to write. I'm here to be mad!" Those who visited him there did not find him mad, but the poems preceding his arrival locate him, in Forche's words, writing "his way toward a liminal state of non-attachment and hovering, weightless acceptance."

           There is a little tree in the meadowland
           and many more good little trees there too.
           A little leaf freezes in the frosty wind
           and many lone little leaves there too.
                               ("A Little Landscape")

The "non-attachment" takes several forms in Oppressive Light. In a contingent world, such as the previous quote implies is the case, there is the declining of commitment on the part of the flaneur, a creature of Baudelarian dimensions, urban, urbane, pursued by ennui, but determined to give it the slip by indulging in odd appreciations. One thinks of of Baudelaire (minus the inverted Catholic zeal), of poets as distinct as Verlaine, Prevert, and Reverdy and in our own language, of writers as never-before appearing in the same sentence as Bruce Chatwin and James Schuyler. Note that my examples are heavily tilted toward the French. It was the French who invented the type, though by the time Hans Castorp appeared in German Literature, it had become a virtually iconic European character: he passes by (or in Castorp's case, he perches) and observes, in the course of which observations he becomes, for closer or farther, the focus of his own discourse. The sound of this character goes like this:

           Here I live like a child, enchanted
           by the idea that I've been forgotten.


           Of course, people forget each other quickly,
           but I believe everyone's
           to blame for the fact      

           that those who were forgotten
           were forgetful themselves.
                               ("The Comfort of Complaining")

As Walter Benjamin, for one, suggests, the line between interior and exterior worlds becomes blurred for the flaneur, and so the attempts to coordinate features between self and external world become a kind of poetic feature, an enactment of metaphor:

           Cowardice, are you still here?
           and Lie, you, too?
           I hear a dim, Yes:
           Misfortune is still here,
           and I'm still in the room,
           as always.
                               ("As Always")

Much of Walser's poetry seems a journey adjusted downward to a stroll. And just as a stroll implies no commitment on the part of the stroller, neither does it imply a response to Forster's famous plea to "connect." Walser's poems are not about human relationships, and one could say that the investigation of parts prior to reaching for that ever-elusive Other (the self is the other) takes precedence in so subjective a poet. There is a kind of naturalness in bringing up the important topic of forgetfulness, as he often does: never having registered in ways that would matter, what matter forgetting? To remember is to recall a presence that once did register. Forgetting, on the other hand, is either an endorsement of indifference—hence the naturalness. Or, conversely, it is an act of love because it retires old business in the name of fairness and honor.

           Music is being played somewhere
           in a garden, we take a stroll, eat
           and drink and walk and sleep,
           and everyone who claims to be
           a member of society is used to
           restaurants, jobs and other business.
           That which we see as movement
           and so on resembles sleep. Do we
           all forget each other, one after another,
           in life's strange bright hall?


Something of Walser's power as a poet stems from a lightly borne contrarianism that looks for all the world like the picture of a lover seeking to be spurned in order to become a poet. No less a poet than Yeats recommended this egregious act. In "Self-Reflection," he writes,

           They abandoned me, so I learned to forget myself,
           which allowed me to bathe in my inspired soul.


           No one who's content with himself ever needed help,
           unless he happened to be in a accident and needed to be carried to the hospital.

We don't learn who "they" are, and in a sense, it doesn't matter. They equals not-me. Walser is not making social commentary. At the same time, the speaker of these poems often loosens the noose of self-reflection long enough to feel the pang of desire, of which he never seems completely free. Unfortunately, desire often gives way to the fantasy of fulfillment and becomes, simply, misery:

           I've waited so long for sweet
           talk and greetings, only one sound.
           Now I"m afraid no talk or sound,
           only fog setting in in excess.
           Whatever was singing and hiding in the dark:
           Misery, sweeten now my grave path.



           I carry that longing that will
           never die, like that meadow dies
           stiff and dead from the mist.
           You do see me crossing it, full of dread?

                               ("Do You See")

This in turn, as the perspective widens, invites the Weltanshaung of the title poem:

           How small life is here
           and how big nothingness.

                               ("Oppressive Light")

But there is something having to do with brevity that keeps the scope of nothingness from playing the heavy, and the poet, in the studiousness of his self-involvement, his smallness, somehow derives a kind of happiness that is all the more joyous for being framed in the chilled language of Kafka:

           The vast evening gray
           is not just the sky.
           A vast evening gray
           covers the entire world.
           The snow is silent as evening.
           The green is beautiful as evening,
           the trees, too,
           and houses, too.
           And smoke rises from
           the houses into evening air
           filled with happiness for me.

