Thaddeus Rutkowski Reviews
Out of the Dust
by Klaus Merz
OUT OF THE DUST
By Klaus Merz
Translated by Marc Vincenz
Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2014
$15.00, 94 pp, Paper
“Hard Into the Wind,” the first poem in this collection by the Swiss poet Klaus Merz, says something about experience and focus. The speaker mentions activities he hasn’t ever participated in, activities that may require skill or nerve. He then goes on to say what he has done, which is to zero in on his “nearest,” and by doing so see into her past:
Never played golf and never
billiards, never trained a dog.
Never steered a heavy motorbike
or sailed hard into the wind.
And sometimes the temerity
to insist on a word
like cloud or forest
But always more frequently
I see within my nearest,
all the way into her
The poem moves from a listing of athletic or physical pursuits to a highlighting of a moment in writing. It takes boldness, the speaker says, to insist on a word, and sometimes that boldness escaped him. This is not so important, though, when compared to the main point here, which involves seeing “into” a person. That’s how I interpret “my nearest”—as a person loved, a life partner.
This opening poem sets the tone for the book. What is to come is a series of carefully described, closely examined moments that concern people and places that may or may not be familiar to the reader. (I’ve spent about six weeks in Switzerland and am only slightly familiar with Aarau, Merz’s birthplace.)
The poet displays his minimalistic approach in a poem called “Three Short Stories.” Each of these “stories” consists of one word; but each of the words is loaded with suggestion:
I want to make the one-word stories into sentences: The wind rose and blew harder. A hare was caught in a trap that used a lever. We heard a signal from a bell. These are my interpretations; the poet doesn’t reveal his own. In this sense, the poem works like a Zen koan; it is a meditation on stories that are not stories, but are more than single words.
Merz develops his nano-approach in a poem called “Rome,” which appears in the fourth section of the book, titled “Involvements.” (The book has five short sections.) Here, the speaker becomes (literally) connected to his classical surroundings:
While waking up
the first glance falls upon
one’s own marble arm.
It’s startling to see oneself as a part of the local statuary, yet this is a likely effect of looking at carved stones and then, through a half-sleep, seeing the resemblance to one’s own (presumably light-skinned) arm. Does this poem say something about the sweep of history and one’s place in it? Does it say something about the temporariness of life and the permanence of art? I think so.
Many of the poems in this collection suggest stories without details. “Expedition,” for example, is about an unnamed traveler:
Went in circles
for weeks, always
during afternoons. Yesterday
he came to the gate,
he could now
visualize it again,
out of dust.
I see this traveler as someone who doesn’t cover much ground. He makes rounds like a mail carrier or a delivery person, though we don’t know his occupation. The poem is written on the occasion of the traveler’s stopping at a gate, perhaps the speaker’s gate. There, he makes a statement about men formed from dust. The title of the book is Out of the Dust, and it might be fair to say that the poem provides a doorway into a larger theme—the idea of creation or rebirth. The phrase “out of the dust” reverses the idea of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (from the Book of Common Prayer), because it is about new life, not death. Still, death cannot be far from one’s mind when one is contemplating dust.
In his translation, Marc Vincenz presents these German-language poems in clear, direct English. A poet himself, Vincenz is sensitive to Merz’s intentions, and with this project allows a new audience to experience the poems.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the innovative novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York.