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Book Review: The Sea Remembers


Book Review The Sea Remembers By Rosemarie Zens Reviewed by George Slade For some time now — perhaps as long as I’ve been writing reviews — it’s been clear to me that I am not a very good reader of other writers’ reviews, here on photo-eye’s stream or elsewhere. Much as I love photobooks, I rarely gravitate towards reading what others have to say (though I often skim reviews of books in other genres). I guess I’m preoccupied with my own peculiar way of thinking about and reacting to the photobook phenomenon.

The Sea RemembersBy Rosemarie Zens
Kehrer Verlag, 2015.
 
The Sea Remembers
Reviewed by George Slade

The Sea Remembers
Photographs by Rosemarie Zens.
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2015. In German/ English. 136 pp., 30 color and 20 b/w illustrations, 7¼x9¾x½".


For some time now — perhaps as long as I’ve been writing reviews — it’s been clear to me that I am not a very good reader of other writers’ reviews, here on photo-eye’s stream or elsewhere. Much as I love photobooks, I rarely gravitate towards reading what others have to say (though I often skim reviews of books in other genres). I guess I’m preoccupied with my own peculiar way of thinking about and reacting to the photobook phenomenon. How much would I be influenced by reading others’ writings? Probably not much, but I hesitate to try it. Do any of my fellow reviewers feel this way?

Come to think of it, this may be a good way to learn who, if anyone, is reading my pieces. Let me know, any of you photo-eye reviewers who have read this far. And please accept my apologies for not being a more diligently supportive colleague.

What I gleaned from Adam Bell’s August 10 review of Bergen, by Daniela Keiser, is pertinent to my task today. Not only are there some conceptual and narrative crossovers between Bergen and The Sea Remembers — my ultimate destination in this circumambulation — Adam’s epigraph is particularly provocative. He quotes the writer W. G. Sebald from a profile by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian, September 21, 2001. Sebald spoke of places having memory, and “activat[ing] memory in those who look at them.” What piqued my interest was that Zens, in The Sea Remembers, espouses a very different opinion, notwithstanding structural similarities between her tale and Keiser’s.

The Sea RemembersBy Rosemarie ZensKehrer Verlag, 2015.

Zens’ story is one of an émigré’s return. Zens was a baby in her mother’s arms when her family left their home in Pomerania, a portion of the German Reich that is part of today’s Poland. In March 1945, however, WWII was ending, and the Russian Army was moving quickly westward across this territory. To keep ahead of them, and the chaos they were allegedly causing in their march, Zens’ family packed and embarked on a zigzag journey toward Berlin. Pomerania became contested land. Its history, its memory of itself as a place, was erased.

The Sea RemembersBy Rosemarie ZensKehrer Verlag, 2015.

As a middle-aged woman, Zens returned to this area with the goal of reclaiming memories she hoped were latent in the landscape. She may have been too young, left Pomerania too early, for that topography to have rooted in her unconscious, kinesthetic mind. She found a long excerpt of her mother’s journals (it appears in German and English in the book); written in retrospect, several decades later, it reconstructed the flight, and evoked earlier journeys and seaside visits. Her mother’s words also prompted Zens’ desire to retrace the route. But the cultural shift from the place her mother knew and loved was too substantial. Zens describes her own “wide arc into the unknown” to seek Bad Polzin in Pomerania, “the place of my birth according to my passport, now in Poland with a name unfamiliar to my ear… No memories of it clinging to my mind’s eye.”

The Sea RemembersBy Rosemarie ZensKehrer Verlag, 2015.

To my eye, the images she made on her quest back into the mythical place “Pomerania” echo the flight she made with her mother some five decades earlier. They are the cautious, low-angled, distant, often partially obscured views of those hoping to hide and remain undiscovered until safety is assured. The interplay of these images with a small sample of very specific, intimate archival photographs of her often joyful family (her father, especially, is recalled as a positive force in the group) generates an overall impression of dislocation and frustration. Despite her closely-knit family unit, Zens lacks the tools or insight — “cell-memory,” even — to access the inherent meanings of the lands they occupied and traversed.

The Sea RemembersBy Rosemarie ZensKehrer Verlag, 2015.

The book’s English title, “the sea remembers,” is an interesting spin on the German title, “Das Meer erfindet nichts,” which in my long under-utilized, non-idiomatic German knowledge translates as “the sea invents nothing.” The sea is constant, containing only truths and realities. Does it remember? I suppose it absorbs what occurs in its vicinity, but it remains a largely unreadable text for us, terrestrial beings that we are. The sea may not invent anything, though its capacity to relate memories derives largely from human solipsism.

The Sea RemembersBy Rosemarie ZensKehrer Verlag, 2015.

As I read the 2001 Sebald feature, the one Adam Bell quoted from for his review of WWII displacement in Bergen, I found my own pithy Sebald quote, which will function as an epitaph for this review and for the lost lands of Zens’ experience of a past ultimately not her own:

Going home is not necessarily a wonderful experience. It always comes with a sense of loss, and makes you so conscious of the inexorable passage of time.

Zens lost her homeland, though she retains her mother’s words, which may be insufficient but are mirrored in the photographer’s own tenuous, camouflaged attempts to re-envision displaced cultural landscapes. The sea, meanwhile, contains this narrative, and all others, acting as an eternal, silent witness.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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