The Angle of Sharpest Ascending
Review of Angle of Sharpest Ascending, by Frances Payne Adler (145.9KB)
Read review by Frances Payne Adler, appearing in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, 2006
From “Learning the Mother Tongue” (a poem in 17 parts)
It's wicked, I know, but sometimes I can't help feeling just
the tiniest glee when my good German friend, whose English tongue
has mastered the footwork of all Swan Lake ballet, stumbles over
the English translation of wenn, saying "if" when she really means
"when," and vice versa,
while I, good German American, keep
clumping along: learning the word Kopfsalat, for example ("head
lettuce"), so proud of myself: first time in the land of all four
grandparents, shopping for salad, asking the produce clerk "Haben Sie
ein Kopf, bitte?" "Ja, natürlich," she answers. "Und Sie?"
Always the question: Did our Illinois family speak German at home?
During the war years in which I was born? Let’s qualify:
Father born 1902 in Chile. Mother, 1911, in Michigan. There, that does it.
Except for the shadow. (Fit in. Fit in. What else is there to know?)
And still, "Mach schnell!" (when I was too slow).
"Strewwelpeter!" (my hair was a mess).
"Dreh dich rum," my mother would say in her Schwabian mother's
tongue, never, of course, outside of the family, never
translating: sporadic spices her tongue dished out without
one of us questioning. Look!
In this textbook, the recipes: words with real
meanings attached. “Make quick!” “Naughty
child from Heinrich Hoffmann’s pen!” It’s not
after all, just
family oddness, not
baby talk. Look at
this middle-aged tongue abandon its teetering. This
fabulous, sturdy new foot!
From “Questions of Mercy” (a poem in 16 parts)
2.  What is wrong with this picture?
Here are the famous Medieval cathedrals,
stone on stone on stone, just
history books show them to be.
Here is the new stained glass by Chagall.
Here, unobtrusive, the flat-faced, modern
city apartments, their uniform
windows that open two ways. As always,
the ancient clock on the village town hall.
Here are the temples, the synagogues, gold
domes shining--modern, the architects'
vision, preserving what's old.
Here are the guards, outside of the walls.
Here is the Romerplatz, Fachwerked again,
beguiling, surrounding the central fountain,
cups and glasses clinking; in winter
the Christmas market, hot Glühwein, bright stalls.
Here, the new bright clusters of poppies:
every village roof-tile, a blossom.
Winding streets, their floods of geraniums.
Each house with its fresh, whitewashed wall.
Here, wide-open, the fields for Sunday
walks, year-round, so green, the forests
so carefully tended, the vineyards.
Nowhere, nowhere, did anyone fall.
Here are the camps, open to tourists.
Green wreaths on the train station wall.
The names of those who took those trains.
The attempts to remember them all.
Here, the monuments.
There, the monuments.
Everywhere, the open acknowledgment.
What other absence dares sit on my heart?
"Saatfrüchte sollen nicht vermahlen werden"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Father of Jürgen, lost
wherever your submarine went down:
your son has become an architect, working his way
up, from stage one. If only you could see his own home,
angled just so, so the sun, precisely at noon, will shine
through one small window: high, high, just under the roof.
Father of Olivia, lost
who knows where: your daughter's
a teacher, she can't forget finding, when she
was twenty, your photo, your Wehrmacht uniform (so it
was true!), your parents, insisting the ending was wrong.
When she can, she asks poets and Jews to speak at her school.
Father of Volker (professor of
Geography): he learned at twelve you fell
with the SS in Hungary. Every Sunday the family
dinner: the East German question, your absence everyone
skirted around. He's taken a photo of where you fell, a flower.
He speaks this line from a poem: What we seek for has no place.
Fathers whose names must not be spoken
Fathers we don't know how to mourn
Fathers who may not be in Heaven
Fathers who didn't come home
Father who did, who lived,
for your son's first six years, behind bars
of a Russian prison camp, your son--named for your
best friend shot down over England--your son has become
a pastor, the father of four, a concert organist. Big man.
Jolly man. All his life he has hated his 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.
But really, I'm German, I'm named for
Ingeborg, my German-Chilean cousin.”
“Yes,” I learned
to say. “Ingrid is
a Norwegian name.”
From “Memory/Memorial: Themes and Variations” (a poem in 10 parts)
Part of the interdisciplinary gallery exhibit titled "Memory/Memorial"
Eugene Oregon, June 16-27, 1999
For Susi Rosenberg, Sculpter and Ingeborg Kolar, mixed media artist
High above the village of Sankt Goar on the banks of the Rhine
Eight years after my aged father’s great German-Chilean heart
Stopped, I stepped where he as a dreamer fifty years
Before had recited Heine’s poem of enchantment
And took with me flowers, friends, a poem of
My own about him, which we read aloud
And burned, and I cast the ashes over
The river that never for him saw
Battle, saw shame, and I let
This young father go.
And when my mother
Telephones from Tucson to say
The family graves in Michigan will be
Tended again this year, she’s sent a distant
Cousin a check for geraniums, red as those we
Always planted every Decoration Day in memory of
Her own German parents dead before I was born, their
Granite stones my playground, their stillness my truant heart,
She doesn’t say When I am gone or guess I know her fear. Lord,
How do I live truly and still plant hope with the right, bright word?
To plant, to build, to sew of the cloth of despair something visible.
Shrine. Altar. Pillar. To join, in this ritual, every known legion
Of loss. Look, here is our faith in Forever, forever gone.
Here, the proof our strongest love wasn’t enough.
Look, this last grasp at permanence: trusted
Stone holding in view what arms cannot.
Your name. This incomprehensible
Absence. Look, here is myself,
As never before, pleading
No, No, No, No, No.,
O Saint Anthony
Patron of everything lost,
Your vocal chords hung behind
Glass in the great cathedral of Padova
Over your pickled, jeweled, silent tongue,
Last year I touched your tomb’s green marble,
The way new friends insisted. My fingertips tingled
With who knows what if not inexhaustible stored up grief
And hope. Or was it spirit? Or was it the pulse of every last
Hand before me, burned into stone. Holding me steady, this hum.