Book Review

Wild Flight: Poems by Christine Rhein. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, hardback 2008, paperback 2009.  Winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Competition in Poetry. $21.50/$16.95.

Reviewed by Catherine Jagoe

My Father Talks of 1946

Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we
have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory
and lasting.  There will be no mixture of popula-
tions to cause endless trouble . . .

WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1944, after Stalin
negotiated the expulsion of 15 million Germans
from their ancestral homelands in East and West
Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and the Sudetenland

The Poles loaded us into the same cattle cars
the Nazis had sent the other way.
They searched our sacks to make sure
there was nothing left worth stealing.
It was August 5th.  A bit of bread
for what became a three-day ride.

Flüchtling—the word for refugee—
means one who flees, as if we had a choice,
or as if, after fifteen months of occupation,
soldiers taking over our house,
we weren’t relieved to go.

Two million German civilians died
in the expulsion.  Starvation, exposure,
torture, murder.  You never hear of it.
Churchill kept his mouth shut.
And how could Germans talk about atrocity?

I was fifteen, suddenly a Flüchtling
in my own country, in a town where no one
understood our dialect, knew my surname.

Imagine it, if Texas were given to Mexico,
if the government delivered an El Paso mother
and four children to your door, ordered you
to give them a bedroom, share your empty pantry.

All I thought about was food.

Mother sent my sister and me out walking to the farms.
If they won’t give you any potatoes, ask for only two.

The farmwomen scowled:  What will you do
with only two?  Oh here, take them!
When we had too many, we hid them in a ditch,
carried a few to show that others had given.

My aunt, who ended up in East Germany
with the other half of our village, sent me
my cousin’s winter jacket.  He had fallen
in Russia just before the war ended.

I had no shoes.  Three times a week
Mother made me walk the hour
to the ration office.  Don’t put anything
on your feet or they’ll never give you shoes.

Believe me, by November, it was cold.
I looked for grass to walk on
and dreaded the tile floor of the office,
the way adults tried to cut in front of me
because I wanted to stand on the doorway mat.

Don’t think people didn’t look out for themselves.

One day, the woman behind the window
whispered, It’s here, snuck me out the back door
as she handed me the little certificate.

In the store, I picked out work shoes.
After years of Learn!  Learn!
my parents no longer talked of school.

Bricklaying seemed like a good idea
in a land of rubble.

© Christine Rhein Wild Flight (Texas Tech University Press, 2008)

I read Christine Rhein’s searing first collection, Wild Flight, with my heart in my mouth, grateful and greedy, thinking, “At last, a book that really matters.”  This is not a volume whose pages you turn idly, hoping for something to catch your fancy.  It grabs you by the scruff of your neck in the opening poem and doesn’t release you until the end.   In Wild Flight history matters, family matters, life matters, poetry matters.  These are poems of maturity by a writer who has something vital to say about war, exile and kinship.

The theme of flight alluded to in the title is explored in various compelling and subtle ways throughout the book, using different voices.  It refers in the first section to Flűchtling, German for refugee.  Rhein’s father underwent multiple violent uprootings during World War II.  He fled the Russian invasion of Silesia in 1944, was displaced to Czechoslovakia, then returned to a Silesia occupied by Poles, and a year later was permanently removed from his homeland to what had become West Germany.  Many of the poems in Part I are spoken in the father’s voice.  The book opens with a haunting image in “Gift”:  a starving Russian prisoner-of-war pleading for bread from a passing schoolboy, who gives him his own meager lunch.  There is both tenderness and tragedy in the wooden gun carved as a thank-you gift for the boy.  “What I Wished For at Fourteen” chronicles his sufferings from hunger, displacement, brutality and occupation.  It ends with his longing to go home.  This yearning loss and a deep attention to the creation of homes everywhere permeates the book.  In “My Father Talks of 1946”, the family is shipped out of Silesia forever on “the same cattle cars/the Nazis had sent the other way.”  At the end of the war, the adolescent chooses his life’s work:  “Bricklaying seemed like a good idea/in a land of rubble.”

I found “In the Women’s Room”, which describes an encounter between two contemporary women, one of German and one of Jewish ancestry, particularly powerful.  It deals with huge philosophical and moral issues of the aftermath of the war on an intimate level.  The couplets serve to contain the raw suffering, the discomfort, of this encounter in a washroom after the well-meaning, understandable brutality of the interlocutor; the repetition of the conjunction “because” lends declarative force, allowing the speaker to approach the issue from all possible angles, encompassing all the irony and tragedy of the situation, and face the unanswerable question of how you weigh suffering, the pain of generations, what she calls elsewhere the “sorrow unraveling from . . . translation”.

In “During Plans for War, Crows—” the black crows “on a landscape of snow” stand not for nature but for culture’s deadly and “explicit ink”, which ignores the multilayered histories and ecologies in any landscape “as if there were no buried layers,/grass and root, rock and bone.”  The birds here open up a series of perspectives on the ways nature gets violently disrupted by war, just as, when we hold a feather, we are mysteriously compelled to pull it apart and destroy it.

