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Poetry Magnum Opus

Berlin (two attempts)


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In the spring of 1989 it became apparent that something new and strange was happening in Eastern Europe. When the Hungarians opened their border with Austria a flood of East German refugees poured into Hungary and then on to the West. That summer I went to Vienna and travelled from there to Budapest, Prague and East Berlin. Change was in the air and you could feel in your bones that it was only a matter of time before the whole system of puppet states collapsed. In the late summer and early autumn the great marches and mass demonstrations began; by the end of the year nearly all of the nations of the former Soviet Bloc had toppled their governments and opened their borders. It was as though an Ice Age had come to an end ....


As one they came,
a manyheaded multitude,
determined, not particularly brave,
impatient just to brush away
the webs and cords that bound them,
to find their way to freedom.
All changed, changed utterly
( "the words of a dead man
are modified
in the guts
of the living . . ." )
a terrible beauty is born.
As when in the hushed and hardwon chamber
one soft imprinted kiss
brought a tingle of bloodborne life
to the silent frozen form
and a world awoke
as it now awakes
to a shy but troubled dawn.


The colon in the title? Count the lines, then the words. The references are to Yeats' poem "Easter 1916", to Auden's eulogy on the death of Yeats, and the legend of the Sleeping Beauty.

This second piece is a bit of a ramble about actual events that took place in August of that year, when it looked as though the Wall would never come down.

Into the East

They sealed the train at Helmstedt,
nobody on, nobody off,
and just outside Berlin
the Vopos came on board
(Volkspolizei; people's police);
these arrogant surly bastards
came storming into the compartment
like the drug squad, like the old SS:
ahh, these loud unlovely Germans,
preserved, such irony, here in the East,
long after the ruin of Hitler.

"Papiere, Ausweis, Passport" bellowed
these louts, weighed down with pistols,
passport stamps, pumped-up hostility;
we were supposed to rise from our seats,
cringing and submissive, thinking
this way we could prevent them
from tearing apart our luggage, but they
do that anyway. Gobshites. Pardon the Irish.
A very tense, anger-filled fifteen
minutes later, you roll into West Berlin,
to the enclave of "freedom": Zoo Station.

In Cold War days this city was seriously weird,
slashed in half by the excrescence of the Wall.
The Wall: Die Mauer: flowers and graffiti,
flowers for the the ones who didn't make it
and graffiti for the guards who shot them.
I was 17 on my first visit, made the mistake
of leaving the subway on an empty platform;
well, not quite empty, there were two of us,
me and the guy with the machine gun,
hammer and sickle on his helmet, the wait
for the next train dragged on for a year.

On the Ku'Damm and at Ka-De-We
the consumer West was at its best,
flashing lights, jittery signals of possible pleasure;
the whores in leather minis, of all sexes
and then some, hard to tell apart,
would rasp at you in the hard city argot
"Na, Liebchen ... sag' mal, was moecht's Du?"
"Garnichts, gute Nacht!", a cheese-eating grin,
then pounding the bright stony pavements,
past the Imbiss stalls, the smells of Curry-Wurst:
Zoo Station? Uncaged within an encaged city.

One should never lightly contemplate
a visit to the East, and I will tell you why:
it involves a visit to the bank, or casual contact
with one of the shady unshaven characters
flashing rolls of bills on street corners.
You get a five, maybe six-to-one exchange
on Ostmark for your (real) Westmark money,
which you stuff into your socks, or up
your ... whatever makes you feel secure,
then you step off the train at Friedrichstrasse
and march up to Checkpoint Charlie.

The GIs wave you through (no skin off their ass)
and, not feeling so great, you approach the real border
between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Here we go. Once you enter that door
("You are now leaving the American Sector")
they have you by the balls, you pass
into Their World. What's going to happen here?
First, you wait. Then you show your passport,
and the blond young jerk inspects it for five whole minutes,
I kid you not, flicking his gooseberry eyes
from the photo to your face, from your face to the photo.

Then they move you along to another room
where they tear your luggage apart, empty
your bags completely, inspect the seams,
leave you then to gather up the mess;
today they are not interested in socks,
or body cavities, a relief, for although we know
their system sucks, we don't really want
to get caught with a rolled-up wad of bills.
Finished? Nein. Sit around and wait. One more
careful passport check: photo, face; photo face,
then the barrier clicks, you're through!

Through, perhaps, but through to what?
God, it's all so grey and empty.
They force you to change 25 DM (one-to-one)
so with the money in my socks, I am now
a cruising unit, a man with money to burn.
My steps lead me to the nearest restaurant
(brain and belly in perfect synchronisation)
and, after a visit to the dank and clanking toilet
return with my fists full of banknotes
for the best meal in two months of hardass travelling.
Say what you like, I'd been starving!!

Replete, burping slightly, politely,
ambling along to Unter den Linden
and a view of the Brandenburg Gate
for the second time, but now from the other side.
You can see the West through the arches,
the golden Siegessauele, the Tierpark, my God!
It seems a million miles away.
And it is. Sharp right to the Museuminsel;
so how did these people end up with the heart of the city?
100,000 Russian dead. Now the Ishtar Gate of Babylon,
Nefertiti's bust, gather dust under their control.

Alexanderplatz. Das altes Rathaus.
Time for a beer ( I have to, have to
spend this money! There is nothing, nothing to buy!)
I walk down the steps and get directed to a table
with four other guys; they do this all the time,
there is no such thing as choosing your own space,
there is no such thing as choice, period.
These guys are all strangers to each other
but they go silent, anyway, at my approach;
a few cautious greetings, veiled assessment,
then I toss the pack of Marlboro on the table.

Holy shit!! Their eyes bug out on stalks:
Western cigarettes!! This guy has Western cigarettes!
Therefore (you can hear, almost see the gears clunking in) ...
this guy is from the West!!!! A pregnant pause.
Eyes start flicking from one to another,
is it OK to talk to this guy? can I trust you,
are you an informer, will you turn me in?
I keep politely silent, waiting to see
what, if anything, will come of this.
The silence lasts a full two minutes.
One guy clears his throat, decides to jump in.

That was one of the best nights of my life
(didn't hurt I had all that funny money to burn)
and we all got deliriously happily smashed
with only one bad moment, when a new arrival
looked set to be joining our disorderly table:
immediate shutdown; immediate tension.
The guy moved on and the relief was palpable.
I want to go to Paris, they whispered,
I want to go to London or to Rome --
I am sick and bloody tired of holidays
in Poland or Rumania. Bugger the Russians.

The last thing to report, dear reader,
is that the insidious Cinderella Rule, whereby
day visitors from the West, capitalist running
dogs, the Unenlightened, whatever they
may choose (have chosen) to call us,
must cross the border before midnight
or face hassle, fines or imprisonment.
Picture this, because it happened, a platoon
of beaming beery East Germans, bellowing out
drinking songs, no longer giving a toss,
making sure yours truly got safely across.

Drown your sorrows in drink, by all means, but the real sorrows can swim

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Fascinating reading both pieces. The first for its concise and more formal poetic exactness. The second, a lucid, human and atmospheric aspect of an excursion through oppression. Formidable and significant work. G.


"like the old SS:

ah, these loud unlovely Germans,

preserved, such irony, here in the East,

long after the ruin of Hitler."

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Randver Askmadr

Wow, I spent 3 years in Germany, before the wall came down. Never had the chance to visit "the other side." Your writing makes me feel as if I had been there myself. Loved the alliteration to the old Germany. Now I want to go back and visit.

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