‘The poet is the priest of the invisible’. Wallace Stevens
Decided to post this poem today. It references Berlin and it saves me having to write another one when I have already written this one this week.
I wrote it for a Dylan and Cohen Tribute evening held last night at the cafe, Dog With Two Tails. It was an evening of music and poetry. But the poet / musician Michael O’Leary wasn’t there. There may be plans afoot to get him down for a reading; by hell or high water.
In fact, why not call it that? ‘Come Hell or High Water Michael O’Leary Fund’?
(This poem falls into the ‘After Berlin’ time slot).
Kakariki Book Shop (with Dylan references)
The four of us walk along a wide, empty concrete platform
that lies in the middle of two tracks (soutbound, northbound).
Dumpy hills and the motorway to the right, trees
and the town to the left; in the offing the sea.
We pass a freshly-painted signal box. Cream
with brick-red accents, as smart
as a middle-aged woman post make-over
afraid to risk any sudden movements.
Time and motion all dolled up.
Rusty rails the colour of dried blood
ride both sides of us. Rusty rails.
Blood on the tracks.
A train (a uniform American Civil War-grey and blue,
with bright lemon accents) slithers past.
Straight painted lines, yellow and white,
mark the edge of the platform.
One month ago, in Berlin, Germany,
my daughter in law warned me
not to go too close to the edge of the platform
at a U-Bahn station. A crazy druggie
could push me over on to the tracks. Blood on the tracks.
She said that Berlin’s just like a bigger South Dunedin.
People walking along and talking to themselves.
I turn, take a photo of the signal box.
There is no-one around. The place is empty
except for a sandwich board that says, Books Open.
We enter the Kakariki bookshop.
The one we have walked to, as if crossing a desert,
all this way along a wide and empty platform.
Inside, our son Michael, introduces us
to the other Michael, Michael O’Leary.
The two Michael’s have become buddies.
Our Michael admires Michael O’Leary’s
old man of the hills appearance
and black, Beatles T-shirt and meandering conversation.
And much else besides.
Over the years they’ve talked records
and poetry and art.
Our Michael thinks the world of Michael O’Leary.
He thinks the world should have more Michael O’Learys.
Whenever our Michael pops in to see him,
Michael O’Leary usually has to be reminded who our Michael is.
“But he is starting to get to know who I am now”, he says.
Michael O’Leary talks to us
about how he wants to do a reading down south in Dunedin.
And now that Bob Dylan has been awarded a Nobel Prize,
he thinks, why not a poetry reading featuring Bob Dylan lyrics?
And Leonard Cohen too, now, seeing as he died.
He asks us to let him know when the reading’s on
so he can book Grab-A-Seat.
We look at the books and buy a couple.
Then we take a photo
and say good-bye and leave. Michael O’Leary
has forgotten to give us change, but that’s okay. He’s a legend.
You don’t mind it when legends forget to give you change.
We head away back down the platform.
A bit of a breeze has got up.
We head back
towards the smartly painted, two-storeyed signal box
that still hasn’t moved
for fear of spoiling its appearance.
Time and motion all dolled up.
Michael O’Leary’s calling out behind us.
He’s waving a ten dollar note.
“Your change, I forgot to give you your change”.
His long white beard is waving in the wind.
The ten dollar note is waving in the wind.
We are all waving in the wind.
This poem was written on my son’s birthday – one he will celebrate in Berlin. I remember walks with him at the other end of the world, when he was the same age as his daughter is now. Both of us learning from each other. And so it goes. The circle of life.
At each leaf, as damp
as a drowned mitten, she stops. Each stone,
no matter how small.
“This way,” I say, “We go this way”.
My granddaughter smiles, “This way”, she says
and walks the other way.
The constant roll of thunder
from trains under the Dunckerstrasse overpass
is an underground breathing through leaves
of trees, a rush of blood to the brain,
a sound soon so familiar I stop hearing
this incessant supply and demand
so foreign to my one-track mind
more accustomed to the tick-tock
and stagger of slower railway timetables.
A voice from a loud speaker blares in German
from the U-bahn station behind the praying trees
that grow behind the granite wall,
behind the wire fence. A bird screams.
From the overbridge
we look down on to the reel and shuttle
of trains below. I am afraid
my granddaughter might suddenly
take it into her head
to throw her hand-knitted hat
down on to a train. Her precious, sunset-striped
hat, the one her mother bought at the market.
I hold her hand a little tighter. The older you get
it seems the more afraid you are
of sudden movements.
Someone yells. A plane grumbles overhead.
A child cries.
“Weinen, weinen”, my granddaughter says,
her eyes pleading an answering concern.
“Yes, ” I say,
“Someone is crying”.
