Palmer Hall has had poems, stories, and essays published in numerous magazines and journals. He is director of library and instructional services at St. Mary's University in Texas and owns and operates Pecan Grove Press.
-- For Petra
Es nehmet aber
Und gibt Gedachtness die See
Und die Lieb auch heftet Fleissig die Augen,
Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter
As for our memories,
The Sea takes from us and gives to us,
And Love, also, sharpens our focus.
What remains, though, that is from the poet.
--Loosely trans. By H. Palmer Hall
My second semester in graduate school, after the University of Texas informed me that being able to read and speak Vietnamese would not *count* toward satisfying the graduate school's language requirements, I dove head first into German, taking an 18 semester hour total-immersion program in nine weeks. During those weeks, I lived, thought and "dated" in German. I recommend that kind of program for anyone who is serious about languages.
The woman of my German summer was an international student from Grenoble named Petra Merieux. Her mother was German and her father French, but they had signed their own separate peace during the second of the world wars. Petra had light, wispy blonde hair and was close to 5' 10" tall, slender, but not skinny. We lived together only for that one summer and spoke what must have been incredibly bad German during the entire relationship.
One of the things I liked about Petra was her mixed background. Perhaps because her father was French, she harbored no real resentment of Vietnam veterans. After all, the second Indochina War was really an extension of the first, which had ended at Dien Bien Phu with the defeat of the French. And, because her mother was German, she did not feel she could be overly critical of anyone involved even in a less than just war.
I do not want to give a misimpression. I did not experience much overt hostility in graduate school because I had been in Vietnam, most people simply did not care. From time to time, though, some of the faculty members exhibited incredible moments of smug superiority that I, more often than not, simply laughed at. That summer, only a few days before I met Petra, I had gone with my friend Laura to a party being given for a history professor who had been denied tenure though he had been named the teacher of the year in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences by the students. The party was a "pariahs" party and one of the leading campus anti-war faculty members spent almost half an hour bemoaning the fact that he had been unable to demonstrate his pacifist fervor by going to jail because he had been found to be 4-F during a pre-induction physical. When he looked at me, his heart murmuring pacifically, and smirked after saying that, I merely told him that a few of us had been given the opportunity to risk something for peace by standing up, even after we had been to Viet Nam, and saying aloud, under circumstances that could hurt our futures, that we felt our government was wrong and that too many people had already been killed.
But this is about Petra and a wonderful summer, not about politics or the war. I met Petra on the first day of that German class and we hit it off beautifully. I knew a little French and she spoke English almost fluently, but during the six hours of class each day, we could only speak German and, to reinforce the immersion, Petra and I agreed to speak only German to each other outside of class. Part of the attraction, I suppose, was the fact that we were both older than the other students, all undergraduates trying to get their language requirement out of the way quickly. Petra was 29 that summer and had just completed her doctoral dissertation in classics. I was, at 27, just beginning my doctorate in English.
That first night, we went to a movie showing at the Commons on campus, a film called Die Brucke (the Bridge), in German with English subtitles. If you have not seen the film, I recommend it highly as one of the great anti-war films of the period. Its subject is a German school for boys during the late stages of the World War II and you see the boys develop as young and passionate warriors for the Third Reich. It reminded me of Golding's Lord of the Flies only with a firmer sense of brown-shirted discipline. In an awesome scene, the American army attacks the area where the school is located and the boys decide to defend the fatherland. The good-natured, fumbling Americans assume the boys are only children and try to befriend them. In the only English in the film, one of the children shoots an American and we hear him scream "You bastards!" as he dies.
It is difficult to carry on a discussion about a film when your native language is English and your partner's language is French and you are conversing in yet a third language that you have both only begun to learn that same day. Aside from "guten abend," "gesundheit" and "auf wiedersehen," our German was limited to asking each other what our names were and how we were feeling. Because we had dictionaries and the desire to communicate verbally, we learned to say "Ich liebe dich" that same night when we went to bed together for the first time.
Neither of us had the language for love-making in German. But we learned the vocabulary and conjugations over the next few weeks with special cram sessions every evening. There is no better language lab in the world than sitting in bed and touching and playing "name the parts," then laughing and starting over. Such a catalogue might make an interesting poem, but I was not interested in writing poetry in those days. In German she would ask, "How do you say what I am doing now?" as she would run her hand lightly over my chest. And I would try to tell her, in German.
In bed, under oak trees on campus, by Lake Travis, wherever we were, we would read Holderlin to each other and Peter Weiss and Schiller and Peter Handke and Rilke and so many others, all in the original German. We were not fluent, not even terribly good with the language, but, as the weeks passed, we could understand enough and knew enough to speak the words and sentences with the correct emphasis and rhythm. We acted out Ein Andere Kommt nach Deutchsland (A Stranger Comes to Germany) and marveled at its simplicity of language. We took turns shouting Peter Handke's Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending an Audience) and fell laughing into bed. We listened to tapes of Marlene Deitrich and of Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weill songs and saw still more German films. We never, in the nine weeks we were together, said a single word in English or in French to each other.
When the class was over and Petra graduated, I was her only guest and took her to the airport immediately afterwards. After she flew back to France, we wrote a few times, always in German, and then the letters faded away.
I remember Petra perfectly after more than two decades, the sound of her voice whispering "ich liebe dich," the way she looked when she dove naked into the water at Hippie Hollow, the arch of her back when she dried her hair after a swim, the way her bare feet felt next to mine, the sheer wonder of her pale hair as the dry wind blew it into my face while she napped, the slightly salty taste of her skin in the hot Texas summer sun. She will always remain as she was then and I would not know her now in her mid-fifties. As poorly versed as we were in that language that is not considered a language of love, but of war, German will always be for me an erotic language.
I can no longer speak German and can read it, once again, only with the help of a dictionary, but when I want to read a Rilke poem, I enjoy reading it aloud as he wrote it and then reading a good translation. Sometimes, when I read a poem by Holderlin, I hear it in her voice. I suspect Petra kept up with her German, at least more so than I did. She would have greater need for it in Grenoble than I have had in San Antonio. Perhaps, though, she lives in Paris now or Berlin. Wherever she is, she will always be in Austin at age 29, walking down the street or talking to me in husky German, or she will be asleep on our bed, breathing softly in those early morning hours before we awaken and walk together to campus.