Friday, June 25, 2021

My German Dictionary

by Katherine Hollander
(The Waywiser Press, 2019) 

Reviewed by Star Coulbrooke 


It takes skilled wordcrafting, an ear for clarity, and a penchant for multiple levels of meaning to hone syntax into diction as rich as one’s country of origin. Katherine Hollander applies those traits to rouse language from an uncomfortable heritage, fashioning stanzas that expand into layers of national and ancestral history defined with elegant simplicity, intricate imagery, and complex metaphor. 

The introductory poem in My German Dictionary first presents a simple fact of the speaker’s personality:

I couldn’t be a good Jew, so I tried

to be a good historian. I couldn’t be

a good historian, so I wrote poems.

Then the poem complicates its assertion by insisting on what the speaker can and cannot write about, not the “Shoah” but the “Somme,” not the “heart” as “pocket watch,” but “swans / snails, stars, and mud.” Images arrive and gather intricacy with each stanza’s plea, asking “oak-owls” and “grandfather clocks” to help find her country, and handing readers a “good traveling coat” adorned with “fox fur collar / and a fat gold tassel,” along with the enticement of an irresistible metaphor:

Pull it on, and from the wide sleeve a little

cedar ladder nudges out, ready to take you away.

The first few rungs of that aromatic ladder are taken up by the seminal poem in Section I, “Answers to the Question Europe,” a series of sonnet-like scenes in a life with the last line of each section set apart in denial or affirmation, as in “dumplings” that “floated like little boats // not making a path I could follow home,” or a “half-dead” black cat that “showed me / its beautiful paws, which it held out // pink as soap, like little cameos.”  

Four connected poems comprise the middle of Section I, layering on scenes that pull readers further up the ladder: two German Jewish sisters who look alike and live together amiably except when fighting over “one another’s political affiliations” (“Sophie and Escha, 1929”); a young girl and her parents who live through the Berlin blackouts “at the stove, one burner on / a blue water lily of light” (“General Strike, Berlin 1920”); “dead youths” who “come in, / dragging their next war behind them” (“Great War”);  and a wounded soldier taken in by a family of bears in his delirium, bears who took off their skins “and hung them up in the hallway, and without them / they looked just like men” (“The Wounded Soldier”). 

To complete this suite of stories on the first few rungs of the ladder, the speaker asserts “Why I Don’t Do Genealogical Research”—assertion in the title, but not in the poem. Here we are treated to a lovely and fragile image, “the soul / like a translucent little figurine,” sustained through multiple other images as refracted and gradual as daylight glinting and graying with sunset, the beams and then the colors and then the soft, dark, descending souls of children whose lives were “very brief” and whose souls, the speaker wishes, 

    might have been lifted, 

and tucked, and zipped inside the thick  

impossibly soft fur buntings 

that are the striped trousers

and silken hoods of my two

cats, Henry and Christopher,

housecats whose lives are “gentle,” who are beloved, whose eyes reflect the souls of those children who began transitioning so beautifully in the poem, into the speaker’s “own murdered kinspeople,” and therefore her attitude against genealogical research.

Section II demands a strong and steady hand to hold the ladder, first for “War Suite,” a short poem series of excruciating contrasts, as in “The Family of Skeletons,” all those innocents killed in every war, who “wore our hearts in our breasts like red purses” and “used to eat blackberries / and bouillabaisse, falafel and cherries,” but who now “wear nothing, drink bowlfuls / of air.” Or “The Recruiter” whose heart “cramps like a fist,” who “lures the beautiful boys.” Or “The Parents” who “let the devil in the front door,” whose regret cannot be restrained:

Our son’s face looked into his face

like a bird charmed by a serpent,

a flower mesmerized by sun.

I know now I should have

let loose the unfriendly dogs.

I should have barred the door

with my own body.

“War Suite” then gives way to the “Book of Icons,” addresses to particular characters from the annals of European history, rendered with intricate description and infinite care. “Rosa Luxemburg,” for instance, who “crossed the border from Germany,” to make “an uneasy home, a mouse / in a knife drawer,” who was killed for her “murderous red language,” but “hush now—here you are”:

    in the meadow you loved so much,

up to your waist in the deep grass

and wild flowers, your eyes covered

with a bright visor of light.   

“Book of Ikons” melds with “Exile Diptych,” a poet-historian’s fancy for imagining Bertolt Brecht “abstracted” in Svenborg and searching for “something true” in Hollywood. The final poem of Section II, “Dear Union,” is in protest of Marine Le Pen and is written as an apology to the European Union, which the speaker describes as a lush, benevolent beast with “raisin-scented paws,” a spine “made of bridges,” and “solar panels” for a hat. 

Hollander’s skill in storytelling is enhanced by the creative accuracy of a poet/scholar, so that the first two sections of the book have already prepared readers for the third, in which the titles are in German, but there is no translation of the titles inside the poems. Instead, we get definitions in story-like images that impart knowledge of a time and a people we need to recognize if we are to live in a world that goes beyond the trauma of a dark and needlessly oblivious past. 

Here are just two poem excerpts, for example. “Die Courage” defines a concept, endowing it with human traits:

Everything soft or tender,

be banished. Anything that asks 

mercy, be exiled. A hard

cheese, that’s what you are,

sinewy, and with a voice

like smoke or a spice grater.

The speaker follows Courage “through the woods,” through poverty and illness, until the concept transforms into human action: “Foolish woman. / Go find your son.”

In “Verliebt,” young lovers begin as innocent creatures destined for a tragic fate:

Oracular valentine, with the drunk

little black milk snakes curled up

on your forehead. Their tongues

lapped the saucer and they fell

fast asleep. Your heart a black

heart, buttoned on with a mitten.

These 25 poems of definition tempt and thrill with adept imagery. Hollander is one of those rare wordsmiths who can place three or four adjectives in a row and make them work like magic. (See “drunk / little black milk snakes” in “Verliebt,” above, and check out the three-adjective detail in “Ohne,” where “seals sleep on the slick / black living lace that coats the rocks.”) 

Hollander’s techniques extend beyond the elements of language, syntax, and imagery. She has organized a manuscript that moves with meaningful intention from the moment that little cedar ladder extends from the sleeve of the traveling coat, “ready to take you away,” to the final moment of the final poem, “Zusammen,” imploring, “Call everyone. Call everything loved. / Take my hand. Let’s go.”

What a privilege to be led by this writer of inspiring intellect into a collection that reveals ever-intensifying histories of people and events, each unfolding in poem after poem, section after section, to culminate in a memorable volume that begs rereading, time after time, like all good tales of seemingly impossible human nature.


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