Where the said and the unsaid share places: An encounter with Berlin poet Esther Dischereit and her alert, wise poems.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin – 6 million Jews were murdered Photo: Stefan Boness
My grandmother was 20 years old when she voted for Hitler, and she was 91 when she died and still could not decide to cry a single tear for six million murdered Jews. She remained hard and self-righteous to the end, and every conversation about the Shoah made her nervous. She couldn’t marry a Jew, she once told me. Not even a black man. Apart from a German, the most she would have considered was a Swede. She reacted indignantly to the corresponding accusation of being an anti-Semite and racist. There was no way she was. She would despise the Nazis.
The longer my grandmother is dead, the more sinister her sentences become to me, the more monstrous the life lie of the "decent Germans". There is no more common everyday life, no Romme, nothing, what after my failed attempts of an argument ("Apologize to your grandmother, immediately!"), again to the "normal course of events" could lead over. Almost every day, despite Corona, I have to think about her at the moment. About how she was panic-stricken by drafts. Of the wind that disturbed her peace.
"Sometimes a single leaf / sails to the ground caught by streaks of air / and released again".
When I encountered Esther Dischereit’s language and also the poet herself, my grandmother was already dead. This circumstance was a relief to me. In a sense, I would no longer have to bring my grandmother with me, could mention her "fellow traveler" in the past tense. The imposition it must be for a Jewish woman to sit down at a table with the descendants of the perpetrators seemed a bit smaller to me because of the grandmother who was not brought along.
"You have plunged me / into this everlasting blackness / you have hung the Jewess and the girl / in your walls / rubbed your member on my black hair / after the murder you mount your victims / as you love them / the dead."
In times of right-wing extremist violence
It is an early Friday evening when Esther Dischereit shows me her new book. She brings it with her to a small Berlin cafe and I stow it away in my bag like something I’d rather contemplate alone. Over the next few days I start reading, in Thuringia Bjorn Hocke elects prime minister. In Hanau, a far-right racist and conspiracy theorist shoots nine people, then his mother and himself – "as you love them / the dead".
Esther Dischereit first published the poem "Deutsches Lied" in 1996, in the midst of a decade of far-right violence in Germany; it can now be found – the time is once again or still one of far-right violence in Germany – in her new book, a bilingual selection of her poetry.
Esther Dischereit: "Sometimes a Single Leaf." Arc Publications, 2020. available to order at arcpublications.co.uk, £12.59.
The publication could not be more topical, although there is a certain irony in the fact that this book is not published in Germany, but by the English publishing house Arc Publications. For many years now, the poet and storyteller Esther Dischereit has been considered one of the most interesting contemporary voices. In the U.S. and England, she is received attentively and translated here by the multi-award winning Iain Galbraith. "Sometimes a Single Leaf" is the title of the poetry collection. Original text and translation stand side by side. The reader can wander, run back and forth, or stop in front of a poem for as long as she wants.
"The seagulls screamed and / ran on the walls / left the land / with a flap of their wings." Like the seagulls, Esther Dischereit’s poetry can change places with a flap of its wings. Things transform, subject and object, writes Iain Galbraith in a brilliant preface, exchange roles, and the self can never be sure. An incessant listening and hearing drives it, a tension in which the said and the unsaid share places.
When no one wanted to know about guilt
Esther Dischereit was born in 1952 in Heppenheim an der Bergstrasse in Hesse. Her mother and older sister, fleeing from hiding place to hiding place, were among the very few to survive the Holocaust in Germany. The mother died early, and the sister only gradually began to talk about her experiences. The family still had a means of suicide at home long after the war. In a society where perpetrators get away with it and no one wants to know about guilt, it seemed more reasonable that way.
"What do you tree stand / and look / into the fields / the streams and rivers / man and beast / the air stands frozen stiff / above your branches and / shows me ways / of which / had been there."
The abyss lies before the last line: an impossible leap from the present into the pluperfect, into a past, that is, that has already passed in the past. It is the time measure of the silent majority, one of repression and coldness, in which the I must muster the strength to encounter and search for the traces of the murdered. It will be better to beware of the center, which is strangely optimistically invoked in Germany.
"I go and leave my splinters". That would be such a second, in which distance succeeds and the I, for a wonderfully floating line, leaves itself and the incurable injury behind.
"The moon / dipped / through your closed eyes / I don’t know your name / as the night lay in your arms / I took the kisses with me." Again and again one encounters beauty in these poems. The warmth, the kisses – they, too, belong to this I that is too awake, too wise to close itself off. It has courage, this I, and in the open space of its language, loneliness may be contradicted, sorrow may be felt. Growing up on the side of the perpetrators, I also have to think about this when I read.
How rigid my grandmother’s language was, how stanzaic and incapable of approaching the truth. She would have run out of these poems in a panic, lost her bearings. And yet she so loved to know where above and below, where the middle is. Exactly there, in the middle, where one’s own self-image is rarely doubted, she, a loyal voter for the CDU after the war, located herself. I hear her silence, and I read these poems by Esther Dischereit, about which the writer Preti Taneja has said that we could not need them more urgently than right now.