The eyes of the taxi driver regard me in the mirror. “Why are you going out in this storm?” I mention a poetry reading and his thick eyebrows rise. He turns off the radio, inhales deeply and begins to recite. I don’t understand Farsi but discern music in the cadence of the driver’s voice. From previous rides with this company, I know that the founders are Iranian, that many drivers are former air force pilots who fought in the Iran-Iraq war. When asked, they will lament the suffering in their country but never, until now, in verse.
The cab snakes uphill and the trees, like the houses, become larger. On a narrow street, we enter a tunnel formed by leafy branches. The metallic splutter of rainfall on the car ceases. The driver switches off the windshield wipers and continues reciting. The pauses between the Persian couplets evoke a chilling silence. Like when the violins stop playing in Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. In the non-sound, the composer evokes the near-death of his country, Estonia, and all past and present places of oppression.
The driver stops in front of the consular residence and shuts off the motor. The residence is an ordinary stone mansion, no traces of the national emblems – the black-red-yellow flag or the eagle flexing its wings – embossed on the invitation mailed to me a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been waging a capricious, interior battle on whether to attend tonight’s reading.
A rusted Volkswagen pulls up in front of the taxi. A man with white hair emerges and heaves a briefcase up the stairs to the residence. The door opens and he disappears inside, as if consumed by a ravenous mansion.
The driver pleads, “One more poem, Miss, just one.”
The sounds of the words to the patter of rain are beautiful and familiar. The mansion is not. I’m tempted to stay inside the dark and humid cab.
I saw you in the hospitals
and in the line
of political prisoners…
Muse, wherever you
I follow your radiant trail
across the long night…
From Muse by Roberto Bolaño.
I accept a glass of champagne and gaze out of the living room window onto sodden treetops. Aside from one acquaintance, a Québécois who owns a bookstore, I don’t recognize anyone in the animated clusters around me, all of us standing on a blood-red Persian carpet.
Not far from here, the cafés are filling up. I could be there among the crowds. This is the time of year when Montréal resurfaces. The ice has melted, the waterways have opened and poets emerge from the underground to recite poems in French and English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Farsi. Rarely German, though – maybe that’s why I’m here, to hear a language I never speak anymore.
In this city of exiles, when poets gather to listen to other poets, it’s a gesture of solidarity. Going to readings, I’m helping to prevent a marginalized form of art from disappearing into an obscure corner of the universe. Because writing poetry, struggling with words and sounds, space and silence, requires affirmation of the lights emanating from other constellations however far removed from the poet’s realm. A reading almost always offers potential for cross-pollination, new thinking directed by absorbing the words of another writer. The sublime moment in the taxicab has already provoked a collision of ideas with respect to silence, a reward for following my muse wherever she might go.
Still, my long list of weaknesses includes the resistance to attending formal readings. They often leave me unhinged. Sometimes it’s because of the small number of listeners, the undeserving shabbiness of the venue or worse, the fragility of the artists, some of them teetering on the knife’s edge of existence. Afterwards, walking home in the dark, I’m left to resurrect the divinity of poetry from a wretched sense of its futility.
Plus it’s risky to expose the subconscious to unknown poetry. The German word for poet is Dichter, stemming from the adjective dicht which appropriately means compact, dense. But there’s also Dichterling or poetaster, a potentially contagious condition. I take another glass of champagne to inoculate myself.
To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare –
it’s time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse…
From Poetry Reading by Wisława Szymborska.
An urgent clapping of hands silences the chatter. I carry my glass to the rows of chairs arranged in a semi-circle around an armchair. The generalkonsul, balding and unusually tanned for early June, welcomes us to the reading. He delivers a short speech then sits down. Two empty chairs over, a lanky man with a duelling scar on his cheek folds his arms on his chest as if settling in for a siesta.
The invitation promised that during the said evening in June, a professor would be reading the poetry of the late Walter Bauer. Before leaving home, I googled the name and discovered that Walter Bauer (1877-1960) was a theologian who wrote that heresy was actually the original manifestation of early Christianity. The search did not yield any citations of Walter Bauer’s poetry but I expect dense, heavy lyrics that will stretch my comprehension of German.
The professor sits in an armchair facing the audience. He’s the man I saw emerging from the Volkswagen outside the consular residence. His white hair and pink face give him the air of a nervous rabbit. The professor extracts books from his briefcase then stacks them on a wobbly table. A painting on the wall above his head portrays a Canadian landscape with a lonely tree.
