Saundra Rose Maley on Donald Berger

The Long Time | Die währende Zeit by Donald Berger. Wallstein Verlag, 2015.

“Words There Are No Words For”:
Donald Berger’s The Long Time

The cover of this book makes me want to open it. The random, colorful shapes that float on the white background behind the author’s name and the title, in English and German, compel me to enter the bilingual world of The Long Time ǀ Die Wahrende Zeit: Poems ǀ Gedichte of poet Donald Berger.

When I open the book I discover that each of the 35 poems is followed by a German translation. Like the cover, this dual rendering gives me something else to wonder at and the first poem tugs like gravity:

The Long Time

It was a long
time. What day
was it? I
didn’t know.

O little while
while you last,
as somebody
who doesn’t know meets
somebody who does,

and the rooms’
crack of wind
tinted glass
across from the
stone-piled well into
the church’s field:

to grip the telephone
with my neck,
over a light

I loved you
This small poem takes us into a world where time cannot be measured or known, only things ǀ die Dinge can be described, and their sounds and colors matter, burn impressions into memory, where a fragile connection between two people grips and disappears. When is this long time taking place? How long is it? Where are these rooms, this church’s field, this love?


I am caught up in the movement of the poem and lost in its twists and turns and the experience is emotionally and intellectually provoking. The subsequent poems unfold in a similar manner, a detailed yet uncertain observation of things, of their placement, of rooms, of pencils, of unknown friends, often interrupted by unanswerable questions (What/will be my idea to/wait with me—“To Be Where the Sun Is”). I enjoy the movement of the poems and the unexpected questions that arise.


Given the German translations and German overtones in the book, I am reminded of Rilke’s dictum: “try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” The Long Time, for me, is written in a “foreign” tongue. The originals themselves are in a strange tongue and take me to foreign landscapes of poetry.  After several readings, it occurred to me that the “foreign-ness” I was experiencing had something to do with the poet’s bilingual perspective. The English lines often mimic the complexities of German syntax. For example that haunting opening poem, “The Long Time” piles nouns and questions up for eighteen lines before we come to the main verb of the poem:

I loved you  =  Ich liebte dich

This turning and twisting of the English brings me into what Wallace Stevens called “A new knowledge of reality.” Berger’s poems open the reader up to a dual worldview which is exhilarating and challenging. The poems are historical and ahistorical at once. Two such poems are my favorites: “The Lincoln Bedroom” and “Scotch and Orange.” Note these lines from “The Lincoln Bedroom”:

I have confidence, Peacock, and my eyes are soft.

The chairs Queen Anne, the tables of night,

               the beaded lamps, square pillows, more

symmetrical than the human heart,

headboard of leaf like nothing

that can ever form.

I am in that room with the poet and see the objects he describes, almost feel the mirror suck me into that other time, those other realities and emotions. The poem ends with these two lines:


                        “There’s two of us,” I wrote to myself,

                        Afraid it might seem loud.


There were at least “two of us” in that room. The poem pulled me into Lincoln’s bedroom, too.


Ultimately, for me, these poems are love poems, as the book’s epigraph suggests:


All the things I love, come here!

All ihr Dinge, die ich liebe, kommt her!

                                    —Gerry Crinnin                                


The Long Time of the title may be the residue of love and spirit that stretches across decades and centuries, and hides in the spaces between words. Not a sentimental love, but a porous and tentative connection that holds all time and space together:


                                                            . . . I like it

                        So much—the soft light one talked about

                        And the phrase night lamp and the fresh

                        Air coming through the window there

                        And still now, the night in the words

                        And life were rich as we said them

                        And lived through or they

                        Through us or both or nothing

                        But joy there, a peace a person

                        Could know himself, in those lines,



These lines from the book’s only untitled poem, whose first line is: “I love so much how they described their night,” bring me to a place of wonderment and new-found emotion, despite and, perhaps, because of the poet’s twists that almost obfuscate these responses. Like the films of Hitchcock, Berger extends his long time, draws us into a world of suspense, where we are never sure of our surroundings, and where we see only what the poet wants us to see through his poetic lens:


                        I’d like the next memory to be that

                        Of not repeating something,

                        Noticing how everything is, but never explaining.


                                                “The Sun and All Its Rays”


And whether we fully understand what the poet shows us or not, we love the view. This uncertainty brings me back to Rilke’s musing: “And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day [some Long Time] into the answer.”

Saundra Rose Maley’s first book of poems is Disappearing Act (Dryad Press, 2014). She has also published Solitary Apprenticeship: James Wright and German Poetry (Edwin Mellen Press, 1996) and, with Anne Wright, co-edited A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in Full Moon on K Street: Poems about Washington, D.C., Dryad, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and D.C. Perspectives. She is currently working again with Anne on a book about Wright and translation, tentatively titled, Where the Treasure Lies. She teaches Composition and Research at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland.



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