The Little Ache – a German notebook by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press, 2021), 144pp., $30; All Tito’s Children by Tim Grgec (Victoria University Press, 2021), 96pp., $25
In these two volumes of poetry, Ian Wedde and Tim Grgec search for ancestors and ancestral meaning in European lands torn and shadowed by tribal conflicts and deadly authoritarian solutions. Both books are timely when we hear almost daily of the importance of whakapapa. They are fine reminders that, although ancestry here may be decadally recent, tūpuna live in wairua, in both meanings of the word, no matter how distant or ancient its roots.
Wedde, in his seventeenth volume of poetry, seeks character and enlightenment in his attempts to discover the reasons for his ancestors’ migration to New Zealand from the contestable ground of Schleswig-Holstein in the late nineteenth century. Grgec, in his first, searches for the early lives of his immigrant grandparents in the lost world of Yugoslavia, whose very fabric after World War II was wrought from the image and words of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
In 2013–14 Ian Wedde held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency as he researched for his novel The Reed Warbler (2020). The Little Ache ‘began and in many respects ended as diary notes’ while he lived in Berlin or travelled north to the region around Kiel from whence his great-grandmother, Maria Reepen, left for New Zealand in 1875. She married his great-grandfather Heinrich Wedde, a runaway sailor, soon after arrival. ‘These and other ghosts whispered to me as I enjoyed daily life in Berlin.’ But then, one needs to be only half-awake to hear ghosts whispering on every corner, from every gutter grill, of a city that has been destroyed and resurrected and serially re-imagined. ‘Thick description’ was Wedde’s ‘passport to the state of mind’ he hoped this book would occupy, where his ‘ghosts could be encountered in the everyday, material world, and in the phantom fragments of language that seemed to collate its meanings’.
Fragments of language, mostly Deutsch, head each of the seventy-six diary poems. They range from the everyday Bis später (See you later) to Freud’s der Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen (the narcissism of small differences) and act as creative leads to places, people and experiences of Wedde’s biographical year. Even The Chills make an appearance, in a Berlin concert, with Life Goes On and I’m So Scared.
Wedde’s larger frame is the seasonal cycle observed from his apartment balcony. There is the Kastanie (horse chestnut tree) that grows in almost every Berlin courtyard within the square of six-storey apartment blocks. At first, drifts of autumn leaves accumulate to expose bare branches that, almost miraculously, produce the flower candles of spring and the camouflage of new foliage for nesting Elstern, magpies. But in winter …
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
where fragments of life
flit across the provisional warmth of the present.
Fragments are collected from cafés, bars, ice creams, people in his Friedrichshain neighbourhood, renovated from the Staub und Asche (dust and ashes) of the German Democratic Republic with its scattered decaying monuments. He finds no Weddes there (though some are listed in the Telefonbuch) and looks beyond the domestic to tenuous ancestral connections that might better explain who he has become. He finds the nineteenth-century writings of Social Democrat Johannes Wedde, acquaintance of Karl Marx, in the Staatsbibliothek (state library), although the relationship is obscure. More engagingly, there is the cousin of great-grandmother Reepen, Klaus Groth, whose popular poems in Plattdeutsch (Low German) ran to many editions. Groth’s friend Johannes Brahms used thirteen of his poems for songs …
Pour rain, pour down,
Awaken my old songs,
Which we sang in the doorway,
When the drops rang outside!
Brahms later wounded him by saying he knew nothing about music. But Groth remains a local hero, his statue standing in a Kiel square.
Wedde listens to the ghosts of Rudi Dutsche, Käthe Kollwitz, Bertolt Brecht and Albert Haushofer, who wrote eighty sonnets while waiting to be executed in the Gestapo’s Moabit prison, and whose words are inscribed on the wall of its memorial. These all add to the ‘thickness’ of Wedde’s diary narrative, which leads eventually to opaqueness in meaning as well as distance from his prime ancestral subjects, about whom we learn little more.
Wedde writes of ‘the ghosts of meaning/ that haunt phenomena’, and the possible meanings of Endeanfang, the end of the beginning. Or could it be Anfangende, the beginning of the end?