                               ("Evening (II)")

It's the brevity of Follain and Prevert, and its general air of understatement and reliance on generic modifiers that leaves plenty of room for readerly projection—which may be the point. Walser doesn't so much actively engage the reader as provide a screen upon which his or her own subjectivity comes into play and completes the circuit. But just as it seems the poem magically appears via intersubjective consensus, the poet disappears again behind serviceable but blanket images. And just as his disappearance throws some doubt on the reliability of our own subjective response, our ability to organize the experience of others with our own rules, so it returns us to the push-pull of the poems' mechanisms. Walser sometimes plays with his own experience as if it were hearsay, as in "And Left":

           He quietly waved his hat
           and left, they say of the wayfarer.
           It tore the leaves off the tree
           and left they say of the harsh autumn.
           Smiling, she shared her mercy
           and left, they say of her Majesty.
           At night it knocked on the door
           and left, they say of heartbreak.
           Crying, he pointed at his heart
           and left, they say of the poor man.

Submerged and yet in motion, Walser seems sometimes content to pool his resources in both generalities and rumor, generic rather than specific, a straw man rather than the specific person. He even resorts to the hoary "He who..." format, beloved of nobody since the Bible but Woody Allen:

           Presumably no one minds
           that the woods are greening again,
           that meadows are full of grass,
           that birds are singing in the trees,
           that violets are blooming from the dirt.
           Hundreds and thousands of green leaves!~
           Spring is a field marshal
           who conquers the world,
           and no one holds a grudge.


           Only he
           who truly loves achieves a song.
           Kissing and dreaming.—Nearby,
           with a sinister face, life's gravity
           is standing by a wall; and whoever
           walks past it, must tremble.

                               ("Spring (1)")

And yet, the sense of detachment that goes along with such rhetorical tactics allows him to weather a host of emotional atmospheres, ranging from delight to dread. In "Faint-Hearted," his short-lined quatrains come across like an austere Dickinson:

           Silent grief
           visited me,
           I lowered myself
           into its chill,

           I felt there
           not fear, not haste,
           only a heavy burden.
           Grief led me

           further on
           through a dark sorrow,
           until this striding
           returned to the light

           I bade softly:
           keep me—
           but it moved on
           to a new journey.

The diffident comme ci, comme ca is also a defense: it keeps self-destruction at arm's length because—as he might have said—he who wants it, also doesn't. Grief appeals to the evenly divided heart just half of the time, but a poem, where time is in abeyance, glows in the light of contradiction. In "After Drawings by Daumier," he writes,

           A man sits in a pleasure boat, when
           suddenly a steamer heads towards him,
           he shouts, "Oh dear, je suis perdu."
           Many have believed themselves lost
           but luckily in the end they were not."

These contradictions also go by the name of paradox and ambivalence. Situating the poem within their contraries, the poet when challenged is in a position to say, with Blake and Whitman, that only repetition is a fit reply. But there is that saving element, that carrying of opposed energies, past-and-present, presence-and-absence, worth-and-futility, that somehow justifies the man in his picking and choosing. If something can be both chosen and not-chosen, then the perennial death-where-is-thy-sting boast is a real proposition. Art takes that idea and with it, enters into its own commerce with time. In "October," he writes,

           Flowers must indeed wither,
           people too grow older,    
           and that's how it should be,
           yet I think, and you may be
           thinking the same,
           that there exists a new bloom,
           and a former bloom, that follows
           you through past experiences
           and never dwindles, because it
           lies behind you.

Walser's sly complicity ("you may be thinking the same") is his replacement for readerly intimacy, perhaps. It also gives him tacit permission to stay within the borders of subjectivity that his other poems have specified or implied. In "Gloss," he writes, "When you're in the midst of the essential, where else can you go? I don't miss out on the basics, even when I'm being a bit trivial." Those "basics" may strike some as special pleading, but in fact they most assuredly include the paradoxes he took to his bosom, as he seemed to do that Christmas day in 1956, when he was discovered, eyes open, lying face up in a snowy field. What he saw before the cold world closed over him was the subject of this book.

[Disclaimer: I should note that the book under review is published by the same publisher of my upcoming School of The Americas.]


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