The meditation needs to be simple. Think of a landscape, a lake, or a field, maybe a river. You move away from your holding. It might be aridity or the walls of a room. When you leave, you take an item with you, one that catches your attention. You walk where you see the path, unless something calls for you to traverse waves, a desert, a line. Notice what you meet, who appears. At every gate there are guardians. At every threshold there are questions. As you approach the limit, the seductive rim, or a line drawn by hand into the sand, remember: There is no return. There is multiplication. The burying of the body in many places.
I come from the border, Grenze, Grenzstreifen, nation, wall, barbed wire, west that is east that is a city and also a consciousness of rivers. I come from the swell, a city built on swamp. Whatever ground it is that grew me, the lines run firmly through it. The gray mother spat, sank into the zones, with hard bones in the hold. Mostly dependent on the other side, placing stone onto stone onto stone. The uneven shapes that allow for holes.
Distances keep secrets. That is to say, a map can also be departure, deviance, decline. Its variant narratives both durable and permeable.
I want the inner cartography and the legend to expose a weave, a map both coming from far away and from deep within.
Berlin is rainy and overcast. Summer delayed by a weather event named Elvira. The year 2016. Precarious times. In a small room in a Hinterhaus apartment the dead poet appears in my dreams. I know that she is dead but here fully alive, exhilarating and thin. The dead poet talks of happiness, which is not found in ridiculous salaries, and then walks up to a dark stage to read. The technician has disappeared. The lights are out. The dog is half cat. Afterwards we exit together, and I thank her many times.
The German word “Hinterhaus” refers to Berlin’s courtyard architecture, where some apartments are only accessible once you cross through the courtyard to the “back house” or the house within the house. The room is just big enough for a mattress, a literal bedroom, from which I can see the chestnut tree. Occasionally voices travel along the walls.
Within the rooms of the imagination sits a clavis, a device that can name and insurrect affinities. It absorbs words, intimacies, and sometimes the taste of a good ingredient for its task. And the task is to reflect, like mercurial waters, what is given what is found, what is understood what is still unknown. Inside each body there are also hallways, for example, the clavicle is a bone, a strut, which connects the shoulder blade and the sternum. Now bludgeon those words; smash them together into a cool space.
I am living in Berlin for the first time since our departure more than 20 years ago, and take the train out east to Frankfurt Oder. It was from its city limits that the Red Army, in 1945, moved into full offensive to occupy Berlin. The Germans burned down the bridge, which connected the two parts of the city and below which the river Oder flows. The Potsdam agreement divided Frankfurt Oder, one side belonging to Germany and the other to Poland. The line was not drawn but asserted with the narrow side of a hand. Frankfurt Oder, the German side, retained its original name and became part of the GDR post World War II. Its other half was named Slubice. A handball team traveled between the two cities.
I descend the steep hill from the train station towards the university. The street I must cross is called Priest Street. What are the priests doing so close to the university? Once I have crossed, I become a visiting researcher of the linguistics seminar. Already I have trespassed; try to become a linguist within an hour. The professor says things like “language is a local practice.” Or “there is no ‘pure’ data.” And “no observation survives without theory.” I have a desire to out myself, declare insanity or at least misunderstanding. I am not a scholar, especially not a linguistics scholar. Somehow I fooled entire clusters to affect what? The professor reminds the class that innovation can only function if it incorporates existing patterns, and if the recipients respond positively to the innovation. She illustrates this through an example of puppets, improv music, and writing. “Of course, you can always act against patterns,” she adds. “You could rip the piece of paper apart and burn it, rather than read and understand it.” Again I consider fleeing. But the question remains: from what?
Shortly after my arrival in Berlin, on a sunny afternoon, I have my remaining wisdom teeth removed. The teeth lie bloody on a tray. The teeth are large and full of wisdom. The right side was taken out before I left the continent. The left side is now gone too, as I practice a kind of return. Once the teeth are gone, their memory remains in the pink flesh of the scar. For the first time in decades I feel a contraction in my body. I am unable to concentrate. I can smell the faint smoke of cigarettes from a neighboring apartment. There is also a choked sensation, a field at the center of the planetary motion. This area is storage to a million different feelings, comingling and feasting on the field. I have not been here in so many years, distracted myself with plans, travels, conversations in avoidance of this, how to call it, incomparable ruin?
On the train east I read poems by the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski, who once wrote “when something disappears in the world an empty room is created. If I enter this space, I can begin to perceive what once happened here. Warsaw’s ghetto, now Murnow, did not even have ruins.” In Fiscowski’s poem sequence “Errata”, which means printing error, the poem becomes the smuggled unofficial version that cannot be otherwise transported.
A white zone is an area that is no longer publicly accessible. Removed from all maps, it is left to itself or re-imagined for highly specialized purposes. For example, after a bark beetle invasion the Soviet army occupied a piece of land along the Polish-German border during the 1950s. It became a shooting range for tanks and infantry. After 1989 the Soviet army retreated and Germany developed plans to make it the biggest bomb target practice area in Central Europe. The 140 kilometers of thick forests were declared “a military white zone” and became a prohibited area, after local residents formed a large citizens’ initiative “to free the landscape.”
The teeth will be thrown away and the city will stay in my bones.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yanara Friedland is a German-American writer and translator. Her first book Uncountry: A Mythology was the winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Fiction award and is forthcoming in German translation with Mattes & Seitz. She is the recipient of research grants from the DAAD and Arizona Commission on the Arts, supporting her current book project Groundswell, a chorography of border regions in the German-Polish and Sonoran borderlands. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Asymptote, Western Humanities Review and The Volta. She is Assistant Professor at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.
ABOUT THE MANUSCRIPT
Groundswell is a collection of border narratives, interviews, testimonies and biographies investigating the living archive of historical borders, such as the former east-west division in Germany, as well as the more acute and militarized borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico. The essays include lived experiences of borderers, walks along the geopolitical line, and the narrator’s own confrontation with spatial and temporal bordering processes. Groundswell is an attempt at chorography, textual mapping, composed from anecdotes, fragmented memories, and wounded landscapes. Inspired by oral history projects, such as Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl”, each section of the manuscript forges a multivocal text, asking: what if the border itself began to oracle and direct?