At dinner one night at Marjorie Perloff’s house—an event with just a handful of couples as opposed to her usually larger affairs—the conversation turned to the subject of what those around the table, all quite renowned in our fields, had done before embarking upon our current careers. I can’t recall large parts of this friendly dinner conversation—which I believe included the artists Susan Rankaitis and Robert Flick, Marjorie’s daughter Nancy, a curator at the Getty Museum, and her husband Rob, scholars Renée Riese and Judd Hubert, and Howard and me—but I do remember reminding Marjorie that she had once told me that early in her career she had been so desperate for a job that she had applied at small colleges such as Beaver College (now called Arcadia University). Knowing of Marjorie’s erudition, her brilliant writing and teaching abilities, and gift of language(s), the idea of her teaching in that self-advertised pastoral place of peace and quiet in the Philadelphia suburbs was unthinkable for everyone in the room.
“On the Train”
On the train, we went to sleep right away. But my cousins, as is typical of
them, complained they didn’t sleep all night. In Innsbruck, we had to get up
and go to the police station where they unpacked all our luggage and my
poor Mommy had to repack everything. There was such a mob and we had
to wait so long that Mommy said she would unpack a book and I sat down
on our hatbox and read. When we finished, we went to the station restaurant
where we had ham rolls that tasted very good. And as I was sitting in this
restaurant, I didn’t yet have any idea that later in America I would write a
book. Well, I hadn’t experienced much yet but, just wait, there will be more!
Perloff compares that charmingly innocent view of the family’s circumstance with a letter from her mother sent two days later to her sister in London, in which the family’s terror is quite clearly elucidated: the intense planning and packing up of family possessions, the sleepless night of March 12th, the “incessant shouts of ‘Sieg Heil!,” the sound of bombers flying overhead and vehicles rumbling through the streets, the hurried goodbyes, the tears. The same events of the young daughter’s travel journal are far more dramatically detailed in her mother’s recounting:
So we finished packing and left in the evening: my father-in-law, Stella,
Otto, Hedy and Greta, and Aunt Gerti. Those who didn’t have the same
last name had to pretend not to know one another. This applied to the
children as well: they were not allowed to speak and in fact didn’t speak.
We traveled comfortably second-class as far as Innsbruck. The children
slept. In Innsbruck, there was passport control: for Jews, the order was,
“Get off the train with your luggage.” Aunt Gerti was allowed to continue.
Evidently, they took her for Aryan although no one asked. We were taken
by the S.A. to the police office, across from the railway station. There, we
were held in a narrow corridor, heavily guarded. One after another, we
were called into a room where our passports were examined, our money
confiscated (since the rules had been changed overnight). They took 850
marks and the equivalent in schillings. We didn’t care the slightest.
Our thought was only: will they let us travel further? Will we be arrested?
Then all of our luggage was unpacked piece by piece. Finally, we were
allowed to leave. …Back on the train, we passed one military convoy
after another going the other way.
At 10 in the evening, we arrived [in Zürich].
…Here we are deciding what to do next.
This letter alone might have been a scenario for a film.
Gabriele Mintz was born to Ilse Schüller Mintz and Maximilian Mintz in 1931. Her early childhood took place in the comfort of the Ninth District of Vienna near the University and Votifkirche (the neo-Gothic cathedral built in the mid-19th century on the sight of the attempted murder of the young kaiser Franz Joseph), the neighborhood she herself describes as “Austrian upper-middle-class.” Their apartment on Hörlgasse contained a high-ceilinged nursery painted white, heated by a large porcelain stove; a dining room and adjacent salon with floor-to-ceiling bookcases; and a maid.
Abe rim September musten [sic] wir angemeldet werden. Ich und
eben der Hansi [the son of Professor Felix Kaufmann, of Geitskreis
fame, and his physician wife, Else] kamen erst in de erste A, mein
Bruder in die drite [sic] A und meine Cousinen in die vierte B.
But my Kronstein cousins went to another school. After three days
I and George [as Hansi is now called!] skipped to 2A.
She has not only skipped a whole grade in three days, but crossed the language barrier as well. When Gabriele graduated high school, she changed her name to Margie, and later Marjorie.
There she took her lover to sea
and laid herself in the sand.
He is fast, was down the dune
with silk around his waist.
Her scarf was small.
She opened her clothes to the moon.
Her underarms were shaved.
The wind was a wall between them.
Waves break over the tide,
hands tied to her side with silk,
their mind was lost in the night.
The green light at Provincetown
became an emerald on the beach
and like stars fell on Alabama.
The poem begins with a direct narrative statement in the past tense, with the vague “There” hinting at a world beyond time, like a “faraway country” of children’s tales. However, we are immediately made to question these expectations. The construction of “to sea,” because there is no article, makes us think of the infinitive “to see,” which changes the whole tone of the line and urges us to move to the second line to discover what it is that she wants him “to see.” But we are not told. The poet simply describes the process of her lying down in the sand. The word “laid” is wrong here, however, and the object of the verb, “herself,” makes no sense. Even
as a sexual pun it is, at first thought, ludicrous. Yet, when we think back to the previous line we recall that it was she who took her lover to “sea,” and, thus, we see the connotations of the pun. As the seducer, she encourages her love to have sexual intercourse by seductively lying down in the sand, a seduction which is
reflected by Wieners’ use here of the l and s sounds (lover, laid; she, sea, herself, sand); but, in so doing, she is also taking the male role (as we shall see there are reasons for the stereotyping of roles) and, thus, in sexual slang, is “laying herself.”
This goes on for three more pages!
Los Angeles, August 23-24, 2006
*Reprinted from Sun & Moon: A Quarterly of Literature & Art, No. 2 (Spring 1976), 86-105.