Something Not Sayable – A Post for Heidi’s Mother

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett













My Mother’s Foot

The main door into the nursing home slides open,
an exhalation of stale air. The gift shop
still has hand-knitted toques and scarves for sale,
though it’s the first day of Spring. There is a leather chesterfield
and matching love seat. There are people
foot pedalling their wheelchairs in the hallway.
I walk around them.
There is the nurses’ station to pass
and the gathering room, a maze of wooden tables and chairs
and artificial flower arrangements,
the fluorescent lights too bright, too harsh
for anything real to grow here.
I drop a nasturtium seed at each turn.

You are where you always are, watching Turner classics
in your room with the door closed. I knock
and enter without waiting to be invited in.
You’re propped up in bed and say you were at a party
where you danced with Fred Astaire.
You were still walking then and your foot hadn’t blackened yet.
You sound different,
your voice sticking to the floor
like the fruit cocktail you spilled. Outside your window
crocuses and daffodils, but I’m thinking about summer
and day lilies, their upraised shrivelled fists.

Heidi Garnett, March 2015, Unpublished

This post is dedicated to the Canadian poet, Heidi Garnett and her mother , Bruna (Brunhilde) Wiehler, who died yesterday in Kelowna at the age of ninety one. And, also to her father Horst, who died in 1997 at the age of seventy nine. Heidi’s poem, the epigraph for this post, was written just a week ago. What a difficult ending to a difficult and extraordinary life few of us could imagine. A life that included harrowing months alone with Heidi, her three-year-old daughter, in the far eastern reaches of Germany at the end of the Second World War in territory, occupied by the Russian army, near what was Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.

I have been privileged to follow Heidi’s poetry career for almost ten years. Her poems have won or been short-listed for numerous poetry contests in the U.K., Canada and the U.S. But my greatest privilege has been to watch Heidi grapple with her painful family history through her poetry. Trying somehow through memory and metaphor to make sense of the senseless waste of war. To come to peace with what no three-year-old should have experienced.

I am very aware of the German atrocities committed during the war; far less aware of the retaliatory atrocities committed against the German civilian population in its aftermath, especially in the eastern Russian controlled areas of Germany that, later, became parts of Russia and Poland. After listening to Heidi’s stories I wrote this poem a few years ago. I dedicate it to her, and her mother and father. The challenge in writing so-called horror stories is to somehow create a distance, a space between the horror and the reader.

Her Father’s Wartime Portrait

falls out of her book of poems, The Horse Latitudes,
long after his last ship sank and long after
he swapped his German naval cap for a baker’s white hat
in Alberta.

Dead for years, what haunts him the nights he appears
at the foot of Heidi’s mother’s bed and says nothing? Love, this silence –
straight and sure as the tracks torpedoes make.

The sense the North Sea is
is nonsense for a sailor, swimming for his life at night inside it.

So many ways, in words and waves, to drown.

The sense a father is
is nonsense for a girl awake in her bed in her mother’s room,
listening to her mother’s breath, in the other bed, muffled
under the Russian officer – war’s rough weight.

So many ways, at night, to drown.

The sense a divided country is
is nonsense for a man who travels eight hundred kilometres
to rescue his wife and three-year old daughter
inside it.

The sense Alberta is
is nonsense in the dreams a wife and mother
dreams of 1945, eastern Germany.

So many ways, in war, to stay alive.

The sense, for a little girl, a circus is,
is madness for an elephant, four feet

balanced on a stool.

Richard Osler, unpublished

When I wrote my poem with its strange and for me, utterly unexpected ending, I did not realize that one of Heidi’s coveted pleasures growing up was to go to the circus. Poetic serendipity. The things a poem knows before we do!

When I want to try and write about the the horrors, the unsayable things of this world, as I did in my poem, I often come back to a poem by American poet Robert Hass. And now at the death of Heidi’s mother, who endured a similar unsayable at the hands of Russian soldiers as the women in Hass’s poem, his poem seems a horribly perfect way to honour Heidi’s mother. What I so admire in Hass’s poem is how it almost seems to come apart as Hass struggles to recount unspeakable obscenities, to say as he says, the unsayable. To say what must be said.

(Warning: This poem contains distressing war-related atrocities.)

Winged and Acid Dark *

A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamerplatz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Basho told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no way to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine.

Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.

*“Potsdamerplatz, May 1945.” From Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in a Conquered City, translated by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, 2005.

Robert Hass, from Time and Materials, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007

In the middle of this poem, just after it seems Hass has described the worst, he begins to add an even more awful and demeaning detail. But before he gets to the punch line, Hass makes a poetic move which is so deft I remain in awe of it. He stops himself. Pulls himself right out of the poem and inserts this challenge, this comment of Basho:

Basho told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no way to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Then, and only then Hass, after this slight reprieve, gives us his awful punchline. which becomes even more impactful through its delay. And what irony: Hass quotes Basho saying to avoid sensational materials and then goes right ahead and gives us them. He refuses to do what Basho abjures but then manages, through the rest of Basho’s statement, to remind us these horrors of the world are not the truth of the world. Then ends his poem trying in an almost offhand way to describe other, beautiful, truths. Curves the swallows trace in air. Masterful.

How do we say the unsayable, deal with sensational materials? Hass’s poem, I think, meets that challenge. This is the same challenge my friend Heidi faces in her new manuscript of poems and her novel in progress which both try to make meaning out of the horrors Heidi was born into in 1942 in Germany. No need to go into all the details of what this one family endured during the aftermath of the war. Except this: thanks to the courage of her mother and father Heidi was one of the few children, if not the only one, in their village to survive the war and what came later.

As I write this post, honouring a mother who survived unsayable events from seventy years ago, I cannot avoid thinking about the countless women in war-torn areas of the world today who continue to live inside the horror of what Heidi’s mother escaped. Until these horrors end poets must continue to say the unsayable and even then, however difficult, remind us of something other, something as simple as curves the swallows trace in air.

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