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Unmapped Geographies A Review of

by Charles Sweetman

A Language Without Geography0-7734-0383-01999New York

In 1997, Rainer Schulte spoke to the American Literary Translators Association commenting about how his own work as a translator affects the way he interprets the world. "Translators are always willing to embrace the other, to venture into new landscapes. . . . Translators are eager to get to the next corner where the geography of words has changed and new ways of seeing and feeling rise at the horizon." This way of seeing is everywhere present in Schulte’s latest volume of poetry, A Language Without Geography. The translator’s habit of mind has Schulte restlessly peering around the next corner, past fixed ways of seeing, into the mysteries that hide beneath the surface of words. "To resurrect the poem," the poet tells us on the first page of the volume, "I must kill / the comfort of convenience / I must kill / myself." More than a declaration of artistic impersonality, the dictum warns against relying on habit-personal, cultural, or historical-when composing. The warning guides the reader of his volume as well, for resurrecting the poem is as much a feat of readership, one feels, as authorship.

A Language Without Geography is about the space between self and other where language becomes the medium of translating the encounter, making meaning from it. The recurrent imagery of water, rivers, and oceans often suggest the fluid realm of the present moment, where self and other meet, where the opportunity to create new forms arises. The poem "Maturing" is a good example of the process by which the poet arrives at this space.

One day my words

reversed the river’s stream.

I exploded within myself

I gave leaves to the tree

I gave words to my lips

I gave hunger to my thoughts

I rose from myself

and stepped into the word

that flowed from my blood.

The world began

to circle around my words.

The poem, particularly the last stanza, recalls Wallace Stevens, whose optimistic embrace of the freedoms that come with subjectivity shares much with Schulte’s delight in the individual’s power of creation and reconfiguration. Beginning with the idea that the poet’s very words alter the flow of experience, the poem offers a brief myth of creation. Here, words do not merely name things already in existence but bring them into being. The last stanza invites us to recall the world of conventional creation myths, but undermines conventional expectations by asserting the power of the poet. Importantly for Schulte, the force of the explosion like a volcanic eruption which changes the make-up of the land, or an earthquake which alters the flow of rivers emanates from the flow of blood more than from the mind. That is, creation for Schulte begins and remains tied to biological impulses, our physical being’s connection with the world. Our sensual experience guides the translation process through language, helping one make fluid a medium fraught with cliches and rigid symbols.

The depiction of "The Slimy Minister" condemns the profanity of words used without sensual harmony. "Empty in himself" the minister uses "Bible words / printed symbols" to drive "into air / nails that bend under the / pressure of hammers." The assault with sharp, inflexible words contrasts with the effusive image of creation in poems like "Maturing." Without a fullness of being from which his own vocabulary might come, the minister’s precast symbols can only bend as reality resists the pressure of his own insistence, resulting in a failed communion for his audience. By contrast, the poet is more collaborative, aware of flux, as Schulte writes in a later poem: "I spoke my language / and with my hands / I imprinted / delicate rhythms / on the flow of time."

Schulte also shares with Stevens an affinity for the motif of music. The final section of the volume, entitled "Interior with Music," begins with the lines "Between water and moon / the night kept singing." And indeed, the earth is always opening up to Schulte’s attentive ear. For him, listening is never a passive activity. "Listen," he writes,

when all noises

around you have died.

Listen to the pulse

under your feet

a stone,

a flower,

a tree

a drop of water in an

invisible root. Pour yourself into the earth

until its fire

runs through your blood.

This passage exemplifies Schulte’s collection in its clarity of image, simple syntax, and the perfect rhythm of its line breaks, but also in its address of the reader. One of many such moments, the poet, motivated by a generous enthusiasm rather than a didactic impulse, invites us to listen as he narrates the moment of his own discovery. Listening with feet-a pun that elides the body’s receptivity with poetic feet-the poet becomes the drop of water seeping into subterranean realms. The process reveals the way the earth’s music is made audible for translation. It is a process of feeling, of allowing one’s senses to pick up the delicate harmony between our own pulse and the pulses of the world beneath our feet, beneath our words.

One of several short meditations interspersed through the volume reads, "In books / we look for the life / we have not lived." Simple, yet suggestive, this epigraph applies to Schulte’s own book. Ever the translator, Schulte brings us the life we have not lived, the foreign, the strange, what is hidden underneath familiar surfaces, and enables us to see and hear its shapes and sounds, its new geography.