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Berlin, Etc.

For whatever reason, living in Berlin sans any adequate language ability or practical interest in being there, other than the money and domicile provided, opened a flat and unredeemable perspective into the bleak past of one's own public lifetime. It's like an oldtime movie, locked in a vocabulary "we" gave it in 1945, reemphasized soon after by die Mauer , the wall that cuts off the historic center of the city, Unter den Linden and all the rest, from what's now the "Western" half. Then, of course, the city politically "ours" is separated from its own country by some hundred miles of physical distance, and must be arrived at by either a "corridor" which planes use, else carefully monitored rail and freeway systems.

Yet Berlin, West Berlin, that is, is Germany's New York, at least in imagination, and the young long, seemingly, for its privileges and dispensations. For example, one is exempt from the draft if one lives in Berlin. A bus costs about half of what it does in comparable cities in other parts of the country. Food, housing, significantly subsidized, are all cheaper. There is much pressure to keep this segment of the old city "alive" by pumping in various cultural action, an energy of synthetic order despite the persons or things so brought may have undeniable integrity. But here they float somehow, just that the appetite is so distracted by expectation, by not being where any such possibility has come from. Never was the sense of a city feeding on its surrounding context more vividly illustrated.

It was impossible for me not to have strong memories of my own, of coming of age in the early 40s and all the implications thereof.

Continental Drifter 11 (1984).


The first time I came to Berlin, a few years previous, the plane landed at the Tempelhof Airport, and for moments I hadn't the least problem seeing in imagination those incredible gatherings there I'd first witnessed in newsreels. Thankfully one now arrives at Tegel, a less dramatic occasion in all respects. It was early October when we arrived in what's certainly a northern city, grey, frequent rain, cold chill of winds, a flat close sky often, but with monumental clouds and a sense of evening space I was very moved by, almost Eliot-like in its "The winter evening settles down . . ."

I don't know what I'd expected. There were a few friends there, then others unexpectedly met again, as Ted Joans, who lived upstairs in the same building as us. He was very helpful with simple directions, ways one could deal with it. He said Berlin finally bored him despite he kept a social action going of extraordinary range and good-nature. Our family did a lot of daily walking, of taking buses, sitting in parks, going to the zoo, museums—whatever was free and simple of access. We were insistently domestic, went to bed very early, and had little money over and above the cost of our daily living. Therefore, like it or not, we lived in one respect very commonly.

The feel of things seemed depressed and depressing. There was none of the street action I'd known in other cities, for example, no spontaneous emotion such as sudden laughter, playfulness, or even anger. It wasn't that people were careful, discreet. Rather it seemed the habits of their activity were so ingrained they offered no room for willful edges of response. The only time I met with much strength of feeling was when I dumbly broke a rule, tried to get on a bus with my small son before the drivers had finished the very particular exchange of their authority, one coming on duty, one going off. I watched a policeman working a stop-light on the Ku'damm (as it's called) manually, mid-morning one Sunday, no traffic to speak of, a mean sleety rain and a cutting wind. He was timing the action precisely to his watch, ignoring the few cars or persons passing, involved in the peculiar need to be mechanically "accurate" against any alternative of a more perceptive judgment. In like sense, one rarely sees anyone cross a street against a light, despite there may be no traffic. It seemed the whole country was didactically committed to its procedures. On another occasion, given only five minutes to change trains in Frankfurt, I was told that trains are never late and that the time would be sufficient. My train was late, as were several others I took, and I missed that connection. Remarking it later to my hosts, I was told again that German trains are never late. I dropped the subject quickly.


Older women of a secure social class are merciless in Berlin, will push, shove, all very discreetly yet firmly, to get their way. A younger German woman told me of two elders trying to crowd into her cab, having to be physically held off, unheeding of the invitation to share the cab, etc. That will is very disquieting. Although there is, I was told, familiar paternalistic emphasis on family, children, there is in fact no clear social room for the former nor much interest or liking for the latter in any respect. My American sentimentalizing of "kids" may blur the evidence but I rarely if ever, not even in children's playgrounds, found much active place for children in their own social needs. The equipment was remarkable, the care all one might imagine possible, no broken glass, dogshit, but equally no humor, no invention (except for very occasional congeries of Cocteau-like adolescents who took over care of their younger siblings). All somehow drab, patient.

I was intrigued by a Liegewiese (a lying-place?) which was just in front of the post office I went to in Wilmersdorf, at one end of the park there, a substantial rectangle of public ground landscaped to make curiously planed rectangles, each a little larger than human body, so as to accommodate public sun bathing, the angle of the ground making exposure optimum and permitting shifting as the sun did. A surprising "nude beach" permission, it seemed, in a city of this size—and it was, in fact, met with frequently in parks adjacent, despite the chill weather. There was nothing sexual about the nudity, as one says, rather a doggedly "intelligent" proposal that the sun was very interesting, however faint.

The museums were incredible, all the accumulations of that nineteenth-century bourgeois mercantile appetite. They were good at it and, like all things German, thorough. So one walks through virtual acres of artifacts of all manner of cultural kind, from high Renaissance to Easter Island, whatever, wherever. I spent a lot of afternoons killing time out in Dahlem, where the US Army base is and where we'd managed to get Willy into a drop-in preschool. I hung out with him, till he got settled, talking with the other children, stories of where their grandma lived in Bakersfield, or Bolton, Mass., and where was I from, American talking as the fall came on more, leaves dropped, cold standing waiting for the 60 bus. I'd walk, once Willy was settled, to a museum a couple of miles away. I liked simply cruising in that sense, nothing in mind. Just watching traffic, people I'd pass, kids coming out of school about three, the crowd in the museum. They were very polite about coats and stuff, at the check-stand, toilets were good, food not hopeless. For an average of six marks (something under three dollars) one could get


a big poster of this or that show from extensive stock. They helped brighten our walls, like they say.

