R. Kolewe’s Afterletters is a beautiful appropriative collection of poems. Working with the threads of letters and creative works from Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, and inspired by their correspondence—which lasted over two decades, from the late 1940s into the 1960—Kolewe creates anew the hope that one encounters in hopelessness, the knowing which one maintains through unknowing, and all the erasable and dissolvable things of language and the world: snow, chalk, breath, words themselves.
This small book is gorgeous shades of white, grey, sky, star, and though one does not find a storm of roses within, the reader will see a few vital blooms come up—the poppies rear and then bow their heads of and in remembrance: “Begin with poppies which / elsewhere, might be forgetting, / be fire, wounds, more than red.” (8) (Bachmann died a month after burns from a house fire took her to hospital; this was complicated by opiate withdrawal). This is how it was for Bachmann and Celan post-WWII: always a reconciling of the past with the future in an exhausting but imperative attempt at a now.
Kolewe’s writing teeters on the fine edge of a loosening and tightening of lines and phrasing. If Kolewe’s background in physics and engineering have offered a precision to the transplanting of Celan and Bachmann’s words into his own works, then I am glad he came to writing late(r). Afterletters strikes a balance of Bachmann’s more reverent tone and Celan’s adamant questioning. Punctuation and form take on both Bachmannian and Celanian uses and shape.
Like Celan, Kolewe joins and hybridizes words intuitively yet skillfully. The first poem in the book offers us this: ”Hide silence-mad in other lives. / Say there’s living yes / pared down here.” (7). “Wordshadows” follow us throughout the 35 poems: the haunting of very solid words still prone to disappear. Traces. Still there, but only in vestigial presence.
Bachmann and Celan were both recipients of the prestigious German-language literary Georg Büchner Prize (he in 1960, for which he wrote his famed Meridian speech; she in 1964). Both drifted away in disheartened response from Heidegger. WWII offered a different kind of being thrown, one which immediately placed one in death, not life. And one from which both Bachmann and Celan had a migratory response, and a heartened search for language and place (often one and the same): “How strange that would be, to live / in a place.” (44)
I was struck by the beautiful ways in which Kolewe employed apophasis; his did not feel like a stolen thing from Celan, but an homage to the smooth and poignant ways in which negation can so ably bring to light:
“Now that longing is an excuse. / That living through is not the same as surviving. / That seeing is not the same as witnessing. / Speaking not testimony. / Hearing not empathy. / Writing not engagement. // That not is not enough. // That performance that tragedy that mourning. // That –“ (45)
As with any attempt to find ways in which to truly survive event, time becomes a metronome by which one tries to sing their songs: shifting tempos, finding consistent rhythms, organizing the eternal into graspable moments, knowing that the finitude of our time must be situated in the always, which is not ours to keep. The most breathtaking and breathkeeping line in Afterletters for me is this: "I didn’t bring enough always” (29). Enough. Not is not enough. Not enough always. Never enough. To have prepared for what already came. To prepare for what is to come. For in Bachmann’s words, “Harder days are coming.”
Celan said “no one bears witness for the witness.” To say that Kolewe’s work may be a delayed witnessing for these two witnesses may be going too far; or perhaps this is exactly what it is. Bringing the wor(l)ds of two outstanding witnesses back together again is not a simple task. It is a heavy responsibility, and one that Kolewe has taken on with both heart and hand. Both seem appropriately heavy and light in good measure and time. It is a rare book that gives you a new song: that opens its mouth to release the soft melodic vowels from the constraints of the consonants, which must exist in order to shape them and grant freedom. Celan wrote, in “No More Sand Art”: “your song, what does it know? / Deepinsnow, / Eepinow, / E-i-o.” Hard and soft sounds are coming. Song is coming. Song will meet you. Celan and Bachmann met in Vienna, but poetry was their real meeting place. Let this book be yours.
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a media and communications doctoral candidate at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.