It’s 9.30 in the evening and I am perplexed. A few strangers, equally perplexed, are standing next to me in front of an empty, brightly lit pub. Someone tries to open the door but it seems to be locked. According to the invitation on Facebook, which I had followed, an international poetry evening should actually start in there right now, where visitors can read their own poems in German or their mother tongue. My own access to poetry has been limited so far to quoting rhymes to my son, such as: “You don’t need a map to find a place for a crap.”
It looks as if the door to the profound regions of poetry will remain closed for me again tonight. What a shame!
Small conversations start among the waiting strangers. Someone asks the stupid question, whether the others are waiting as well. Everyone nods stupidly back and continues waiting when I suddenly spot Donna Rubia Inmakulada Artista Maníaka Grandiosa, a Spanish young lady who had been a foreign language assistent at my school the year before. There wasn’t any student who had been able to pronounce her name correctly, most of them had just called her Piña Colada or simply Maku.
Maku is an artist, she paints, writes poems and beats stone and metal into new shapes so that they turn from rubbish into art. She’s smiling now, says “Holá!” and sturdily kicks in the door of the pub that hadn’t been locked after all, just jammed. The rest of us follow her with a sheepish apologetic smile into the back of the pub. There’s a curtain that is hiding a spiral staircase that leads down into a cosy basement with a bar and counter, well heated, poorly lit and crammed with people who are mumbling in all languages that have existed since the Tower of Babel.
I sit down on a bar stool and order a beer, so I can hold on to the bottle if that event should turn out to be a weirdo & wacko meeting. A young woman is sitting next to me at the counter, her head covered in scarves, shawls and foulards. She is smiling blissfully and her eyes are fixed on an imaginary point at the other end of the universe, while her body is rhythmically rocking to and fro on her bar stool and her mouth is muttering a mantra. Her nervously twitching hand is placed on a piece of paper and I’m starting to fear that it contains her poems that she wants to read out here. Those fears will be confirmed.
Now it starts. A beautiful Italian girl enters the stage and after a few introductory words, she starts singing her poems. Her equally beautiful boyfriend accompanies her singing with his guitar, gentle melodies but played so quickly that his fingers become blurry shapes. I’m immediately blown away even though I don’t understand much of what she is singing. I guess it must be something melancholic and sublime. The introduction of the evening has been successful, the audience has become very quiet and everyone is concentrating on their drinks with nostalgic feelings. The power of poetry has hit the room.
An elderly man takes a seat in front of a keyboard and recites a song about his city. He’s from Berlin. The song tells me that Berlin is filled with rats. Rats that rummage in rubbish. Rats that float in the sewage system. Rats that spread infectious diseases. Going from there, the singer twists the song’s plot cacophonously towards the people of Berlin. People who are rummaging in the rubbish of their hurt feelings. People who are floating in the sewage system of their broken dreams. Yes, he even tells us of those people who are spreading their infectious inner emptiness onto other people.
At the end it’s all about rats again. And just to make sure that everyone really got the point, every stanza is sung twice and a final chorus explains that the people of Berlin are a bit like rats – or at least it’s just a very dirty capital. The audience claps, some men leave the room to wash their hands. The singer asks: “Who’s next?”
Everyone is still a bit tensed up after that performance and nobody dares to do anything. But then a French student who is still uninhibited because he obviously hasn’t understood the contents of the last song gets on the stage. Nonchalantly smiling he unfolds a pink sheet of paper (I’m sure it’s scented) and explains in broken German that he wants to recite a “petit poème”. He begins and it all sounds very smooth and slippery. Judging from the smirk on his face I assume that he has included quite a few salacious and juicy lines into his oeuvre. In French it all sounds like different intonations of “Ex-coozie-moi, Mademoiselle”. The Francophile male audience claps frenetically while all the women who know some French have turned pink and leave the room to wash their hands.
And now the time has come for the woman with the scarves. She arises and hovers towards the microphone. She makes a short hysterical choking sound with her throat (amplified by the loudspeakers) and starts preparing the audience for what is to come.
“Whenever I … well, when I … erm … whenever I read the following poem, the mood of the listeners changes.”
I believe her every word.
She continues: “This is, because … well … it’s so deep and … somehow sad too … and it does something to you. Somehow.”
Somehow the audience is getting impatient. Everyone wants her to get on with it!
“Well, I’ll … I’ll get on with it, won’t I? Hihihi. Hahaha. Hohoho.”
I feel second-hand embarrassment. She kneels, still laughing, and pushes the PLAY-button of a CD player. Hebrew folklore resounds through the room. “Hevenu Schalom Alachem! Alachem, Baruch Adonai! Ai ai ai! Ch Ch Ch!”
Time to hold on to my beer bottle. She starts reciting her poem. While she’s speaking tears start running down my face because I have to pull myself together so hard not to burst out laughing. I don’t remember the exact words, but her poem sounds a bit like this:
“In the New Dehli of an oligarchic
consciousness in my anarchic
head, sucks the nihilist-fascist
to be brave
inside my microwave.
And there in this Sapphic juice squeezer
of Julius Caesar
I meet death and I tease her.”
After twelve further, similarly apocalyptic neologisms in rhyme form, I look around gasping for air and someone to save me. There is Donna Rubia Inmakulada Artista Maníaka Grandiosa, who doesn’t understand anything and I whisper: “That woman is batshit insane!”
Maku says: “Si, si. ¿Que?”
I murmur: “She has suffered a lot, I guess!”
And Maku calls to the waitress behind the counter: “Si, si. Dos Tequilas, por favor!”
This is poetry I understand.