From the Umberplatzen

From The Umberplatzen: A Love Story by Susan Tepper is a remarkable book composed as a series of dispatches from the front that are not only about love but also about loss and the treacherous shoals of memory.  It may be slim, but this novella’s emotional aftermath expands outward long after the final page is turned. Written as a series of linked flash pieces set in page-long chapters, this unique compilation is structured in a way that delights and surprises. From every angle, syntactically and visually, from the ongoing conceit of the female protagonists’ memories taking form as she opens her abandoned lover’s mailed objects of almost obsessive desire, to even the punctuation choices, add to the overall gestalt, making this little gem a wonderfully realized whole. The love here is a bittersweet one, colored by the protagonist’s inner struggle with commitment and both character’s inability to honestly articulate their feelings to one another. This book is like a table full of delicate appetizers, each one more delicious than the last.
Syntactically, Tepper creates a tumbling, headlong rush of ideas and images through the use of short, declarative sentences used by the narrator as she recounts her relationship with the mysterious M in a series of flashbacks. A wife who had abandoned her husband and fled to Germany from the US, Kitty Kat had begun a two year affair with “M.”  We don’t know anything about Kitty Kat’s career other than that she has one, though we do learn that M has been a respected physicist and professor who has been married before.
As the book opens, Kitty Kat has already left M and returned to the states. We learn more about M’s interior thoughts and the depth of his feelings for Kitty Kat from the letters and mementos he sends through the mail after she has left him. These long distance reminders expose the depth of M’s loss, and they also reflect his desperation to win Kitty Kat back through their revelation of hitherto hidden aspects of his private self.  His sent mementos come clean about his feelings in ways he had balked at when they were physically together.
It becomes clear to readers during the journey through these short vignettes that M had much more invested in the relationship than Kitty Kat ever had: “No at home we have birds that fly away…”  Kitty Kat says to M as they cut through the Umberplatzen during a snow shower.  He replies to her, teary-eyed, “Here is home” (31), clearly wanting her to want to stay in Germany, fearing her talk of “home” signifies only a temporary sojourn until she can really go “home” and start a new life alone. This trope is repeated in another chapter, solidifying the idea that for Kitty Kat, living in Germany is temporary.
Each tiny story, told from Kitty Kat’s point of view, has its own title, “Leaves,” “Lock of Hair,” “Waterfalls,” indicating both the chapter’s content and also that it is capable of standing alone as an individual flash story, but as one reads through the book, it becomes clear that these stories compliment one another, that their themes entwine like the bodies of the lovers they reveal, that the whole becomes greater than its parts. The chapters are set up similarly in that each begins with Kitty Kat’s recounting of an experience she and M once shared, but it soon becomes apparent that she may be remembering the experience as a result of a letter or trinket she holds in her hand sent that day by M to remind her of their life as lovers.
The first entry, “Leaves,” offers readers some exposition.  Kitty Kat (whose real name, like M’s, we never learn) is back in the US. She had been in Germany, in flight from her ex, but she has now left M to come back home.  In the present, she has not returned to her ex husband, and it appears she is living alone. In each flash chapter, a sentence or two functions symbolically to imply something about the state of the relationship, past or present, between Kitty Kat and M.  In “Leaves,” the protagonist says of some Umberplatzen leaves M has sent her through the mail that the leaves themselves have “…dried into almost total powder. A few veins remain but that’s about it,” (3) symbolizing the current nature of their relationship–A few ties remain, but the vibrancy of the affair is gone, at least for Kitty Kat.  In this chapter, readers also get a sense of M’s desire to control Kitty Kat in a section that flashes back to their relationship when he has shoved a peanut butter sandwich into her face, then tells her to “…smile for real.”
It is not until readers reach the sixth entry, “Birds,” that they learn M’s nickname for his lover is Kitty Kat. The use of this diminutive, and a dehumanizing one at that, makes the narrator at first seem the weaker partner in the relationship, but by the conclusion, we realize the chosen name says more about M’s insecurities and desire for control than it does about the psychological strength of Kitty Kat.  We sense she prefers the non-name, that it is a choice made from strength, that she is a woman shedding her past and disappearing for a time in order to decide who she wants to become.