A Life In Berlin
As I write these poems, and even throughout my visit to Berlin, a friend in Dunedin; Jenny Powell; a poet, a writer, a conjurer of worlds within worlds – worlds made up of border insecurities, time differences and location issues – has been putting together, with support and artistic contributions from a musician, a film-maker and an actor / director – an event that will feature in Dunedin’s Fringe Festival next week. Her work is called – ‘Alive in Berlin’.
Jenny started this project long before I was ever in Berlin – even before my first visit to Berlin back in 2013. Our parallel Berlin worlds have been intersecting for quite some time. I am excited to see her version revealed next week.
Meanwhile, my version continues to slowly evolve … The title that comes immediately to mind for my own Berlin experience is – ‘Lost in Berlin’. I’d be keen to keep that title if it wasn’t so much of a cliche.
‘A Life In Berlin’ may be a better option.
The poem below is out of sequence, but I had to write in order to get it ‘out of the way’. It was blocking other stuff I wanted to write about Berlin.
Also, I feel I need to explain (or re-assure) that I have a lot of very fond and happy memories of my stay in Berlin.
However, despite the happy times, if I wanted my writing to follow an instinctive path (which I happen to want to do for these Berlin poems) I had no choice but to begin with the shock and dislocation experienced upon first arriving. Once this has been expressed, worked through and out of my system, the delight of being in Berlin will reveal itself. (I trust! I’m discovering it’s a long process).
Although it may not be apparent, this way of writing – visceral, from the gut – is new to me. I haven’t (I don’t think) approached writing about an experience in such a raw and sequential manner before. It’s like writing the diary after the event; the diary that I was unable (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically) to write during the experience. It is proving an interesting, therapeutic experience.
My visit to Berlin was life changing in many ways. There is a book in it. Maybe these poems are that book. A lot of them come from fragments I scratched while sitting at cafe tables. Or quickly tapped into my I-phone’s Notes app.
I’m picking that I have about fifty poems in this Berlin pipeline. Maybe more.
‘Before Berlin’ ‘During Berlin’ and ‘After Berlin’ is a measure I have going on in my mind and memory.
The poems may not all be in sequence as I write them, but the ultimate plan is to order them fairly chronologically.
(And why this compulsion to explain? It’s probably just another sign of low emotional intelligence! I’m sure before I get to the end of this writing exercise, all will be revealed. Until then it is likely a mystery for me as much as for you, dear reader).
portion of a map of Prenzlauerberg, Berlin
back from Berlin
Oh, Dunedin all is forgiven:
your silent and empty streets
hedged by creeping paranoia,
the snapping dog not on a leash
called back inside
by a man in bare feet
and white t-shirt.
And the friendly bus driver
in lurid green
who hesitates before asking me
if I qualify
for a Gold Card.
standing at the lights
Berlin, you are the sum of your many broken parts
only revealing yourself one frame at a time
to those who want to see
around the brick and concrete,
through the dark
-green shadows under the overhead railway bridge
at the Shonhauser Allee
Danziger Strasse intersection, the yellow slash
and rumble of trams.
Tree by tree, granite-stone
pavement by granite-stone pavement,
stolperstein by stolperstein, remainder
of the wall by remainder of the wall,
hooded crow by hooded crow, pole by pole
fat with posters, pigeon by pigeon on hatched lines,
the iron criss-cross of scaffolding,
crane by crane blanket-stitched
to the ragged skyline; you are the city
that my son wonders will ever be fixed
you see me just and no more
out of the corner of your eye
(just another woman wearing a scarf
standing at the lights) you see me
standing here as vigilant as a header dog;
an eye dog; looking out
for the signal to cross, the walking green man
in a hat, striding out
for the bliss of bare hills,
the ache of silent plains.
toughing it out
Since arriving here the mornings have grown
colder, the receding daylight shrinking
to no longer fit under trees
large with the noise of rain
and on pavements, curled leaves
shuffle and splay like dark stars underfoot
as I make my way to the Bäckerei on Dunkerstrasse,
J’s list: 2x Schrippen, 2x Dinkel, 2x Laugen-Croissant, 1x Bretzel
written small on the tip of a corner torn
from an envelope’s seal flap which I carry
pinched between my thumb and two first fingers
like an autumn trophy – a feather, an acorn,
a leaf – until I can hand it to one of the two Turkish brothers
sailing their shop full of bread
that glistens as round as an oath.
Once, feeling brave, I read out the list
in stumbling Deutsch,
but only the once
preferring to stick to the more familiar
‘dankeschön’ and ‘tschüss’ in that order
and with as much music as I can muster
as I head back out the door,
back into the tough light
of another Berlin morning.
a few times
always gave me time
to check myself out
in the lift’s full-length mirror.
What I saw
was someone old and short
I didn’t recognise
staring back at me like fish
out of water
unequipped to pit
myself at anything
let alone, Berlin.
