Berlin Reading

Illustration by Christophe Dessaigne

Illustration by Christophe Dessaigne

In Fred’s Berlin reading he tackles a trio of poems written during a six-month sojourn in Berlin during 2015. In a prologue to the reading, Fred recounts a personal history that dovetails with the history of Germany, where his parents served in the U.S. Army in World War II as part of the liberation forces, helping survivors of the concentration camps. His father was a doctor at Auschwitz and his mother was a nurse at Dachau. The spectre of his parents’ involvement in the Holocaust served as a lens from which to understand and experience the city of Berlin; representing a new Germany full of young artists and exciting culture, as well as representing a setting imbued with a very personal past for Fred and his family.

The poems, “Laurels,” “Vigilant,” and “Miracle,” a selection of poems culled from a collection written during his stay in Berlin, represent the simultaneous and dual histories of the new and the old. This binary persists as the central theme in these works, where two lost nights are unseen but represented by a distant faded yellow light.

A laurel is the foliage of the bay tree woven into a wreath or crown and worn on the head as an emblem of victory or mark of honor in classical times. Laurel also has another meaning, as in to ‘look to one’s laurels’—be careful not to lose one’s superior position to a rival. The poem “Laurels” is an homage to the warriors who were not survivors: a gentle and powerful elegy.

In “Vigilant,” Fred turns his eye inward, writing in the first person. An observant child, “with an acute infinite measure,” speaks of a cautionary practice to make sure to never catch one’s gaze in a mirror. Perhaps it is because of a curiosity too strong, too unharnessed, that the child fears looking upon himself. For what he sees is suffering, and this double gaze of seeing suffering around him, and seeing this suffering refracted in his own eyes, compounds a reality too great for a child to assimilate.

“Miracle” is a dreamscape of desire, wherein the narrator walks without legs through an indescribable dream. Just as he is about to kiss the untouched heavenly womb, a female voice calls out, waking him up. Through her divine voice, he is able to rise up and walk, her “sweet Lazarus.” In the biblical narrative of the Rising of Lazarus, Jesus arrives in Bethany only to find that Lazarus is dead and has already been in a tomb for four days. When Martha laments to Jesus that he did not arrive soon enough to heal her brother, Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” In belief and belief alone, the power of faith is singular and omnipotent. It is the force of life, a waking life comprised of miracles.

The path that Fred leads the listener on through the narrative of these three poems creates a potent story of war, victory, the consequences of suffering as witnessed by a child, and finally, the miracle that persists in the face of tragedy and its aftermath. Like Lazarus, we too rise with the faith engendered by these poems, written deftly by a poet who masterfully guides his reader from the path of war to an Elysium thereafter.

Fred ChandlerComment