But a contemporary show at the National Museum seemed drab echo, almost a mannered "street" harshness, cozy political gesturing. Sad. It was at the time of the protest against the missile deployments, a solidly massive gathering in many cities all over the country. As I was landing in Hanover, for instance, the plane's company was alerted to avoid the downtown sections of the city, else one might be engaged by the demonstration. Many older people, settled and middle class, were involved, which seemed good news. I asked Walter Höllerer in Berlin what might be the effect of the numbers of the protesters, and their clear seriousness, on political thinking. Sadly, he felt it would be little, just that the political/economic patterns of the country were so locked into American program. It was therefore impossible to think of an accommodation, given the relation. In like sense the general political tone moves increasingly to the right, and neo-Nazi elements that ten years ago would have been judged criminally liable are now looked to as the firm, no-nonsense guarantors of public welfare and sane thinking. Some of the Literarisches Colloquium's funding, remarkably, is now taken to pay for a commitment to an MIT project with military overtones. The small fact is, the arts fare poorly. The large fact, it's vèry much one world, this side of the wall at least.

Hard to leave Berlin without more positive a disposition, but in truth we fled, provoked by fears for my wife's pregnancy, but also just plain running. Too much there was locked echo of my life's failed symbols and political, social despair. I grew up in New England where people occasionally do go to their graves without speaking to one another, the dumb result of an argument, whatever—just the will left, locked in abstract place. In Berlin that sense one could die, live and die, in such an abstract manipulation of one's literal world, the neighbors, the days and nights spent, the job, children, all of it so determined by attitudes that didn't even deign to look at you, just looked over and past at the designed enemy . . . It is awful to live with that sullenness, the truculence, righteousness, sophistication, appetite so prolonged. No matter the young get there, and long to, it's a classic place of the middle-aged, the middle-class, the variously self-conscious dispositions of that limited privilege. In short, a use found in habit that long ago lost impulse. I thought of Fassbinder a lot, also of Günter Grass—who no longer lives there, though he comes often to the city and is head of the Akademie der Kunst significantly. He's a very useful man. (Then Kafka also spent time in Wilmersdorf, etc.).


I met Richard Anders early on, one evening at the Colloquium's monthly gathering in Wannsee. Ted had taken me out on the bus, a long trip through what seemed young forest of straight-rowed fir, all very picked up, small in scale, long horizontal as bus kept going. Place we were in was faded old baronial hall. Someone said Goebbels (?) had had it during the war. Something. (There is always an echo of the past. The Hanovers at Göttingen, Richard Wordsworth at Heidelberg, aptly enough.) Anders proved tall, lanky, shymannered contemporary, from part of Germany now in the East, teacher, translator, writer, poet. Surrealist of quiet order. A week later I went up to see him at his place, old apartment top of building, lined with books as they say, wife sadly dead, son comes in with cake for us, sit drinking tea in late afternoon.

So, what's poetry doing in Germany? Not very much. Return to more conservative, classical determination after time of active experiment—like Maoists move abruptly to Buddhism, served by fact both don't like "talking about it," as disciplines so-called. We ate cake in pleasure, musing. He tells me of time he is, as soldier, condemned to death, is in group to be x'd, and war collapsing about them, officer says, oh, go on, get out of here. He is now off to India, for the first time, somewhat in pursuit of love he hopes possible there, a girl, but to be moving, I think, just somewhere else. But not to America, for whatever reason, however many there may be.

"Ich Bin  . . ."
for Richard Anders

Ich Bin
2 Öl-tank

yellow squat
by railroad

shed train's
zapped past

round peculiar
empty small

town's ownership
fields' flat

(Note: An earlier and shorter report was published in the Washington Post's Book World , Dec. 18, 1983, p. 15: "Letter from Berlin" (see pp. 581–83). Of the poems, "Ich Bin . . ." was written on a train just before getting to Frankfurt and takes off from yellow bomba or "oil tank" that was on the platform of small town train station we went through, with advertising on it as quoted, viz., "I Am 2 Oil Tank(s)." Onlywords really understood, of that morning (11/4/83). Then "Late Love" and "Den Alten" are both parodies, of a sort, of two poems by Richard Anders, "Rat" (from whence "Den Alten") and "In Seiner Mauerhaut" ("Late Love"), Preussische Zimmer (1975). They are not translations, nor even adaptations—rather free play on sounds and occasionally understood words of those texts—in homage to his own patient clarity.)


production towered
by obsolescent hill-

side memory echoing
old wornout castle.

Den Alten

Then to old Uncle Emil,
den du immer mimst ,
you always

missed most,
häng einem alten Haus

in fear, hung
from a rafter, a
beam old

Uncle Emil you
immer mimst
over the logical river

Fluss  in the
truly really
feuchten  clay, fucked finished clay.

Late Love

Stuck in her stone hut,
he fights to get the window up.

Her loopy Dachshunds
have made off with pupils

of his eyes, like, or else
now from summit to summit

of whatever mountains against which
he thinks he hears the stars crash,

sounds truly nada
in all the sad facade.


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