In all her stories, Tepper is a master of the perfect final sentence as well as in crafting dead-on dialogue, and these flash pieces are no exception.  Final lines either startle or completely clarify ideas for the reader in many of these stories. The dialogue is written in such a way that there are no question marks or other punctuation other than a period here and there to make the reader pause, and there are also no paragraph breaks, creating a sort of breathlessness that mimics the emotional exhilaration of a love affair in its beginning stages, an argument, or interior musings that flow swiftly from one idea to another.
Sentence fragments pepper the book as well to heighten the verisimilitude of the characters’ recounted dialogue and interactions: “When I sell my flat I will buy Capri. All of it he said. Well naturally. How will I know where to find you said M. You could be in any one of hundreds of villas. Look for the prettiest one. With the best sea views.  He sends me a postcard of Capri. We can still do this it says in M’s familiar hand” (33). Switches from past scenes to the present are startling but feel right, as the narrator Kitty Kat is the only speaker, (and a deliciously unreliable one at that).
A repetition of physical details here and there throughout the stories is one of the strengths of the book.  It’s almost like the reader is on a treasure hunt and finds familiar objects sprinkled throughout the stories, like M’s kites, a Roman Wall, and especially, the Umberplatzen itself  with all its literal and figurative meanings for the couple. The neologism Umberplatzen is both a symbol of Kitty Kat’s resourcefulness, (she can’t pronounce the correct German name for the trees in the park that are the central locus of the story, so she makes up a name), and the word also suggests her vulnerability as a stranger in a strange land where the culture and the people are unfamiliar to her.  The word takes on symbolic resonance as the linked chapters progress, and the word Umberplatzen is used in some context in nearly every story. There are Umberplatzen trees, a forest of Umberplatzen, and the park itself is referred to by the narrator as The Umberplatzen.  The word serves as a touchstone for the reader, as it appears in all but one chapter and may imply the stories will wrap up with a satisfying denouement, but Tepper is too savvy a writer to give us a nice make-up kiss between the characters beneath the Umberplatzen leaves at the conclusion.  We must come to our own conclusions at the finish as to what lies ahead for these separated lovers and whether their affair is fated to resume or has ended forever.
The book is set in an old-fashioned, Olivetti typewriter-style font that adds to the reader’s sense that these flashbacks of the love affair are almost like dispatches from the front of a long-ago, but not forgotten, war of wills.  The type also adds to the idea that the characters are presently somehow ghosts of their former selves, fragile in their dealings with one another over a vast distance that is both physical and metaphysical. The look of the type on the page is pleasing and reminiscent of a style ex-pat writers in Europe during the 1920’s and 30’s might have used.
Though the protagonist in From The Umberplatzen is named Kitty Kat, by the final stories, readers know she is clearly not a docile, housebound creature, but independent and her own person, which adds interest and tension to the interactions between M and her. Readers slowly begin to understand the power dynamics between the two lovers through the series of letters and packages sent by a lonely and much more open M in the here and now and through the memories kindled as a result of these gifts he sends Kitty Kat.
M seems to be offering the whole truth that once lay hidden beneath their old conversations, something he typically avoided or obscured when they were together.  He seems to be desperate to show her he’s changed and to persuade her to return to him. But his gifts aren’t all sweetness and light.  His frustration and anger become clear through some of the objects he sends her.  For example, one day he sends her a garter and writes “{w}ear this when you’re with another man…” (39).  Another day, he sends her a box of confetti that she says “looks so lonely” as an apology for refusing to take her to a party on their first New Year’s eve as lovers.  He is telling her through these mementos that he remembers everything about their relationship, every conversation, even when she thought he wasn’t paying attention.  These mailings are M’s last effort to try to salvage a relationship he desires, and has always desired, much more than Kitty Kat ever has.
By Tepper’s final story, “Grafted,” readers can conclude that even though M tried to be the dominant partner in the relationship with his bluster, philosophical tendencies, and brilliance, Kitty Kat has somehow managed to slip from this relationship intact and seems to be heading into a future that does not include Germany or M.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor, doomed M, he of the softer heart who now cannot look away, even though at the beginning he probably never saw her coming.
From the Umberplatzen: A Love Story

