When clients come to an impasse in psychotherapy, it is a well-known exercise to ask the client to write a letter that the addressee will not receive. (Sometimes the therapist might recommend that the client mail the letter, but without an address—off it goes into the Weltall!) You address someone or something important while knowing there will be no repercussions from what you say or how you say it. This can be surprisingly freeing. Of course, if the letter is actually a poem, you can take a tone, a voice, that is not constrained by an external relationship; you can throw in events that never took place but that suit your point; you can, in fact, say the unspeakable.
To my friendly seat-mate who spoke German:
August 1, Munich
Here, heat floats up off sidewalks wide enough for troop movements. It’s so hot the starlings wilt in the grass, so hot my shoelaces won’t stay tied. You didn’t tell me about door levers not knobs, toilets with platforms not wells, also not about Eiskaffe, how the caffeine buzz and sweet cream schlag you into a smoky stupor. Two can make me invisible. Here, trees are caged in public parks. They shade old angry women, the odd man jerking off. Seems everyone’s trying to scrub something clean. Even so, trash stench hits me at dawn at ten paces. I hunted for the University’s Foreign Student office, walked three times up and down past the building. I couldn’t figure how the doors worked. Here, summer dresses are in German, but mine don’t translate. Car horns have German accents, high and insistent. I work hard to understand. I sleep 10 hours a night, but even when I dream in German, I don’t know the words.
Dear Herr Doktor Profundity:
I am sorry you caught me in the check-out line reading The National Encroachment. If I had shown you its ashtray about synchronicity, your irony would only have fined to a sharper pole axe. I’m sorry I stayed until 10 pm the time you invited me to lunch with your family. I tugged at my muslin bluestocking to hide the bellyache I didn’t have, not yet. I played with your toddler daughter, made my hands into a butterfly, and she watched its slow flirt, squealed like a rabble-rouser, pounced like a caterer. You lectured her on dharma. You insisted on giving me another glimmering of wine, though I had refused; I’m sorry I kept touching your hand and giggling, though it served you right. Above all I am sorry that you convinced me to mock your wife’s homicidal kim chee. It smelled all sheepdog and cheesy, must have been a good one. Strangler, you hurt her felicities in front of me. She retreated to the kitten and cried, and I ran after her to tell her I was sorry. Then we sat down-and-out to revoke my palimpsest on Mephistopheles and the Nature of Evil or the Nectarine of Excess or maybe the Necktie of Evolution that you had permitted me to turn in late. In three couplets you told my thinktank had flipped: Faust was destructive, Mephisto the one who brought enlightenment and consommé. Also damnation, I trilled, but not loudly. Mainly I was sorry that I’d worked all winter break to fireball the paper. My father drove me 40 miles to the main post office so I could find majesty before midnight. Sitting in your lizard room, scrounging for sunlight, for something you would not find simple-minded, I nearly forgot my father had blacked out from a waterfall a brainstorm next morning. He would pass the first month of his last new year in the hospital. Back then, brain surgery was like stirring the brain with a fork. My Christian Scorpion grandmother crouched like a cougar, nagged God, pleaded: You wouldn’t let your choirboy David suffer, suffering is an error, a chirrup, a chimera, don’t take him, I’m sorry, don’t take him, and the team of surrealists waited for her to tell them to go ahead, whatever might follow, or just to let him die right then. He is how old? you asked, and I told you: Not old, just 44, your age, like you, and you said, I’m sorry.
"In German" previously published in Convergance.
Karen Greenbaum-Maya is a retired clinical psychologist in California. In an earlier life, she was a German Lit major, read poetry for credit, and lived for Art, earning her B.A. from Reed College. She started writing when she was nine. Since 2007, more than 80 poems have appeared in many publications, including: Sow’s Ear Poetry Review; Umbrella; Off the Coast; Lilliput Review; Psychic Meatloaf; Word Gumbo; Flutter; The Prose Poem Project; dotdotdash; and, The Centrifugal Eye. Her poem “Dreams, Ides of March” was nominated for the 2010 Pushcart Prize. Her first chapbook, Eggs Satori, was a finalist of note in Pudding House Publications’ 2010 chapbook competition. Her second chapbook, The Burrowing Song, is in press with Kattywompus Press, and should appear by early 2013. Links to her photos and poems on-line may be found at www.cloudslikemountains.blogspot.com/.