Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections and the like –
I know but one freedom,and that is the freedom of the mind.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
In the news — on August 13, 1961, East Germany started construction on the Berlin Wall. That was fifty years ago. Some 18 years later, in August of 1979, I visited it, and had occasion to see it from both the West German and East German points-of-view. It took me quite a while afterward to construct this poem in response to the austerity I witnessed in the (then) communist sector, East Berlin:
Before the Fall
– for HGH
The radio tower looms
stark, above a lean landscape.
The singularity of gray reigns
in the atmosphere, unsmiling,
and hard says the eyes of its people.
The scars of World War II repose
untouched, pock-marked buildings –
mute monuments to the “evil West.”
Their pitted witness testifies
to a simple commerce
exchanged – communist pillaging
raids the tomb: tourist maps
exclude churches, chronology
begins ‘jahr zero.’
Yet here, its specter raised:
the Ishtar Gate
in sanctified lapis and gold,
King Nebuchadnezzar II’s ancient
wonder – forty-seven feet tall
and a hundred feet wide, its blue
tiles boast dragons and aurochs,
one hundred-twenty lions
anointed in regal-gold
line the Processional Way.
Reposited to the Pergamon Museum
brick by brick, the walls of Babylon,
expected to weep in captivity,
send up its plaintive wail. These very stones
cry out, mounting with new mortar
and sand, sing defiance:
We have risen!
In contrast with the opulence and prosperity of West Berlin, there were several things (besides the details included in the poem) that struck me about the visit: first, I was almost certain that I was going to meet my doom when I was required to enter East Germany through the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, being American and all. My traveling companion, a West German citizen, had to use a different checkpoint, and could not accompany me. We were to rendezvous on a specific corner on the East German side. I’d gotten through the first two security stations without much cause for alarm (except that they confiscate your passport and give it back to you on the other side) and was exiting through a fenced area, thinking I was in the clear, when a soldier carrying a rifle ran up behind me, shouting, “Fraulein! Fraulein!” I froze, my heart racing as I waited for the firearm to report, and wondered what I had done wrong that was about to get me shot.
“You forgot your passport!” he called. Relieved, I turned around and smiled weakly, gathered my errant, forgotten passport, and walked into the bright morning sun on the East German side. The second thing I remember is how disgusted my West German escort was about the wall’s very existence. “Germans watching Germans!” bemoaned my friend. We took lots of pictures of the emergency warning system that lined the banks of both sides of the river. Just in case someone accidentally fell in, (from either side) potential Good Samaritans were supposed to pull this alarm, (remarkably similar to a fire alarm) then wait thirty seconds before jumping in to save the drowning victim. That’s so the guards on either side would not suspect the Samaritan of being a defector in reality, and shoot. Appropriate aide would be administered only if the alarm had been set off.
Finally, the best treasures (and therefore, the best museums) were on the East German side, which was cause to visit. Despite that, however, the East German economy was rigged. We each (my West German friend and I) had to exchange 10 DM (Deutsche Marks) for East German Marks at a very unfair rate of 1:1, and spend all ten of them while we were in East Germany. You couldn’t hold on to the East German Marks as souvenirs, nor were you allowed to bring US dollars or West German currency across the border. Though fixed and tightly controlled, however, it was immediately apparent that the East German government spent very little money on sprucing things up for tourists, much less themselves.
Nonetheless, it was an historic and worthwhile experience overall. Quite an eye-opener. And although I hadn’t spent a tremendous amount of time reminiscing about it in the decade that followed, like the German citizens (on both sides) I saw working together toward its demolition, I, too, found myself exhilarated and rejoicing when, at last, in 1989, the wall came down.