Missing Witness by Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translated by Bradley Schmidt
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015, $12
Reviewed by Sara Aslagson-Sahar
When I picked up the chapbook Missing Witness by Ulrke Almut Sandig, translated from the original German by Bradley Schmidt, the first thing my hands noticed was the texture of the binding. Missing Witness is bound by book binding string, which is tied in a knot in the center of the book. This little bit of texturing appealed to me as a person who likes to fiddle with objects when reading. Being able to gently move the bound string as I read made it a much more tactile and positive experience. It also made me curious about the press’ printing process because I knew that every chapbook printed would have needed to be hand tied.
The Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP) has a very comprehensive and informative website. My curiosity regarding their binding processes was assuaged as I perused it. In their Mission Statement, they explain that UDP’s “books, chapbooks, artist’s books, broadsides, and periodicals often contain handmade elements, calling attention to the labor and history of bookmaking.” UDP is also sustainable, reusing material when they can. I believe this is seen when the chapbook is first opened. The first and last page of this chapbook are made out of a single sheet of graphing paper, which does not appear to serve a particular literary purpose. Therefore leading me to believe that it was used out of sustainability.
One technique that was used which I had never seen before is that for most of the poems the titles of the poems were within the stanzas. The only indication that the reader has about what is the title and what is not is the fact that the words that make up the title are bolded. Sometimes, it was the first words that had the bolding and others it was lines in the middle of the poem, such as in “static buzz”:
the sea is made of straw at night. every attempt
to spin gold from it succeeds. there are loudspeakers
on the steps to the bar producing static buzz
a couple sits in front of them and swaps
impressions of the south. the sky above unfolds (18)
Above is the beginning of the poem and the title is not given until the third line. This was a unique stylistic choice. Some poems did have the title formatted traditionally at the top, but not most.
A poem that sticks out in my mind is “solar eclipse”. “solar eclipse” is the only poem in the book that takes up two pages. It’s formatting seems to create the ebb and flow of a solar eclipse. The poems’ lines create a sense of movement, as if the poem is the Moon crossing between the Sun and the Earth, and continuing on. I am curious to see how this poem would appear in its original language of German. Did Schmidt create the movement, or did Sandig create it intentionally and Schmidt had to fit his translation within that guideline? Either way, it is really an excellent use of word placement.
While a variety of the other poems in the book seem to take up two pages, the reality is that they are two separate poems having a conversation with each other, such as the poems “the russian woods” and “the curtains”. “the russian woods” talks about the reality of the military in the area. Schmidt’s translation says:
the russian woods were what we whispered about,
where we didn’t go, … (10)
These starting lines begin to illustrate the idea that these woods were not a positive place to be, and that area was not the best one to be in later. This is further cemented in the readers mind with the provocative final lines:
went on to the fish pond, to the sun, and swapped
badges with children, red and sickle for friendship.
whoever did that didn’t come back for
a long time. we waited in vain. (10)
These lines show that the hesitation in the author to not go into the woods was justified, for the soldiers felt comfortable going anywhere. When they traded their badges they were enlisting these children into their army and their ways, to possibly never be seen by the locals again.
This is a scary consequence, which is continued in “the curtains” on the next page. What is shown so provocatively is a scene where six people are redeploying and the town is hiding away inside their curtains, not being friendly:
stood guard so no one joined in / no mother
came out of the house with bread / and said hello, we
stood at the window. we didn’t want to GO AWAY.
peering, what was happening. on this side of the of the curtains, (11)
At the end of the poem the viewers are asked to run away with the six people and the viewer is referenced to in Russian as a friend. That friend is asked if they have ever been to the sea. In conversation with the previous poem, this poem definitely seems to continue the idea of enlistment. It shows the town’s wariness and hesitance of these people who want to take their townsfolk away.
Throughout the entire book the language is consistently creating intense imagery and inciting thought. Everything within this book is chosen carefully and with a purpose. From the ebb and flow of the poems to the bolding and punctuation to the word choice. The string that ties this book together wraps up a package that is thoughtful and well presented. Sandig is a brilliant poet and Schmidt is an excellent translator. Their combination, created a book of poetry that is a tantalizing read filled with stories.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Sara Aslagson-Sahar is a book enthusiast, writer, and poet. She is a Co-Editor of Sculpt: A Literary Journal of Young Adult Fiction, which finds, reads, and reports on literature that covers mature topics about the struggles young adults face.