CONJUNCTIONS:62, Exile (Spring 2014)
Three Berlin Essays
When someone’s presence on the street becomes imperceptible as the presence of the street becomes imperceptible in this person. Mommsenstraße, Kastanienallee, Akazienstraße have moved to the shady side, to the side of obvious everyday life, going from admiration of exceptional things to inventory. Within the least expected lurks alienation, which demonstrates that it is only for the illusion of tradition, the illusion, that keeps my attention on a short leash. Sometimes it is enough that some bored dog barks. Midflinch I see at the intersection an excursion bus. A tourist guide with microphone in hand eagerly explains. I cannot hear the words, but I have a feeling I know everything she relates. Facing forward alongside the driver, with a gaze firmly directed through the front pane. This guide is me. Since I left the apartment, this continuous speech is performed in me. I speak and speak, without a dictionary and a map, aimlessly loafing. Only when the bus moves forward do I notice that it’s empty, except for the driver and guide in the bus there is no one the relating would be intended for, no one in this city of three and a half million who would hear what I speak and speak, only my footsteps and my monologue. To be discovered by the feeling of home in some foreign city? I lie in an empty room. Only one door, one window, one bed, me lying, naked walls, the space around me. Four meters above me the ceiling, on it a map of cracks, leafing through paint. As if names would fall off the streets, which I walked during the day, bringing me a child’s fear before the unknown. The slow sliding of white vowels in the light, which is falling through the window. The slow sliding of me, who is falling through the crack in the ceiling, through the crack with the name Berlin. But I am not hit, am not broken, not this time, as the alcohol and pills and depression trembled the hands of Ingeborg Bachmann, here somewhere, in 1963. Slightly dazed but safe I slip through the crack of my monologues, words turn in me like the heads of newborns sleeping in an unknown place. In the dark hallway I grope for a light switch. As if seized by my hand itself, I am guided over the house’s creaky steps to the large door to the study. I turn on a light and translate: Daß es gestern schlimmer war als es heute ist, That it was worse yesterday than it is today, wieder kein Anschluß, die Anschlüsse sind da, again no connection, the connections are here, aber es wird nicht angeschlossen, but no one connected. Berlin is a monster. Berlin is the most beautiful city in the world. Both sentences are valid and at the same time are not valid. Like spoiled children they lean on me and demand, demand. I am still a tourist guide who talks and talks to an empty bus. But with weeks, with months of strolling around Mommsenstraße, around Kastanienallee, around Akazienstraße beside a babbling guide I also became this void in the bus, this hollow, unknown law surrendered to stillness, by which words spread without leaving some trace. Domestication? Home? In der Mauerritze habe ich, In a moment of terror, in der Schrecksekunde, in the crack in the wall, einen schwarzen Käfer gesehen, I saw a black beetle, der stellt sich tot, pretending it was dead, Ich möchte sprechen mit ihn, I want to speak with him, aus diesem feinen Haus ihm den Ausweg, show him the way out of this fine, zeigen, ihm einen Ausweg zeigen, house, show him out, oder ihn gleich zertreten, or just trample him on the spot, Ich lerne von ihm, ich stelle, I am learning from him, I pretend, mich tot, in diese Ritze Berlin fallen, that I am dead, am falling into this crack Berlin, verlaufen auf diesem Planeten, am lost on this planet. Translating words, I carry them from German into Slovenian, break them, spin them, just like I spin the map of Berlin, it turns me, searches me, moves me from place to place. The words of someone who died the year when I was born. Words of despair and loss in some city, which has the same name as the city in which I am now alone. Words of despair and loss, which could also be mine, which could be from everyone. In the middle of the night I lie down in them, in these words, and next to my whispering of Slovenian verses in these words lies also a quiet music. It penetrates from the floor above, now I recognize it, light as May air, it is “The Girl from Ipanema” who in the middle of the night penetrates through the crack Berlin, through the terrible, through the loveliest crack Berlin.
