Ralph sent me the postcard from Germany. It was black and white, and her haunted eyes stared out from a starkly pale face; a beret, pulled back, covered her hair and neck, and-I was sure of it-a faint stubble covered her chin. Do you know this poet? One of my favorites, he wrote. I glanced at the postcard’s information: Gerthe Missant, 1914-1967.
I was fascinated. Against the blackness of the background, her face seemed to float, as severe and thin as a crescent moon. What poetry, I wondered, could she write, this woman with her odd, angular face and unhappy eyes?
I searched the internet, the libraries, for biographies or poems, finding only an old, untranslated anthology of literature. German II, a course I had formerly loathed, became my passion, and I devoured irregular verbs and case-specific noun modifiers, struggling to understand the few poems I could find, to know the meaning behind Missant’s spare lines.
I started imagining histories for her: she had spent her time in smoke-hazed cafés, drinking bitter drinks and exchanging quips with authors; she had been put in the camps (was she Jewish? did it matter?), starved until even her beard stopped growing; she had fled the Nazis in the late ’30s and lived for years in London and Paris, smoking cigarettes and writing on thin paper while pigeons circled her head; she had left Germany for Greece in the ’50s, frail, coughing thirty years of smoke from her lungs.
I bought a black beret and pulled it back so that it covered my hair and neck. I visited coffee houses in my spare time, murmured German gerunds and plural articles into my espresso cup. I stopped reading novels-stopped, almost, reading English, and carried at all times the tattered library anthology that I constantly renewed.
How had she gotten that strange bristle of beard, that odd growth she never mentioned in the poems I read? When she grew older, or infirm, had she given up and let the beard grow, trimmed herself a handsome goatee? In all my fantastic biographies-she married an architect, scrolled on columns; she stopped writing and made tables; she was a professor so controversial the German universities erased her name-I never knew the history of that stubble, the thin shade along the jaw that most fascinated me. Her poetry was beautiful-had she spent her life perfecting it to defy the jeering crowds? Did she know what it was to be a sideshow, stared at by every passerby, watched with pitying fascination? Or had she been immensely popular, favored despite her androgynous features?
I read German poetry, I read her poetry, learning the cadence, repeating the phrases, hoping to learn enough to read between the lines. I asked my professor, who had never heard of her. I asked other scholars, who knew her work but not her history. Ralph was always out of town when I tried to call him.
After about a year (during which I changed my major to German, for which they said I had great potential), I knew I would have to go there. I decided to do a year of study abroad-to practice speaking, I told my friends, to study the language as it was spoken every day.
I didn’t care how it was spoken every day-I wanted to know how it was spoken in the thirties, in the forties-I wanted to know how Missant had spoken it, and to whom. I wanted to see if the places she had written about were still standing, if the streets she had lived on were still the same, if there was anyone else interested in a dark-eyed poet with stubble on her chin.
Everyone in Berlin spoke English, in varying degrees of throatiness. I found the guttural accents unpleasant, alarming, like old WWII movies, and spoke only in German, hoping they’d take the hint. It was no use; the natives laughed at my archaic, formal syntax and the lyric vocabulary I’d acquired. As I looked out the window of the Taxe, seeing the buildings I’d read about missing or broken, disillusionment settled over me like the grit-flavored smog enveloping the car.
There was no one to meet me; I had scheduled it so that all my appointments were on my second day. I stood in front of the hotel for a while after checking in, watching the cars and motorcycles that roared past me, blaring with swift music too new for me to understand. That was all right; I would learn-I had great potential-but I would do that tomorrow. Today I would begin searching for her.
Having missed by forty or so years the subjects of her poetry, I gave up on architectural searches and started out with a used bookstore two blocks from the hotel. Afraid to be laughed at in bad English, I avoided the salespeople and headed straight for the shelves, where the neat lines of print made me feel at home at last. Was this how she had felt, too, this sense of isolation in her own country? Was this what she had done to avoid the jeering circus outside? I looked through the poetry, rubbing my chin: smooth, of course. I had left my beret at the hotel, unwilling to seem pretentious as well as foreign.
I finished looking through the poetry (three books I wanted, none I could afford-what was the euro/dollar exchange again?) and started again. I must have missed her name. But no, not a Missant in sight, not even in the half-dozen collections I scrutinized until my eyes swam and my nose filled with must. I gave in and asked the clerk.
“Anything by Gerthe Missant?” I asked, and for once someone responded in German.
“Missant. She wrote in the forties and fifties, mainly? poetry?”
He made a face, switched to English. “No, we don’t carry her. You’re American?”
“Well, we don’t carry her. But we haf some nice poetry in the back if you want to look.”
“Danke.” I left, curious. Why didn’t they carry “her“? Was she some kind of notorious wretch? Or was there some other, simpler reason that a foreigner couldn’t possibly understand?
I found my way to a library, even after losing my map to the rush of an unnaturally fast bus. “I must be getting paranoid,” I muttered in German. Surely the drivers didn’t actually speed up when they saw pedestrians crossing?
By the time I got to the library I was dripping with drizzle, chilled to the bone from damp and feeling miserably my Mediterranean blood. The place was filled with what looked like University students, focused and intense. They all looked up at my clumsy entrance, and rather than blunder towards the poetry section, I went to ask the librarian.
“Gerthe Missant? That poet? You’re-”
“American. Yes. You don’t have anything by her?”
“Not here. I’m afraid she isn’t very popular.”
She wasn’t very popular. Not her work.
A student looked up. “You’re looking for work by that freak? What do you want with her stuff? It’s all crap, anyway.” Her face twisted with distaste. I had never seen such a sneer in my life.
“But her work-her poems are so beautiful, so spare and strong-”
” ‘Spare and strong?’ what are we talking about?” asked another student, looking up and leering. “American, huh? Why don’t you let me show you some real poets? You Americans, you don’t know writing-”
“Besides, the woman was abnormal. Anybody with her books probably got rid of them years ago,” the first student told me. “I would have.” The librarian started walking away.
“But how was she ‘abnormal’? Was it the beard?”
The girl looked as if she would spit at me. The other student started snickering. “Americans,” her jeered softly, brushing past me and knocking me against a shelf.
I went to the poetry section anyway. Among the collections I found a copy of the anthology I had borrowed so often from the library back home. Already feeling nostalgic, I pulled it out, flipped it by memory to the right pages.
They weren’t there. Where Missant’s poem should have been, there were some scraps, ragged edges of ripped paper. I considered finding the librarian, then reached for a different anthology. Missant was in the index; I turned to the proper space: nothing. Shreds again, and scrawled across what was left a few choice German phrases. There was one line of verse that had survived: Das ist was es ist allein zu sein.
I understood without needing to translate-my mind knew German now. I closed the book and walked out of the library, the back exit. My way seemed blurred-I stepped out in front of a car, jerked away to shrieking brakes.
“Verdammt Weibstueck!” the driver screamed at me.
I reeled; the line had said, “This is what it is to be alone.”
I got on a plane the next day, and spoke only English when addressed. I threw away my beret, stopped frequenting coffee houses, and graduated with a B.S. in biochemistry, for which they say I have great potential. Last year the library sold the poetry anthology at a book sale. I bought it. I still read Missant from time to time, but I no longer speculate about her life. I decided I did not need to know her history, or follow it; I decided I did not want to learn what it is to be alone.