by Susan Tepper
Wilderness House Press
ISBN 978-0-9827115-4-5, 56 pages

Death, Survival, and Pity

Brian Turner’s poetry hits the reader with the immediacy of a fist to the gut.  The poems are full of Iraq’s death and blood, nightmare, fear, and an unexpected reverence for the land and its people.  Turner’s aesthetic encompasses a world about which most Americans choose to remain oblivious.  Tom Brokaw tried to explain the ongoing disconnect of the average American with the two wars in which America has been embroiled for close to nine years by suggesting that because of the volunteer nature of the US armed forces, only a small percentage, less than 1%, of Americans, are directly affected by the wars; everyone else, Tom Richards, a decorated Marine who fought in Vietnam, says, are “…at the malls.”* Brian Turner’s life could have been different; he might have spent it at the malls as well.  Considering Turner’s subject matter, it seems strange to say it’s lucky for lovers of poetry that he didn’t.
According to the Poetry Foundation, “Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before serving for seven years in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. Then in November 2003 he was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His first book, Here, Bullet, chronicles his time in Iraq” as does his second offering, Phantom Noise.
Turner’s work follows in the footsteps of past poets of the “war poets” genre—Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon immediately come to mind, but there’s something about Turner’s work that sets it apart from the genre—Something real and immediate and painfully honest.  His is a poetry of horror, but also one of love and loss, infused with the restless spirits of the dead who hover over the living on both sides. Turner’s work is that of a man collecting his most private thoughts and then writing them across the page to expose them to the world.  His is a voice of honesty and despair, of imperfection and a self-awareness that most of us can only pretend to possess.
Many of the poems in these books are a deep purging of the horror that is war, a cathartic howl, though some pieces are quietly crafted natural portraits.  This is the work of a man who has seen death all around him, one who has cradled the bloodied stub of an arm, hoping his comrade might still need it, but it is also the work of a man with an artist’s eye for the small detail, one who sees and appreciates beauty no matter where it lies as he does in his poem “Jameel” from Here, Bullet: “Cowbirds rest in the groves of date palms,/whole flocks of them, white as flowers/blossoming into wings when the wind rises up.”
Turner’s poems stand witness to the futility of war in a country that has always known war.  Turner’s poem “AL – A’ IMMA BRIDGE” from Phantom Noise is an accounting of all the wars, all the killing, all the sorrows from Abu Ghraib back in time to “…the walled ruins of Nineveh.”  “the djinn awaken from their slumber/to watch the dead pass by, one fixed/with an odd smile, the drawn-out vowel /of a word left unfinished, and they want to hold these dead/ close and tight/…and the Tigris is filling with the dead…”
Strangely enough, the poems focus almost exclusively on the intricate experiences of Turner and his immediate comrades; they do not slip into any sort of ideological demand for an accounting.  They do not judge, only in an oblique way.  One poem, “Sleeping in Dick Cheney’s Bed” from Phantom Noise comes closest to a direct exploration of how the political becomes the personal, but even it is not overtly condemnatory.  In his ubiquitous first person voice, the poet comments on what Cheney, having slept in the bed he will now use, may have left behind for him, “…dead skin sloughed off/ to coat my own skin at an invisible level…” The symbolism of taint is evident in this blending of physical detritus from man to man. An unarticulated guilt is also implied in the closing lines of this poem.  After the speaker has recounted to the reader a speech he has just given to the officers corps about “…rape, death, and murder…” he wonders,

…—what does it say about me
that I can return to Cheney’s room after midnight,
strip my clothes off to curl in the bed
where he too has slept, the sheets a sublime reprieve
for my tired frame, the night a perfection of sleep.