… the beginning and the end
Anfang und Ende
of a dream
from which I wake and wonder
The end here is where he visits the grave of his great-grandmother at Raurimu. He had intended to plant a nut there from the Kastanie in his Berlin courtyard. But he forgot,
so instead plant in myself the memory
the coactive shadow
the ghost of the chestnut tree
through which I watched the seasons pass
during which words also came and went
and were sometimes remembered.
Where Ian Wedde aims for thickness, Tim Grgec aims for precision and clarity in technique but with an understanding that, in the shadow world of Tito’s Yugoslavia, ‘Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality’ (Joseph Conrad epigraph). Who is Tito? Is that his real name? Did he really come from where he said he did? Is that really Tito at that meeting or is it his double? Like Big Brother:
In every sitting room, above the Madonna,
a picture of our brave, handsome leader:
Tito in military uniform,
to keep our actual fears away.
In creating the political theatre, the enclosed psychic world in which his grandparents—his Majka and Deda—grew up before their escape as teenagers, Grgec produces a kind of play in seven acts. In Act I, ‘The Quarrel with Stalin’, Tito declares in double-speak:
is Yugoslav socialism better than Russian? Indeed.
for Yugoslavs only ration milk, bread,
Russians, the spirit. Without Stalin,
our feet will again begin
to feel the ground beneath them—
a snow thawing, clear, like polished spectacles.
Act II, ‘Elizabeta’, tests truths, secrets and lies in a game in which each takes turns telling two truths and one lie, which one must guess. Here Grgec weaves in the history of country, village, family:
1. I left Yugoslavia in 1957, never to return.
2. Your great-grandfather, like everyone else in Međimurje,
was a basket-maker. He hung willow straws in the sun
the colour of mottled apples ripening.
3. Back then, I caught chickens with my bare hands.
Act III, ‘Emergence from the Fog’, includes literal playscript as Tito creates and briefs his double. ‘Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters! I address you, my friends, in a voice that might be my own, or perhaps that of someone before me.’
Act IV, ‘Stjepan’, tells of Deda growing up within the conflicting narratives of state decree and village lore. There was the gypsy:
Majkas came from all over Međimurje
just to see her
make the sign of the cross,
to feel in her hands the emptiness
of a whole generation
No one questioned her.
bristled like a cat
as the rest of the village
Act V, ‘The Company We Keep’, is a kind of Tito biography and includes a list of seven books that he told the New York Times he had borrowed from the National Library. From each title, Grgec derives the thoughts and questions that may have intrigued or worried the cool dictator.
Am I still leader?
Blackness, sacks over their heads
in the middle of the night.
So late it’s early. Frost,
the collective drawing of breath.
Act VI, ‘Elizabeta’s Tiny Seeds’, produces the sprouts of doubt:
With each mechanical address, speaking as a veteran, about how all
Yugoslav sons would repeat his steps in marching formation, Tito’s image
started to retreat to another part of my mind …
Finally, Act VII, is ‘Escape’, across the border to Austria.
I ate frost to hide my breath.
My eyes became used to the darkness,
the thread of barbed wire glinting along the trees.
It ends with ‘Lyall Bay, 1959’, where
Trees moan. The sound of ghosts, sleepless
women. The hills, a creased jacket on the horizon.
Words circle above the surface, like birds. Not quite
speech. Something forgotten. An entire country lost in
This flawless debut work will not be lost. Its rendering of the wastelands of an ideological past echo in the current sound chamber of fake news, alternative facts and conspiracy theories. Yet, in offering praise and expressing enthusiasm to see Grgec’s next book, I am also anxious, because All Tito’s Children will be a hard act to follow.
Both these collections confirm the complexities of whakapapa/ancestry that go beyond a simple connection to tribe or group. Whether thickly or economically, they reveal the immense scope of simply being human here.
Three of PHILIP TEMPLE’s ten novels are set wholly or partly in Berlin. He held the Creative NZ Berlin Writer’s Residency in 2003–04.