Notes for Somebody in Berlin: a poem by Bel Schenk


You are worth keeping

like the ticket stub for this museum.

You are worth remembering

like the catastrophe I am trying to understand.



I tell you about my school.

Between the green glow of the exit light

and the echoing sounds of Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Tannenbaum

I look for families in the school hall.

A brother gives the middle finger.

A grandfather slumps in sleep next to a proud father with a comb-over.

Babies cry outside in the swaying arms of mothers. 

The chocolates in the snowy advent calendar melt in the heat

and of course the car has overheated. 



Back then, Lars writes to me.


My name is Lars. I am 10 years. I live in Hamburg. I play

football. I have a sister. I have brown hair. I like Michael Jackson

Thriller. Your name Schenk is German. You are German?

Good bye



Hello Lars,

No, I am not German. My great grandfather was born

in Germany but that was a long time ago. I like Michael Jackson

too. I have two sisters and I am in the middle.



And, the first time I cry for no particular reason.

Frau Haas puts her hand on my shoulder.

Tells me that crying for no particular reason is very womanly.

Girls look over and I grow up.



We take the U-bahn

You take my hand.



Drinking beer. It comes in large glasses.

I tell you that no one in Australia really drinks Fosters

You tell me that no one in Germany really wears lederhosen.

You take me to your apartment.

I take off your clothes (not lederhosen)

in a fog of beer (not Fosters)



We wander streets. Eat lunch inside the bustle of a tiny café.

I want you to translate

Exhaustingly Beautiful

Tell me

so I can describe you in German.



We talk about history. We’re supposed to, I think.

I relate the things I know

which is nothing, just text and movies, 

compared with you telling me the story of your great uncle.

You’ve told it before, I can guess:

When I heard about what he did to those people I almost wanted

to kill him. I don’t know how to explain it. Have you ever hated

someone you have loved also? He was a guard and not a very good

one. Or an excellent one. He said he obeyed orders.

He said lots of things.

You ask if there are many Jews in Australia.

I mention Melbourne, which is also a very cool city if you’re ever…

Halt. Stop. This is not the time.


In bed, my head on your stomach, I sing you 99 Luftballons

because it’s the only German song I know

besides Pizza und Pommes Frites, which is not very romantic or classy.



Three days later

There is a 6.15 flight to Frankfurt and I am on it

thinking about the things I left with you:

Deliberately – me in a photograph

trying to look like a film star from the thirties.

Accidentally – my jeans.

Regrettably – my email address. Should I not freeze you as perfection? 



Home and searching

the internet for my family history

I almost want something.

Just how many lives I am prepared to sacrifice for a story

remains unclear

because I shut these thoughts away.



We write emails.

Late at night, I am sharing my bed with technology

and your grandmother dies: there is no emoticon for this feeling.

I have an excuse to call you.

You are in the grocery store, buying canned fruit,

shopping in yesterday and you will never catch up.

This sentence keeps repeating: I feel so alone.

I tell you to buy fresh and sing a happy song.

Risk this: the weather is here. Wish you were nice.

Finally, make you laugh. You say thank you.

I will remember this phone call forever.

All the things I suspect about you confirmed. 



But, we write emails.

What subtle difference the added word makes in the same question.

I type how are you?

when I should have typed how are you feeling?

You say fine thanks.

and as the time between reply and reply and reply

gets longer,

I go back to re-read,

freeze you in perfection.


This poem is one of my favourites from Bel Schenk’s collection Ambulances & Dreamers, which is published by Wakefield Press. The collection is urban, modern, quiet and touching. The theme of solitude is carried throughout, but the poems alternate on whether or not this state is associated with loneliness, missing or pleasure. Aloneness can be a simple state or fact, or it can be enhanced to a condition – a missing of some other essential element, which may lead to a journey (corporeal or otherwise). Within this, Schenk quietly raises the question of what we need and want from one another; the shifting and sliding of desires, motives; and the impact of time and space upon this. The seeking, the surprises, the predictions – are carried through metaphorically with references to fortune cookies. It’s a pleasant and subtly contemplative read.

One thought on “Notes for Somebody in Berlin: a poem by Bel Schenk

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on “On a Role” « Adam Ford – poet, novelist, zinemaker, comic artist, show-off

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