The implication of a complicity deeper than enjoying the comfort of a shared bed is clear.
The voice of these poems is one that can also muster empathy for an enemy.  The speaker has a scholar’s deep reverence for the ancient ground of Babylon on which he walks and the people who inhabit this land of harsh consequences.  He hates, fears, and loves them in equal measure.  One poem, “Ajal” assumes the voice of a despairing father speaking to his young son who has died:

…It should not be like this, Abd Allah,
many years from now, your own children
should wash your body three times
after your death.  They should seal your mouth
with cotton, reciting prayers in a wash
of light and grieving, a perfume of lemons
and jasmine on your skin.

It should not be like this, Abd Allah.
I wanted you to see the Ctesiphon Arch,
the Tower of Samarra the Ziggurat of Ur.
I wanted to show you the Arabic language
written on the spires of the sawtooth mountains.
I wanted to teach you our family history,
and see where you might take it.

I cannot undo what the shrapnel has done.
I climb down into the crumbling earth
to turn your face toward Mecca, as it must be.
Remember the old words I have taught you,
Abd Allah.  And go with your mother,
buried here beside you—she will know the way.

The empathy and suffering joined in this piece are not the response one would expect from an American soldier who has survived the worst Iraq had to offer.  These poems stand apart from the requisite jingoism Americans have either embraced or endured for the last nine years.  The poems are not measured by any means; they are not polite, but they refuse to toe the line of American chauvinism.  This rhetoric is not what the average soldier might use; rather, the poet, though he lives through the poems with an immediacy that is startling, has taken the time to step back from the brink where he teetered for a year and assess his experiences without bias.
This careful approach to an honest examination and accounting of his experience does not imply Turner is dispassionate.  Rather, many of the poems, particularly those in Phantom Noise, seem to be those of a highly intelligent individual attempting to write himself through trauma.  The specter of PTSD haunts many of these poems, especially those recounted by a voice now firmly established as back on U.S. soil.  The second poem in the book, “At Lowes Home Improvement Center” paints a wild juxtaposition between reality and nightmare in which the speaker and others (from his squad and not actually present) experience a series of flashbacks set off by sights and noises in the hardware store:

Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open by accident, their oily bright shanks
and diamond points like firing pins
from M -4s and M – 16s.
In a steady stream
they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells
falling south of Baghdad last night, where Bosch
kneeled under the chain guns of helicopters
stationed above, their tracer-fire a synaptic geometry
of light
At dawn, when the shelling stops,
hundreds of bandages will not be enough…

Words like “bust,” “bright shanks,” “steady stream,” are used to describe the recall to war that any seemingly innocent vision or noise might bring to a recovering combat soldier; the situation that rips the speaker back to hell is one anyone else around him would not even consider worth comment.  The poem goes on as his comrade, aptly named “Bosch,” (implying that great  delineator of hell Hieronymus Bosch?)

…walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head…

Clearly, the poet struggles with sweeping these images from his head as well.  Writing his pain onto paper seems as healthy a therapy as any devised by the VA.  Opening himself to this pain also offers an opening to those who look for a way to enter a world typically closed to all outsiders.  Coffins still arrive at Andrews Air Force base in the dead of night.  Reporters must still “embed” with hand-picked units.  The wars are both still carefully stage-managed to avoid ruffling people’s feathers, or their consciences.  Turner opens the curtains and exposes the truth of war to the world and in the process he has become a poet worth reckoning.
Though Turner offers up pictures of death and destruction in both books, he also provides a place for the innocent in juxtaposition to the complicit.  Reading these poems often brings the reader to contemplate that Turner the man understands what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote of that  “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”
The few poems Turner attempts outside of the subject of war are not as strong as those with Iraq as their focus.  Perhaps it is the absolute nature of war, the moment to moment imperative of the battle between life and death, the reality of  horror, the moments of utter sweetness that emerge from the detritus all around that move his pen to write so eloquently on a subject seemingly unsuited to poetry.  Phantom Noise, shortlisted for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize, is a book everyone should read in these times of carefully controlled information and sanitized pictures of death.

*(qtd. in the San Diego Union-Tribune).

Turner, Brian.  Phantom Noise. Farmington, Maine:  Alice James Books, 2010. ISBN:978-1-882295-80-7

©JP Reese 2010

Book Review originally appeared at Connotation Press in December, 2010.