from The Little Ache: a German notebook

By | 1 August 2015

‘ … dichte und schöne Fenster.’
‘Well-sealed and nice windows’ are what Frau Merkel
the German Chancellor
thinks epitomise what’s best
about her country
its core value
the key performance indicator
establishing its point of difference
from draughtier places
or places where the cold gets in
as perhaps it did up north along the Baltic shoreline
when Heinrich and Maria were young
bashing the pump to get ice out of its spout
(I imagine)
while a warm breeze from the Pacific
pressed its dream to their chilblained cheeks
with an aroma of tropical coconuts
whenever the bread oven was opened.

It’s four in the afternoon
and already a three-quarter moon
floats white-faced like a seasick sailor
in the darkening sky
above the apartments across the street
where well-sealed windows
are lit from within like little dioramas
whose fragments of life
flit across the provisional warmth of the present.

Min Modersprak, wa klingst du schön!
‘My mothertongue how sweet you sound’
wrote Klaus Groth
the founder of Plattdüütsch dialect literature
so I’m told
by the website
where my distant relative appears in a portrait
with wavy silver hair
which I imagine will be repeated
by the statue of him I’ve heard about
somewhere in Kiel
up there on the freezing Baltic coast
where his head’s been crowned with snow
in the home-town of his cousin
my great-grandmother
Maria Josephine Catharina
which I hope to visit when the weather warms up
and the distinguished locks of Klaus Groth
will have thawed to the auburn tint of bronze
as if henna’ed in defiance of time.

I arrived with little enough German in my kit
let alone the sort Klaus loved
as if language was a mother
at whose breast he’d drunk speech
which his friend Brahms made into songs
sung by Maria’s sister Sophie
who ‘cut some ice’ as a soprano
in the operatic world up there.

How much English
did Maria come ashore with
in 1876
and was it the Brahms settings of Groth’s Modersprak
that she sang while taking loaves from the oven
in the draughty kitchen
in Bute Street Wellington
while an icy southerly rattled the windows
weder dicht noch schön?

Regentropfen aus den Bäumen
‘Raindrops from the trees’
was inscribed by Klaus Groth on the 2nd of May 1856
in a copy of the third edition of his book of poems Quickborn
to which had been added the High German
Hundert Blätter: Paralipomena zum Quickborn
(‘One Hundred Leaves: Supplement to Quickborn’)
for his new friend Johannes Brahms
to whom he was connected
through the family of his wife Doris
who was modest about her musical accomplishments
but unstinting in admiration
for her husband’s poetry.

Brahms set ‘Regentropfen’ to music in 1871(Op.59, 4)
but didn’t publish it in his lifetime.

Groth’s ‘hundred leaves’ grew not from the Modersprak
for which he became famous
after the publication of Quickborn in 1852
but from the High German of Hundert Blätter
for which he was mocked
and soon forgotten.

The Plattdüütsch dialect of the composer’s childhood in Hamburg
‘is something different from language’
Brahms demurred.

‘I’ve tried it
it doesn’t work.’

But perhaps he anticipated the titters
of his sophisticated Viennese audience
rather than the grateful fervour of his home-town.

Even his one attempt
‘Da geit en Bek de Wisch entlang’
was first set to music in 1862
by the 18 year-old upstart Friedrich Nietsche.

The Brahms setting descended into obscurity
first published in 1889 or 99
and performed for Groth’s 80th birthday in 1899
and then

Brahms already dead two years earlier
having earlier still
wounded the poet by declaring
‘You know nothing about music.’

The forgiving
and helpful letters of Klaus Groth
as well as the helpful
and affectionate letters of his wife Doris
which Brahms seldom answered.

In September 1878
at a rehearsal of works by Brahms in Hamburg
the Danish composer Niels Gade saw Groth
‘a ridiculous figure
a long thin person who was sitting silently by himself
and was in peculiar-looking clothes.’

‘…a sincere quiet man.’

Perhaps unable to know himself
among his own people
but I want to add
as a young schoolteacher in Heide
rumoured to have tossed poems
through the open bedroom window
of ‘dark-haired, brown-eyed’
Mathilde Ottens.


On the programme board
of the anti-capitalist agitprop
Theaterkapelle at 99 Boxhagenerstrasse
next to the old graveyard
where young women wheel prams
so their babies can hear the birds
making an impatient racket in the bare trees
an abrupt announcement appeared
in mid-winter
a single word
lower case
repeated three times
in a column

(it’s over)
but beside each word
a neighbourhood tagger had written

(start again).

The embourgeoisement of the neighbourhood
proceeds apace
and the Theaterkapelle is one of its casualties
as predicted in its last production
Die Kunden werden unruhig
The audience is getting restless
to which the Freitag salon blogger Peter Nowak had added
‘und vielleicht auch wütend’
and perhaps angry as well.

As the rents go up
and façades are scrubbed
dichte und schöne Fenster installed
GDR-vintage furniture
overpriced in the Sunday fleamarket
I find myself wondering
what kind of fresh start
I have the right to hope for
having come only this far
having barely tested my restlessness
let alone my anger.

And what kind of restlessness
let alone anger
drove my great-grandmother
Maria Josephine Catharina Reepen
to declare Anfang
beside a disreputable runaway sailor’s name
Heinrich August Wedde
at the end of the earth?

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