If you can’t afford the time or money to travel this season, read Albrecht Dürer and Me by David Zieroth. But pack your intellect. This is no whirlwind tour of Central Europe. As the epigraph by Goethe promises, travel can change the reflective person “to the very marrow” of her bones.
The settings of Zieroth’s thirty-five poems are satisfyingly specific, zooming into cemeteries, galleries, concert halls and castles in Vienna, Salzburg, Trieste and elsewhere, most haunted by intriguing personalities—van Dyck and Dürer; Mahler and Bruckner; and Rilke, Joyce and Auden to name a few. During this preternatural voyage, we relive the heroic wonderment of a Byron—unconventional, moody and occasionally affectionate. By Galileo’s residence in Italy, the sight of “small dangling lemons / not quite globes, not quite suns” inspires the “starry ideas” gleaming in many of the poems.
The Old World we’re exposed to might be familiar territory. But in the opening “Viennese Shoes” all fears of cliché (or sanitized history) are immediately dispensed with: “yes, any change of place forces up generalizations / rife and ready,” and we understand the poet’s eye is discerning and humble. “I know really / very little” he admits, then evokes Freud’s boots, Hitler’s shoes and an Ottoman “tapping / his magnificent Asian slippers on these stones.” And for those of us who can’t think of Austria without considering its complicity in the 1938 Nazi occupation and the subsequent deportation of Jews to concentration camps, “Train Ride” acknowledges old boxcars “of faded wood now silenced…”
The emotionality ramps up as the narrator’s distant Austrian heritage becomes explicit. In “Armoury at Graz” he confesses this heritage is “far enough away that I do not feel / its grasp upon me though I know if pressed / I would find its war-light flickering within.” The seemingly random itinerary clarifies into one driven by experience rather than geography, and the act of travel becomes dislocation “so that, here, closer to the village / of my forefathers, its dust / might enter me…”
With the title poem celebrating the genius of Dürer, the collection develops into an ekphrastic collage of ruminations delivered by the narrator-in-transit to us, his silent doppelgangers, in shared, often sacred moments before a painting, a statue or in a concert. In “Self-Portrait Nude” the poet stands “in front of a tortured portrait” to ponder his father’s near death from influenza as a young man working in Detroit and seeks protection from his “own age’s plagues…and those / eventualities from within rising up in blood / and phlegm, ushered along by semen and soul”—the latter zeugma powerfully closing the poem.
The scaffolding supporting Zieroth’s poetry is invisible yet present in the minimalist punctuation, attention to form and stanza-length, the careful building of images and ideas to a dramatic conclusion. All senses are engaged, including sound. Take the percussionist in Mahler’s Fifth who “hurls his / hands together in a whammo khurshliiiiing!” of his cymbals. And the recurring metaphor of dust aptly conjures the lingering traces of the past, history and death.
At the end of the book, after all this mastery, you might wonder: what transformation has the journey wrought? If there’s no eureka moment, the cumulative insights gained in this travelogue resonate in a minor key and deeply. During a concert featuring a polyphonic Bruckner composition, the poet quietly admits “little know-how with such sound,” humility followed by this well-earned truth: “I hear with my heart.”
Cora Siré lives in Montréal where she writes poetry, essays and fiction. She is the author of Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014).