After Nature, by W.G. Sebald

I’ve never been able to ‘get into’ poetry before. Now I’m thinking I’ve just never been introduced to the good stuff, because this book has really grabbed me and made me want to seek out more like it.

The book contains three prose poems, or rather, three parts. Part one is about the 16th century painter Matthias Grünewald, of which very little is known. The poem gives an imagined (though based on the little facts we do know) personal, close view of the painter’s life, ending with his death. In the same vein, the second part is about Georg Steller, an 18th century German botanist. Both figures seemed to be pioneers in their area, but to have difficulty finding their place in the natural world.

The third part is an autobiography, in the same way most of Sebald’s books are, told by a maybe/maybe not real version of the author himself. This final part struck me as Sebald trying to face his own mortality. Though this is the first literary work Sebald ever wrote, it was not published until after his death, and that it comes ‘from beyond the grave’ so to speak, in my opinion adds to the potency

This final, first person part put a different twist on the first two (as happens in almost every Sebald book I’ve read, the end changes everything before it) and made me think that ‘After Nature’–instead of referring to the increase of technology and man’s dominance, and replacing of nature itself– could instead mean After Life. Man is part of nature, so for us to be beyond nature is to be beyond life. I think this could be the connecting theme, as each person in the book not only has trouble finding their place, but ultimately faces death by the end of each section.

I haven’t stopped thinking about this since I read it a few weeks ago, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. I don’t know if there are other poems out there like it, but if there are, I’m going to find them! And if not, maybe I’ll have to try to write them!

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