The professor explains that Walter Bauer was a “close friend” who died in the 1970s. A prolific poet and author of an impressive list of books, Walter Bauer left Germany, “disgusted by the cynicism of the postwar reconstruction.” In Canada, he washed dishes to pay his way through grad school. No mention of his theology and it dawns on me that tonight’s Walter Bauer is not the same one I researched on the internet. I disguise my laughter with what I hope sounds like hiccups induced by the champagne and divert my attention to books fanned out along a low coffee table in a corner of the room. The ten equally-sized books depict each of the provinces with flowers on the shiny covers. They’re arranged in perfect east to west geographic order, a diplomatic nod to things Canadian.
The professor digresses into his own life, explaining how he left Germany at a very young age and refused for many decades to speak his mother tongue. He reads a poem by Walter Bauer written in the 1920s about two uniformed thugs who beat up a worker for no reason. Several stanzas long, the poem is a striking reminder of how the decade preceding the war foreshadowed the eventual horrors. Berlin was the scene of street brawls and violent conflicts between gangs of extremists. In 1923, Hitler staged his failed Munich Putsch and two years later, Mussolini dissolved all political parties in Italy and installed himself as dictator.
I think of Kafka who died during that decade and how his writings exposed the brutality, observed and foreseen.
The professor clarifies that Walter Bauer, unlike many writers, did not leave the country when Hitler was elected by the people of Germany. He then reads a later poem by Bauer that describes the sun here in Canada as different, one without guilt or shame. I think of the Inuit and Cree, the Mohawk, Huron, Iroquois and the Métis.
“Is it possible to die of sadness?” Roberto Bolaño once wrote. “Yes it is,” he concluded. I’ve been reading the poetry of this Chilean writer jailed for eight days after the Pinochet coup. Later he moved to Spain where he died in 2003 at the age of fifty. Bolaño said that everything he wrote was a “letter of love or of good-bye” to the young people who died in the dirty wars in Latin America.
After reading three poems by his friend, the professor can’t resist sharing one of his own poems in English about the Canadian north and featuring a lonely tree. Then he says that he and Walter Bauer did not always see eye to eye, that he personally believes the sun shining here is the same one you see in Germany.
The professor recites another of Bauer’s poems, set in Canada, and quotes him as saying, “The Arctic expresses the sum of all wisdom: Silence.”
A woman next to me requests a specific poem by Walter Bauer. The professor rifles through his briefcase. There’s coughing and shuffling of feet as he searches the various compartments. Saving him further embarrassment, the generalkonsul announces now is a good time for the intermission. We all rise, liberated from our hard chairs.
Double doors open to a garden. The rain has stopped so I head towards a chestnut tree laden with conical white blossoms that sway in the dusky sky. Smokers congregate around an ashtray. A few guests approach me. From their excited remarks it appears they are familiar with Walter Bauer, some even knew him personally. I look around for my Québécois acquaintance but he seems to have remained inside. Or perhaps he’s taken advantage of the intermission to escape the sequestered event.
In short order, there’s a clapping of hands. Everyone obeys, hurrying back into the residence to occupy the exact same chairs in the semicircle, including my Québécois acquaintance. It’s possible that for him, this reading resembles my experience in the cab. Freed from understanding the words, he’s aware of the poems’ cadences, rhythms and pauses. Or maybe he’s just thinking his own random thoughts.
With relish, the professor announces he’s found the poem requested before the intermission. After reading it, he speaks of the bravery implicit in Walter Bauer’s verses, courage the poet will demonstrate “again and again” in his life. He refers to a letter Walter Bauer wrote to a publisher in the early 1940s in defence of a writer banned by the Nazis. “This proves how brave Walter Bauer was,” he says and proceeds to read the letter.
During the rambling text, I recall my one experience in the German consulate, a visit which may account for my name appearing among the invitees to this reading. Inside an office tower with southeast views over the port of Montréal and the widening waters of the St. Laurent, I was waiting to have a translation of my mother’s death certificate stamped and notarized. A guard stood in a corner holding a semiautomatic weapon. His watchful silence made me feel guilty as if I were responsible for the death which caused the officials and, by extension, him so much trouble. It was a fleeting guilt and not the deepest sort that endures for centuries.
As the professor continues reading the letter, my mother’s image appears to me from 1945, well before my existence. A frantic scene she often described as a fatal crossroads of ineffable terror. Fleeing the Russians, she sat jammed in a train car with others and their piles of belongings. Just before crossing the Oder River, they heard the unmistakeable drone of approaching planes. The train ground to a halt. Screaming passengers grabbed children and bags and ran into the snowy fields. My mother chose to remain on the train. She witnessed bombs dropping and bodies collapsing. The planes retreated and she waited alone in her car through the dark, cold silence. At dawn the train slowly jolted towards the British in the west.
