‘Of Entirety Say the Sentence’ poignantly reflects on metaphysics

Meister
Wave Books/Courtesy

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Ernst Meister’s “Of Entirety Say the Sentence” begins with a metaphysical reflection: “Am I alive? / I ask my room, — / I ask / the space in the expanse / and lastly: / Are you, space, / what I know?”

Meister compacts a meditation on the nature of space, nothingness and our interaction with the two in the work’s sparse, dense lines. This philosophical inquiry threads through the work in a series of short poems translated from German by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick.

Published by Wave Books, “Of Entirety Say the Sentence” completes an informal trilogy of translations, which works backward from the last book Meister wrote before his death in 1979, “In Time’s Rift” (2012). Like the previous volumes of the series, “In Time’s Rift” and “Walless Space” (2014), “Of Entirety Say the Sentence” is elegantly translated to English in perhaps the first serious project to bring Meister’s work to the Anglophonic reader.

Also like the previous books in the series, Foust and Frederick preface “Of Entirety Say the Sentence” with an excellent and illuminating introduction. This particular volume’s introduction discusses the historical conversations Meister engages in, as well as his interest in the capabilities and limits of language — as Foust and Frederick say, “Meister does not relish negativity as a means or end in his poems; rather, he celebrates language’s ability to reveal reality for what it is: that which escapes unitary representation.”

Though Meister’s work with language is fascinating in itself, much of the pleasure of reading this book comes in observing the ways in which Meister’s exploration of language informs and shapes his metaphysical project. Perhaps the most philosophically ambitious book in the series, “Of Entirety Say the Sentence” does bear traces of Meister’s much discussed interest in mortality and existentialism. But at its core, the book seems to be more in dialogue with metaphysical topics that concern nothingness as the base state of existence, thus necessitating the impossibility of creation, change and space.

Meister ruminates on a similar thread of inquiry in “Of Entirety Say the Sentence.” The paradox is this: If the world may not exist, why do we think it does, and what sense can be made of it? How do we navigate space, the world and the complexity of embodied existence? This inquiry is reflected in the first lines quoted above and in many of Meister’s poems, as in these lines:

“What more / could there have been than / such blossoming / in nothingness, which cannot / be a nothing, but is much more, / tangibly, something desired. // Await yourself / as that which was augured, / from water, the cradle — / another nothing.”

Meister’s metaphysical inquiry is wrapped in gorgeous poetic language, elegant in its simplicity and weight. With its sparse, difficult syntax and rather cryptic logic, each poem is a puzzle — in which much of the work the reader must put into the reading is to unravel the tightly coiled logic binding the thought. In the often colorless and difficult language, however, Meister embeds surprising moments of beautiful imagery, “blossoming / in nothingness.”

Positioned parallel to the opaque, imageless language that pervades much of Meister’s work, these sudden moments of lush image throw into relief the exact difficulties of reading the other language — these bursts of image illuminate the demarcation of what can and cannot be visualized, what things language can represent in a sensible way. Meister’s metaphysical project thus becomes unusually intertwined with his work in language. Implicitly, through the form of the poems, another question is added to his inquiry: How can language address or help us make sense of being?

In “Of Entirety Say the Sentence,” Meister doesn’t necessarily argue a point or offer an answer — instead, his poems create a space of reflection. Within the space and structure of the poem, Meister isolates parts of entirety and puts them into parataxic relation, so the parts are thinkable in relation to one another. The thought is thus generative rather than analytical — and this distinguishes Meister’s work from pure philosophy, into the realm of the poetic.

Lindsay Choi covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].