Things we experience in our formative years, even those no longer recalled, undoubtedly leave inky stick-and-poke tattoos on how we eventually embrace the world. Those who spent their first days surrounded by a push to war and, later, in the aftermath, among the bloody bombed buildings of its brutality, wear those moments for the rest of their lives as glasses, focusing a kind of clarity of the world they live in, tinting perceptions and adding color to every shade of gray.
What is important to that person in the wake of childhood is the direct result of those moments. After the bombs have finished exploding and the screaming has finally died down, the silence takes on a beauty of its own. And sometimes that silence takes on a voice, one that often speaks in the language of poetry.
So it is with the poet Jürgen Becker. Becker was born in 1932 in Köln, Germany. During World War Two, the RAF ran over 250 bombing runs on the city, dropping nearly 35,000 long tons of bombs. To say that the city and its inhabitants were changed by the experience would be an understatement.
It’s difficult to see anything good coming out of such destruction. It’s hard to think of anyone finding truth in silence again after the echoes of such savage roars. Yet the work found in the new collection of Becker’s shorter poems, Blackbirds in September, are hushed observations of mostly silent moments. While there is solace to be found in the quiet, there is a consistent, underlying tension coursing through each poem giving the sense that the calm is brief, temporary — a lull in the more natural state of chaos.
Preparations for what drags and drags itself
to a start, a thing soundlessly effected.
No one notices it. There’s not even
a noise, when tracks show up in a field
of invisible blueprints.
Too much already betrayed. Immediately and later
an eternal searching, and mostly
what’s found: the false.
In case doubt is allowed. Or an apparatus
It stopped long ago, and the grass,
it stands upright until evening.
Permeating Becker’s exploration of these moments are snapshots of thoughts and a juxtaposition of objects and landscapes. We get to know the narrator through his choices and our eyes follow his from the ground to the sky and back again.
Okla Elliott says in his preface to the translation, “What is immediately striking about Becker’s work is his ability to track the oddities of consciousness, as well as the unexpected ways he makes ideas and images ricochet off each other.”
Take, for example, Becker’s lines from the poem “In Memoriam Donald Barthelme” in which he writes, “…One must / go through a fog, the white of which so white / like Chinese grief is.” and you can clearly see what Elliott is talking about. While the reader may not be familiar with the particular characteristics of “Chinese grief,” there is no denying its emotional content here. Ideas and images pinball and freewheel in an intricate dance in this book.
Becker’s poetry also often evokes comparisons to other poets and through that they further resonate with meaning and paint the narrator with new colors. Take, for example, this poem:
Nothing happened while you were away.
I watched the tulips, the petals;
two or three, hourly, fell on the table
Simple, and obviously evocative of William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say,” “Report” takes its echo of the previous poem and, through image and punctuation, moves it into a poem of lament and loss.
There is also a sort of Chinese poetic rhythm to many of Becker’s poems. It is hard to read Becker’s poem “Paris” without thinking of the beautiful simplicity and drunken ecstasy of the work of 8th century Tang dynasty poet Li Po.
Days in gray Marais
with terror between the gorges
we parted ways wordlessly in the evening
a good poet helped me
until we found each other and drank
something at tables of weathered beauty
to forget the cold of the
path back through the air
Becker uses the reader’s expectations of the familiar to make something unique and beautiful. Again, the silence of the moment; again, the importance of images; again, the anticipation of destruction and horror, what would have been a rumination on loneliness or the passing of time for Li Po, Becker turns into his own.
There is much to enjoy in Blackbirds in September. Becker’s quiet oddities of consciousness and his quiet celebration of moments don’t come at the expense of the realities of chaos and destruction. He acknowledges the transience of beauty and, in that, elevates its precious nature.
For such an attitude to have come from someone so inured to destruction so early in his life, Jürgen Becker shows his audience the infinite capacity of the poet for creation and understanding.