“Poem in February” opens out the field of vision even further, identifying victims of other, more contemporary forms of violence and loss.  In this context street-people, migrant workers and the destruction of Sarajevo are all part of “The Big Picture” of homelessness.  While this expansion loses the initial focus, and is in that sense risky, the compassion and beauty of the poems, together with their craftsmanship and form, somehow contain and control the move to embrace such a wide swath of victims.  The emotional power of the association comes from the resonances with the father’s experience.  The speaker of “In the Morning Paper” who turns the page of the newspaper after reading about an amputee in Sierra Leone is acutely aware of the privilege encoded in that act; in “Girl in the Photograph” she wants to comfort an Indian child who, like the father, carries bricks all day long for a pittance.  “How To Tell It” shows how inner-city life (in Detroit, when many of the poems are set) is also an experience of war, and there is no returning to the homeland of childhood.  In “At Sway”, the speaker drives up and down the street of her youth, where the homes she remembers have been demolished.

There are lighter moments interspersed, and a self-conscious and wry humor emerges at times—the poet exercising to a Sharon Olds video; “Googling Christine Rhein” playfully explores all the alter egos, some of them male, out in the world.  In another poem we encounter a portrait of Mona Lisa made from pieces of toast.  These poems, however, aren’t as compelling as the main current of the book.

In “Leaving East Berlin, 1967 Visit”, the speaker and her mother are bullied by an East German border guard over the tawdry presents they have been given by an impoverished grandmother to take back to America.  They manage to outwit him, but even so, carrying the suitcase hurts “every other step, hitting hard against her leg”.  The mother is left literally carrying the pain of the family divided by the Iron Curtain (the grandmother reduced to working as a Toilettenfrau).  The mother develops depression and eventually the parents’ marriage dissolves.  After divorce, she sends her daughter heart-shaped lebkuchen, hearts that are sweet and not divided, “nothing like the practical/muscle, its distinct chambers”.  

“Flight Path”, which opens Part V, is a meditation on the damage past, present and future inflicted by wars.  The speaker is in the air, flying from Frankfurt to Detroit, with the father, when she meets a young army wife whose husband is about to go and fight in Iraq.  Deftly weaving together all the strands of loss and healing, past and future, the father croons a German lullaby as the speaker bounces the “soft heft” of the other woman’s baby.  But there is no easy redemption implied in this.

There are multiple allusions to birds throughout the collection.  The book shows the collision course of war and (wild)life through birds, who are forced to migrate over and through war zones, but who nevertheless attempt to carry on their courtship and parenting rituals.  “Upon Being Asked What I Believe In” ends with “the wild/flight of fireflies, bodies glowing/from both desire and defense”.  “Wren’s Nest in a Saguaro” shows the wren deftly “creating a home/amid giant thorns”.  Avian migrations parallel those of human emigrants, but also provide a frame for them.  There is a sense of a parallel world existing adjacent to ours, intersecting it in the interstices of our consciousness and in the habitat we have co-opted.    Many of the bird references stand not only for motion and freedom or escape but for mating and precious but precarious domesticity, like the endangered swifts in “Our Twenty-First Summer, Chimney Swifts”.  Friday night cocktails shared by a couple are “robin egg blue”.  At times there is beautifully muted eroticism in the writing, such as this, from “Tuning”: “When my husband/kisses my ear, I love the swoosh, the quiver, his breath/sand driven by wind, my whispered name.”

The poet as observer and speaker is positioned at the intersection of multiple generations of men.  This makes for many poignant moments as she grapples with foreignness that is not only about culture and history but also gender.  “For My Son, at Twelve” ends thus: “I still can’t grasp the rules,/the shifting line of scrimmage/between us, turns at offense and defense,/your yardage, my fumbles.”  In “Hero” she is the humorous, tender accomplice to a two-year-old boy’s fantasy of being a rescue pilot.  And in “Tuning”, which starts with the noise of a nearby shooting range, she moves to an imaginary conversation with the teenage boy down the street:  “all talk target practice, ricochet and sashay, headache/and heartache, duck and cover.”  A complex and loving relationship is created with the father in “Washing Windows.”

“Not Another” is a brilliant summation of the themes of the book—war, masculinity, flight and home.  It intermingles lyrical and erudite extracts from a US soldier’s birding diary in Iraq with cameos from the speaker’s life, including her son’s draft registration summons.  It shows how the work of building a refuge is always interwoven into a bigger picture of nature and culture, war and peace, microcosm and macrocosm.  All come together in the memorable, exquisite final image of a finch struggling against great odds to build a nest outside the writer’s window, “the finch/ramming the twig and itself against the branches/over and over, until it slipped deep into the green,/the bush quivering from the work of weaving.”  Viewed in the context of the whole collection, this is not trite or cosy, but the necessary, existential work of the living in the face of upheaval, violence, hardship and death.

Catherine Jagoe is the translator of novels from Spain and Argentina; she recently finished translating a memoir about the Arctic from Catalan into English.  A member of the Madison poetry group Lake Effect, she is the author of Casting Off, a Parallel Press chapbook.  Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily and A Writer's Almanac.