I needed to channel my inner diva,
bitch, hag, crone;
to be unafraid
to say, “Fuck you”. But later
when I found myself
wanting to apologise
to a forgotten cup of tea I’d left to grow cold,
I knew that it was too late, I was already too far
J. hands me a jam jar
full of hot, milky tea
to take with me on the train,
“You can do that in Berlin”, my son tells me.
Yes, I have seen how the Berliners do it, boarding
trains with a bottle of beer
stuck in the back pocket of their jeans.
By swallowing gulps as we run
to the U Bahn station, over where the roots of trees
ripple the cobblestones, past
the shop with its ornaments nodding heads
and hips (a bulldog, Queen Elzabeth, a hula dancer)
– the shop my granddaughter loves
to stop in front of and dance –
past the fruit shop with all their fruit on display outside.
Do they take it, all that fruit, in and out
every day? I ask. A pointless question.
I keep asking them. A sign I’m feeling lost
displaced, unsure. So unsure. So much fruit.
My son and daughter in law don’t know,
or even care much. And why should they?
They have other things to think about.
Far more important things. Past the bright flowers
that look more heartless than they should.
Down stone steps; old, cold, grey. Just in time to board.
I now have an empty jar in my handbag.
One-liners come to me like the graffiti
I see crawling past on sad, grey-brown walls.
My son is tall so even when his head is bowed
over his phone, still easy to keep an eye on
above the heads and shoulders of strangers;
he’s the only thing familiar to me
in this broken city’s stark concrete and stone.
Familiar too, the lift of his eyebrows, his sign
to me that we’ve both got this. Next stop, ours.
February 7th, Poem Five
gone to my head
Like a crow. A blue crow.
Like the crow I see perched
on an orange Berlin roof top
seven floors up
every morning, hunched
against the day.
Like that crow
(except blue) I float
on ragged wings
here on the other side
of the planet
without my usual equilibrium
and asking to be excused
for my inability to grasp
your meaning; underlying
or clear on draughty station platforms
which smell of grit and piss.
All the blood has gone
to my head.
tingle like stars.
January 30th Poem Four
I tell myself to ‘buck up’
I talk to trees
and to crows
I write, I think, I over-think, I cry, I sleep, I walk.
The wee ‘hello’ girl wasn’t there today.
Thoughts drop like stones.
A nun walking past smiles at me and a crow caws.
This pain I feel
I sit at a cafe on a green chair at a green table by motherly chestnut trees.
Shush, shush, shush, shush.
Drink your tea.
I drink my tea
served to me, black, in a tall glass.
It is the German way.
It is not wrong.
It is not right. It is simply
the German way.
I am learning much
about the German way.
The brunt of Berlin.
I do not feel that this
is where I belong, even for the time being,
here where no-one smiles.
And then on the tram
gives up his seat for a mother and her daughter
and Berlin becomes the sound of hissing streets,
yellow buses and trams,
sunflowers in the rain.
January 21st Poem Three
my left brain
What was I thinking? Of course
my ill-equipped left brain
with only a book of crosswords
as its sole training device,
was always going to lead me
into the cross hairs
of anyone aiming to shoot
me down, gifting them
a direct hit. They couldn’t miss.
Yes. My pale imitation
of a left brain proving me wrong
to ever think I’d feel at home here
in this city of wounded buildings,
ancient church bells,
crows, the cold, left-over rage,
all that yelling at 2.00 a.m. ricocheting
from U-Bahn station walls
and concrete valleys. My left brain lies here
waiting, ready, listening, useless
as a withered limb.
January 14th Poem Two
you’re such a home-body
I have Cilla’s, ‘Berlin Diary’,
David’s, ‘Conch Trumpet’,
Jenny’s heart-etched stone.
I have my mother’s hands.
with much preamble
unlike my brother
who left for an overseas trip
and was back again
before anyone knew about it.
No-one any the wiser.
I may be flying solo but I’m no Jean Batten,
Amelia Earhart or Joni Mitchell.
I tell myself I must read every line
of every direction;
each instruction, no matter how tiny.
I must proceed with caution
and an engaged left brain.
Daydreaming is dangerous
I tell my right brain
and do the crosswords in Mum’s book,
following on from where she left off
the night before she died.
You are such a home-body, a friend said.
I don’t pack my hairdryer
because it might look like a gun.
I don’t wear socks. I wonder
when I get to Berlin, how far
I will have to crane my neck
in order to see the sky.
January 7th Poem One
on streets that shine
On streets like spokes
with history’s dull and heavy light
every corner is sharp,
to un-lose myself, and
there’s the young woman,
outside the entrance
to the money machines
greeting every person
who walks past
with a small, “Hello”,
and again I walk on past
without eye contact,
thinking, ‘Forgive me my trespassing’
here where I am a stranger
growing even stranger.