REVIEW: Wallless Space by Ernst Meister


by Douglas Piccinnini

In a consciousness claimed by the brutal expressions of war coursing through the first half of the 20th century, the late poems of the German poet Ernst Meister (1911- 1979) embody a torment dedicated to life’s inevitable conclusion. Though less concerned with the social actors of calamity, Meister instead interrogates the invisible order that operates on being.

In Wallless Space, Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick translate the final work of Meister’s informal trilogy (Of Entirety Say the Sentence, In Time’s Rift, and Wallless Space).

With precision, Foust and Frederick intone Meister’s philosophical and poetic torque, dialing in on the underlying struggle: the elusive, expanding surplus of time; the baffling dissonance keyed into life.

The epistemological sparks of this collection glint around the darkness of dying—of death—and therefore, awaken a reader to questions concerning the causality in and of life.

Where the cross is
of the hourglass,
lightning takes root.

Here at this point,
which sees
how you stand,

all time unfolds.

Meister’s poems tell the story of our known and unknown universe and, of the perplexing inclusivity awareness allows for, as “all time unfolds.”

The poems meet at the “point, / which sees/ how you stand.” Thus, we arrive at a moment of profound presence where we are and, “[w]here the cross is / of the hourglass”— where time seems to happen.

Meister’s poems essay an essential gesture to toward understanding. As history is real: History in the pointing, history in the blunting of meaning and, history in the honing of meaninglessness.

It’s been a long time, it seems,
that you’ve waited
to get into what is fleeting,
for only now are you there.

Now you ask
what that was,
which right now

It is perhaps disorienting to think to make meaning beyond meaning-inside-of-knowing. It is an effort that seems to move with itself as,

Spinning itself
spins around.
As do you, looking
out the windows
of the house.

A sense of helplessness haunts Meister’s Wallless Space: to have a wall is—in a sense—to know boundary, that you are “looking / out the windows / of the house.” For Meister, the superficial structure of knowing is bound in what we know. This paradox twists on itself as “[s]pinning itself / spins around.” Boundless, Meister confronts Stevens’ nothingness that is not there and the nothingness that is—and yet, they are one.

An elemental and an eternal reconstitution exists at the crosshairs of time unfolding: That time appears to unfold. That we think we know this there and that not there.

The drama of the intellectual void and the actual void comingle, as the feeling of nothingness is itself nothingness—should such a feeling portray both metaphysical and physical truth.

Thus the actual nothingness in and of itself contains attributes—symptoms that beget description. In Foust’s own poem “A Dream-Nothingness Is Spread Over The Actual Nothingness,” (which borrows from German novelist Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil) this tension is “[o]verheard / in our void.

At once placed in the eternal unfolding moment and, in high contempt of its physical and metaphysical implications, “turning / and swiveling, / one leaf is / hanging / from winter’s tree.” As Foust and Frederick assert, “Meister’s great achievement […] is his celebration of language’s power as both product of and protection against the existential void.” This void contains multitudes and,

The one who understands
is the digger,
understanding the

grave. The
peak of powerlessness
is down there.

“Power” is not being placed in the grave. “[P]owerlessness / is down there,” in the grave. The place of power, where Meister makes sense of senselessness, is on the page.

You sustaining
four, you
corners of region!

I stand
between air,
pondering my breath,

while up and over my head
space lifts itself
with innumerable heavens.

Again, in their introduction, Foust and Frederick suggest that “[t]he four corners of the everyday piece of paper double as the corners of a more expansive region,” citing then Meister’s allusion to the book of Revelation: “I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth.”

The vessel for making meaning is limited to the formal elements in the known world. But also the divinity of space—that which is ruled by something nonmaterial, and unseen in the regions of knowing. Just as the corners of a map mark a physical knowing, the corners of Meister’s page come to mark both a physical and metaphysical knowing.

In Wallless Space, the nothingness that hangs on everything descends from the “empyreal,” the highest order of ‘heavens.’ Yet theologically, in an absence of God, the drapery of and lack thereof presents a teleological stalemate.

To live is conversion as to die is conversion also. Likened to Dickinson, “This world is not Conclusion.” Between eternities—before and after life—is life and its enduring gridlock of doubts and certainties jerk through consciousness.

Often in mid-riddle, in recitation, in rending transformation, Meister’s poems perform magnitudes on a small scale. Translation is like possession, and together Foust and Frederick offer Meister’s tongue to an Anglophone audience. The anti- metaphysical lesson in Wallless Space is to enjoy the surface and sounds of these poems again and again, in spite of their heaving weight.

…on whose head
lies a shadow
and on that shadow

a stone
and on that stone
a shadow

Wallless Space is available from Wave Books

Douglas Piccinnini is the author of the forthcoming book of poems, Blood Oboe (Omindawn, 2015) and a novella, Story Book (The Cultural Society, 2014), as well as numerous chapbooks, including Flag (Well Greased Press, 2013) and ∆ (TPR Press, 2013) — a bilingual book of poems with Cynthia Gray and Camilo Roldán. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Antioch Review, Aufgabe, So & So, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Lana Turner, Vanitas, Verse, Vlak  — among others. He is a winner of the 2014 SLS Contest for Poetry, judged by Dorothea Lasky.

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