- "To Sew of the Cloth of Despair Something Visible"
Poems inspire reflections on the era we are in and what it could mean
I have been riveted by a book of poems by poet Ingrid Wendt, The Angle of Sharpest Ascending. Reading Wendt's book was like standing on a chair in a room of mirrored walls. The images began spilling over into my dreams, images traveling the lives of writer and reader, of two poets, one Jewish-American, one German-American.
Angle is a courageous, luminous book, and an especially important one in these repressive times. "What voices of the past have we not chosen?" Wendt asks. "…Every past a silence to be spoken" ("Coda: Rune," p. 65). And break silence she does, using questions as the architecture of her collection.
On a Fullbright Fellowship to Frankfurt in 1994-95, Wendt began questioning the German part of her ancestry after years of "rejecting the German language," and avoiding, for decades, this part of her heritage. "How dare I write this poem?" Wendt asks at one point in her "Questions of Mercy" poem. [End Page 153]
The question is a one-line stanza, solitary and resonating on its own page. And Wendt begins to "live the questions," as Rilke has said, as in:
…My father's parents were German. My mother's were German. Who can bear to belong
to a country, a whole generation whose fathers, whose mothers, oneself with the whole world agrees were wrong?
…Atone, atone, who can ever atone? ("Questions of Mercy, 9" p. 79)
Her voice, throughout, is this raw, this honest.
In four long poems, Wendt witnesses how she builds, "seed by/syllable,/image by sound" ways she has carried history within her. As she says in her introduction, she was
born in the last year of the second world war to parents who had grown up speaking German with their families in Michigan and Chile, but who did not speak it in our Illinois home. I did not, until adolescence begin to wonder why. 'We didn't want you using German words at school,' my mother once said. That was it. The issue was closed. But something unspoken, something troubling, stayed with me, waiting to be someday acknowledged and understood. Something involving Germany's role in the second World War, which never, in my memory, was mentioned all the years I was living at home…(p. 13)
Wendt explores how the German language inhabits her, from examining
the structure of language reflecting all of its inner assumptions: German American, my own feet the points of a compass straddling oceans… ("Overture, I" p. 52)
to images of climbing under the covers of her mother's bed as a child and her mother asking in German, "Bist du/ein gutes Mädchen?" (Are you a good girl?) ("Learning the Mother Tongue," p. 47) to learning to lie about the origin of her name,
And here is my betrayal, my shame.
Last summer in Norway, nearly everyone I met was delighted: 'Ingrid, that's a Norwegian name!'
'Yes," at first I said, 'it is. [End Page 154]
but really, I'm German, I'm named for Ingeborg, my German-Chilean cousin.'
'Yes,' I learned to say. 'Ingrid is a Norwegian name.' ("Questions of Mercy, 5," 75)
Wendt travels to and lives and teaches in Germany. She examines her own inner silences, and she must also decipher the external silences, the spoken/unspoken words she hears from friends, family, and colleagues. For example, the "unmarked rectangles of brass," at a monastery courtyard about which friends were "vague." As she says in "Questions of Mercy, 7" "Kloster Arnsburg: unmarked, the graves of 88 massacred/we didn't know lay right beneath the green of the courtyard." She later finds out that these were, as she says in parentheses, the graves of ("Panzer factory prison workers, in transit to Buchenwald—just ahead/of the Allies, the end of the war, the fleeing Gestapo./It was simpler to shoot them.") (p. 77).
She learns to rely upon the visible/invisible messages of her body: rage at...