The Bars of Atlantis: Selected Essays
by Durs Grünbein

Reviewed by Chris Brunt


Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010   |   352 pages

It’s possible that you overlooked this item amid the recent rush of news, but while the world watched revolutions in the Middle East, the Japanese tsunami, and a Libyan civil war, a team of scientists claimed to have discovered the site of the vanished civilization of Atlantis. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford locates the ruins a few miles north of the Spanish port city of Cadiz, in a marsh overlooking strawberry fields. In the 360 BCE dialogue Timaios, our earliest extant source, Plato locates the mythic island between the Pillars of Heracles at the mouth of the Mediterranean, which scholars have long identified as the stone formations of Jebel Musa in Morocco and the Rock of Gibraltar. The team led by Dr. Freund has announced, not without controversy, that their dig is consistent with the clues from antiquity up to present research.

It’s doubtful this news was overlooked by poet, essayist, and translator Durs Grünbein, one of the most celebrated writers in Germany today. Cosmopolitan in sensibility and temperament, he is originally from Dresden in the former East Germany but has lived in Berlin since 1985. He came of age as an artist after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has since been hailed as a leading voice of the reunified German nation. In addition to his essays, Grünbein—not yet 50 years old—has published twelve volumes of poetry, an opera libretto, and several translations of Greek tragedies.

The essays here range from memoir to meditations on the intersection of biology and literature to formal essays on classicism, painting, philosophy, and the art and craft of the poet. It is an unerringly serious book, not overly dense but so fraught with erudition, abstract argumentation, insight, and feeling that the reader may find his endurance tested at times. It’s the graduate seminar in a literary market of breezy undergrad surveys. And as such, it rewards the persistent and studious.

Grünbein doesn’t traffic in much first-person colorization or surface humor. This is not “creative nonfiction.” His prose is studied and earnest, yet the quality of his thought takes on its own kind of personality, and one not overly austere. Helen Vendler cites the “cool, formal elegance” of his poems, and this tag may extend to his nonfiction as well. He sustains a dreamy academic’s monologue in these pages, scattering little gems of astonishing insight and the kind of verbal swordsmanship that only a poet can command.

“Poems are pauses in dying,” he writes in “Accented Time,” one of the volume’s finest essays, a virtuosic look at music and poetry’s sibling rivalry from a classicist’s perspective. Later in the piece, he gives us the aphoristic, “Poems are vessels for the metaphysical,” and, a little later, “Literature always stands naked before time.” Flashes of lyric splendor may in fact be more abundant in Bars of Atlantis than hard-driving argument, but this essay and several others are strong sites of both.

Perhaps due to his refined, almost mannered voice, the essays have a tendency to collapse into one another. There is a (title-appropriate) watery quality to Grünbein’s essays, an abstract cast of mind in that even while his diction is concrete and precise, the objects of his attention have a fluid opacity. It is difficult to say what many of these essays are about. Ultimately, they seem to be about themselves, as the sentences are about themselves as sentences: finely wrought commotions of language swimming together in loose affiliations across the pages.

Style and intellect notwithstanding, the prized core of Idea remains buried in many of these essays, ever-submerged like Atlantis itself, dimly viewed through the pooling, billowing layers of Western art and thought that Grünbein summons forth.

Any genius has his signal eccentricity, and Grünbein’s is a scholarly obsession with philosophy’s usurpation of poetry since Plato’s day. He casts this, repeatedly and absolutely straight-faced, as Western culture’s original sin, a betrayal that resonates through Kant, Nietzsche, and Freud, and can be linked all the way to the atrocities of 20th-century fascism. Indeed, Grünbein’s erudition is beyond question and almost hyper-active. He thinks in a fluent dialectic of the great Greek and Roman poets; Dante; and the German canonic roster of Goethe, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Holderlin.

When discussing his own art, the mainstream contemporary poet often greets the public with an apologetic wink, a self-deprecating remark to put everyone, including himself, at ease: I know it’s silly that I still write these precious little things, (they’re sort of like a Twitter feed!) but…. Grünbein seems unaware of this. He often sounds like Coleridge minus the all caps and exclamation points. It’s refreshing, this reprieve from the “status of poetry” lament, and one wonders if his experience on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall has freed him of the contemporary poet’s reflexive irony with regard to his role in the polis.

As the ancient Greeks made no distinction between geometry and spirituality, so we in our times may see the divide between art and science begin to vanish the closer we get to the frontier of human creativity. Grünbein seems to be already out there by himself, ahead of the noisy mobbing rest of us, coolly at work on the new mythos. And as the oldest myths become the new science, we may take some comfort in the abiding voice of the poet who, as Grünbein writes of Dante, tells of “the moment when myth and history meet in a sort of changing of the guard, a nodal point, marked, as ever, by rhyme.”

In a time of both shrill alarums and too-real tragedy, Grünbein’s cool, gleaming prose is a throwback to an earlier, belletristic age, here collected in a gorgeous translation by Michael Hofmann, John Crutchfield, and Andrew Shields. Recalling Umberto Eco’s essays in its depth of knowledge and esoteric range of concerns, and Rilke in its supple, lofty tone, Bars of Atlantis is a major contribution to the ever-diminishing field of contemporary aesthetics.

In March, the Japanese tsunami claimed the lives of thousands of people, and the damage to the nation’s nuclear infrastructure has put many more in peril. The preceding earthquake shifted sections of the Japanese coastline by as much as 2.4 meters, and shortened the day by a few milliseconds by altering the tilt of the Earth. Certainly these geologic changes will lead to new discoveries for scientists and researchers in East Asia. And still, those scientists and researchers, like their counterparts half a world over combing through the Spanish marsh, are but men and women who grieve for the lost. Ashes for breakfast, then, and essays like these, and art’s strange succor as the mysteries unfold.

Durs Grünbein’s poems, in Michael Hofmann’s fleet-footed and lyrical translation, recently appeared in English for the first time as Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems (2005), receiving high praise from the likes of John Ashbery, Helen Vendler, and Adam Zagajewski.

Christopher Brunt is a poet and fiction writer at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His MFA is from Syracuse.

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