Dragons and Transvestites
Above the entrance it says RUSSIAN BOOKS, but inside in the half light a leg immediately stumbles against Chinese pots, packages of Taiwanese plastic pistols, and heaps of socks made in India. Grab what you want, it reminds everyone who wanders into this place, so that some of the Slavic brothers from the taiga receive very specific socialization, in which a child places his melancholic head in the lap of Mother Rossi, while small sickles and hammers, which push against her apron, cause chronic allergies. Slovenians don’t really understand Polish, Czech, or Baltic ressentiment for a Slavic Gulliver. We were not close enough to hate. Thus, with unnecessary justification I pay for Russian vodka in a Finnish bottle, and while leaving the caravan get caught in the strings of a sailing dragon, which hangs from the ceiling, as if I were caught in the trap of national stereotypes. Already the display window of the neighboring sex shop corrects the design of the labyrinth in which the thought trudges. A plastic doll of a man dressed in women’s underwear. Who is a Slav, who German? Berlin is the city of national transvestism. With Prussian fastidiousness the Russian arranges his own boutique with select haute couture, the German grows a beard like some Orthodox priest and goes on foot to Moscow. Isn’t the most awful notion of death death by drowning? And isn’t language teaching us that the bodies of two during lovemaking are decanted? If water is a metaphor for annihilation and love, then Berlin is bound to its mirror image by the Marzahn well, discovered at the site of the first Berlin settlements. It is inconspicuously located in the dusty ground floor of the Märkisches Museum by the Chinese embassy. The yawn of a guard and the solitude of a visitor, who first followed his every step, as if the guest wanted to demonstrate in vivo the methods of the East German secret police Stasi. The Slavs who settled this area placed the well on the remains of a German well. The stones are loaded and broken, dilapidated wood replaces the arm of now one, now another tribe. Only water in the well remains, water, which turns Berlin into a city of transformations and changed identities. Water, for he who comes to Berlin for the first time, is the greatest surprise and revelation. Berlin floats on rivers and lakes, though never boastfully, rather timid. Unlike the swaggering water of Venice, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, this city isn’t standing on its toes, so that it’s leaning over its extreme edge to better see Narcissus’s face. History, the movements of nations, forced relocation, today’s newcomers, tomorrow’s losers, and yesterday’s winners have shattered the mirror of this city. Only water, in which a fractured face looks, now and again pours together shattered pieces, but not in the majesty of harbors, fountains, and central promenades, rather in the lake, bordered by willows and lindens, ponds, beside which children play, banks of dreamy rivers with stalls with drinks and deck chairs arranged on the packed sand. Berlin has changed. From a man it became a woman, from a woman a man. From the capital of the world, from the Nazi capital Germania it became a group of suburbs, full of residents who are self-ironic and skeptical toward definitions of identity. Generation P is in Berlin a generation who still has a P in the word Prussia. Let the paws of plastic bears in Berlin amble up and down, the name of the national capital of transvestites comes from behind the Urals.
Someone who sits in the first S-Bahn car, which runs west, will see at the Tiergarten station the mighty six-lane June 17 Road, how it slices up the city as if on command and vanishes beneath his knees. The widest road of Berlin, once Allee nach Berlin, after 1933 the eastwest axis of the Reich’s capital. June 17 was attributed suppressed demonstrations by residents of the capital of the German Democratic Republic against their government in 1953. The avenue is bordered by imposing cast-iron lanterns. This is all that remains in Berlin of Albert Speer, the Führer’s architect and engineer of the conversion of Berlin to the capital of Germania. The marble that once covered Hitler’s government palace designed by Speer now clothes the imposing monument of wings of Soviet victory in Treptow and columns of memorials to Soviet honor in Tiergarten, but the street lights apparently do not bother anyone. A bird’s-eye view of the road’s axis is like a length of taut elastic around a child’s legs, jumping wide-eyed over it in a game of rubber twist. I had just jumped, but stumbled at the next figures, in front of the memorial to murdered Jews. The double brick trail in the asphalt, a pair of student’s fingers raised during history class in a question mark, climbs from the river, rises by the stairs next to the Reichstag, and, by the inconceivable logic of liberation and zigzagging negotiations in the middle of the road, jumps onto the sidewalk. As if they hadn’t torn down the wall, but only sunk it into the ground. For some time I stood in western Europe, then my feet pushed simultaneously from the ground, as if jumping over more than four decades, in lingering waves from the past and attentiveness and play. I jumped over the trace of the Berlin Wall on the east, like some Peter Schlemihl who nearly tripped over his shadow and fell. Where? Perhaps into the white zone, which not long ago on the city plans, hanging in underground stations in western Berlin, was labeling eastern parts of the city. But rather than ride the underground or S-Bahn I take a bus. When a literary colleague and I get off some evening near Kaiserdamm, she looks down June 17 Road, where clouds have decorated with April’s evening colors the Siegessäule with its golden Elsa and Bruno Ganz on top. I walked here in the eighties nearly every day, she says, but not until 1989 did I notice the tall red-brick city hall, which burns brightly in the evening light in the east. The building stood equally visible twenty years earlier, but I didn’t see it because it didn’t belong to my hemisphere. The wall does not divide only what we can and cannot see, it divides primarily what we want to see and what we do not. A little later, like the second in line in a bank, I reach the red stripe on the ground. It is a pleasure not standing behind it as behind a barrier. I stand with both feet on it and take a breath like a child in the instant of excitement and concentration before a crucial combination of jumps. When I hear, Next, please, my feet are again entangled, red tape on the floor has stuck to my soles, we don’t want to let go of each other.
*. The German phrases are from poems by Ingeborg Bachmann. The English translations that follow are translated from the Slovenian, not the original German.
Slovenian poet and prose writer Aleš Šteger has published The Book of Things (BOA Editions) in English translation by Brian Henry. He is the editor in chief of Beletrina Academic Press.
Brian Henry’s most recent book of poetry is Brother No One (Salt Publishing).