A few nights ago, still grappling with whether or not to attend this reading, I found some documents my mother had managed to salvage when fleeing. There were papers from her high school dated 1942, the same school attended years earlier by the wife of Claus von Stauffenberg. This brave woman gave birth to her last child in prison after her husband was executed for his failed assassination attempt on Hitler.
I observe that the dimensions of this room are similar to those where Stauffenberg planted the bomb in a briefcase in July 1944. Hitler and his cohorts were protected by a thick oak table when the bomb detonated. An explosive planted in this living room would kill us all.
The professor explains that Walter Bauer taught literature at a Canadian university, “no easy task” for the German expatriate. He loathed Kafka, preferring more “optimistic writers,” but was forced to teach him.
This bothers me, Bauer’s dismissal of Kafka. It bothered Bolaño that Pablo Neruda didn’t like certain writers. “Why didn’t Neruda like Kafka?” he mused. “Why didn’t Neruda like Rilke?”
My mother often said that Rilke’s poems helped her get through the war. But shortly before her death, she claimed his poetry no longer stirred her in the same way. I argued vehemently with her at the time although I’ve come to understand her position. Some writers and their works become markers for a certain phase in our lives from which we later transition. My ardent admiration for Neruda when I was twenty, for example, has evolved into subdued respect.
The professor welcomes questions. A woman asks, “What was Walter Bauer’s position on Canadian identity when this issue was debated during the 1970s?”
“There is no such thing as Canadian identity,” the professor replies. “We are all just human beings.” This strikes me as sensible. Then he adds that he left Québec at the time because he couldn’t stand all the protesters shouting Québec pour les québécois. “Too nationalistic,” he says. I glance at my Québécois acquaintance but he doesn’t flinch.
Then the generalkonsul rises to thank the professor and presents him with an envelope. The audience applauds.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks…
From Resurrection by Roberto Bolaño.
I follow the stampede to the dining room and take some cucumber sandwiches. A man and woman approach me. Newly arrived from Bonn, they are puzzled by the professor’s remarks about the Québécois. I explain that Québec’s French-speaking majority was once dominated by anglophones, many of them living up here on this hill overseeing the city.
The professor skitters into the dining room to promote his new book but I’m broke after the cab ride. He works the room then retreats, his hair in a wild, white flurry, to return to Ottawa.
The man with the duelling scar on his cheek introduces himself. His height and equestrian posture have me thinking of Stauffenberg. “I overheard you speaking German,” he says, “and am curious about your dialect.”
I explain that I learned German from my mother who was born in Estonia.
The man tells me he was born in Germany during the war. “I can’t understand why the professor had to bring up guilt and shame!”
I begin to tell him of my father-in-law who survived Mauthausen and moved to Argentina after the war. “He speaks of his time in the concentration camp,” I say. “And although his German is good, he prefers to communicate with me in Spanish. It’s his way of resisting –.”
“My father fought for the Wehrmacht in France and Russia. He came home in 1945 and never spoke of it once.”
“He should have.”
The man’s face reddens except for the scar, a cruel comma demarking his cheek.
There are expressive silences that work as resistant affirmations within works of beauty. Others, like this one, are haunted by denial.
The man bites into a sandwich and turns his back.
Later, when analysing what I could have possibly said to influence him, I will invoke Kafka’s words: “I had to restrain myself from putting my arm around his shoulders and kissing him on the eyes as a reward for having absolutely no use for me.”
The generalkonsul sidles up and takes my arm. In a placating manner, he tells me he was once posted in Estonia, shortly after the country’s independence. He leads me to the door and handing me a pen, asks that I sign the guestbook. I scan the German written by others, short phrases like Danke schön and gute Nacht. I write Danke Nacht and depart into the dark.
Shifting clouds reveal a radiant trail of stars over the distant river. I walk downhill to the sounds of rainwater dripping from the trees. And between each raindrop, silence.
Sources for poetry citations:
Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs, translated by Laura Healy, New Directions; 2008.
Wisława Szymborska, Poems – New and Collected, 1957 to 1977, translated by S. Baránczak and C. Cavanagh, Harcourt; 1998.
Cora Siré is the author of Signs of Subversive Innocents (Signature Editions, 2014) and The Other Oscar (Quattro Books, forthcoming in
2016). Her fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in magazines such as Maisonneuve, the Literary Review of Canada and Arc Poetry as well
as numerous anthologies. For details, please visit her website, www.quena.ca