A place where I wrote: Jena, Germany, a small town in the former East Germany where my family and I moved at the end of the 1990s. Before that, a charm-free split-level ranch outside Buffalo, New York, the surface of my desk often invisible beneath the detritus of life with three kids, a dog, a garden, manuscripts to be copyedited. Though the view from the sink in that house was leafy much of the year, filled with birds and deer seeking seeds and suet when the trees were bare, the desk did not have a window. I wrote many poems in the car, waiting to pick someone up.
Everything about Jena was different. Light poured into an entire southern wall of glass. Our suburban acre was replaced by a tiny square of yard. I rarely drove anywhere. Instead of being sixteen miles from Niagara Falls, I was sixteen kilometers from Buchenwald. I had a room of my own. My desk ran along one wall; my books lined all three remaining walls. From its window, I looked down on the town, its red roofs and slow river.
Centuries of history threatened to flood my poems. The celebrated far past competed with the Holocaust: there were plaques for famous men who’d inhabited the town’s once-proud villas and plaques announcing where deportations of Jews had occurred. I learned that the Soviets saw the Holocaust as evidence of the West’s baseness; to the newly arrived West Germans (after the Wall fell in 1989), it was an abomination that called out for memorials. Friends who’d grown up in the former East—an occupied territory for four decades—were divided between dislikes, of communism and of capitalism.
Meeting new people, I needed to be careful what I asked. Yet because I was speaking a foreign language, I wasn’t always sure what I’d said. When I woke, I didn’t always know the language I’d dreamt in. Writing in my own language, I questioned whether my lyrical impulse would or should be eclipsed by history. Living in two languages was exhausting on bad days, exhilarating on good ones.
While I struggled to make a place in my poems for the cruelty and complicity that defined twentieth-century Germany—and, after 9/11, the fear and extremism that marked my own country—spring was as beautiful as anywhere I’d lived: a neighbor’s foamy pear tree framed the view in May; in the woods, old beeches stood erect in their sober gray beside quivering saplings. Twenty-seven kinds of wild orchids filled the woods. I took a new dog to puppy school, walked her for hours.
In the forest, once I learned the paths, I was free to notice where the wolfbane lurked, the lady slippers congregated, the ephemerals hid. With the language, the more vocabulary and grammar I knew, the more I could appreciate its poets. I read Rilke and his many English translators with equal devotion. The only poem I wrote in German, for a blind friend who doesn’t speak English, depended on dense internal rhymes that she among others taught me to hear.
Hardly anyone I know here speaks it. I miss Germany the way you can miss a complicated relationship that left you unsatisfied though rich in memories. The new poems don’t mention it by name.
Emily Wheeler’s poems have appeared in New Ohio Review, Massachusetts Review, Contemporary Poets of New England, and elsewhere. She lives in Massachusetts. Emily’s poem “Lexicon” was published in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion.
Thank you for painting this place and this slice of time with such vitality.
What a vivid description of a place, haunted by such a trouble history but alive to nature and its healing powers in the evolving present. the poem Lexicon, too, is stunning — wow. How mysterious is language and its power. Thank you!