Of the Time I Tried to Conjure the Devil in the Black Forest

I can admit it now. Things probably would’ve been different if I hadn’t gone on that two-month holiday while my baby was in her belly. I did it for two reasons. The first was that the holiday had been planned long before she fell pregnant and I figured now would be better than later, after the baby had come. The second was that through my fault or hers or most likely both or ours, we’d been getting along horribly ever since she fell pregnant, and it was only getting worse.

All this happened over 5 years ago, in the summer of 2012, and everything’s since been fixed, but those were some strange days.

The first leg of my trip was in Madrid where I stayed for a month, living in a €22/night hostel on the Gran Via. After that I went to Lisbon for a week and a half, and then came back to Germany – Cologne for a day, and then Bad Wildbad, a little spa town in the mountains of the Black Forest. The hotel I stayed at in Bad Wildbad was advertised as a Christian hotel. I wasn’t a Christian. But it was the cheapest place I could find in all of Baden-Württemberg, and I figured I could fake it if I needed to. When I got there, it was a Saturday afternoon, and the front door was locked. I rang the bell and looked through the window. The whole downstairs of the place was dark, but on a table near the door I could see books and pamphlets of Christian propaganda. I waited. Finally, a woman of about 60 came down the staircase and unlocked the door. “Herr Powers?” she asked. I nodded. She called for her husband who came down with the contract for me to sign. Then I got my keys to my room and went up there and unpacked. I noticed there was propaganda up there too. There was a crucifix on the wall, a framed painting of a very handsome, perfectly groomed Jesus on the dresser, and on my nightstand next to a lamp whose bulb stuck out the top of its shade, sat precariously this strange object.

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I ended up staying at the hotel for two weeks, and got into a routine almost immediately. I would wake up for the continental breakfast that began at 8. Then I would go wandering through the Black Forest for a few hours, come back down the mountain, eat a light lunch, drink coffee, and then sit at a picnic table on the stream that ran through town and write for the whole afternoon.

There was a rule was written somewhere. It might have even been a commandment. You weren’t allowed to drink alcoholic beverages in the Christian Hotel.

Quatsch! I said.

A man that’s been writing all day… a man whose baby is sitting in a woman’s belly he’s not getting along with in the least… needs a little booze at home to assuage the nerves. It wasn’t in my nature to believe otherwise. So, after I’d finish writing, I’d go to the liquor store and buy several little and big bottles of the local vintage and cram them in my backpack. Then I’d go back to the hotel, the bottles clanging as I walked.

One time when I got there, a gathering of some sort was taking place in the dining room. It looked like da Vinci’s rendering of the Last Supper. Everyone was sitting at this long table, and there was a guy standing in front of it, preaching and gesticulating, his eyes gleaming like wildfire.

I walked past and took the steps two at a time, the bottles clanking and crashing together in my backpack.

When I got to my room, I opened the windows to the mountains in the distance, reclined on my bed and opened the first bottle. Cherry wine.

I got out my copy of Faust. It wasn’t Goethe’s Faust. It was the first Faust book, Historia von D. Johann Fausten, about the life of Johann Georg Faust, written by an anonymous German author. I was trying to read the book in German, but the text was ancient, and my German, like my baby, was still in the embryonic stage. But I found an English version of the book online, and read about how one night between 9 and 10 p.m., Doctor Faustus took his staff into a great dense forest, made three intersecting circles with it and conjured up the Devil.

The Last Supper of course was still going on as I read this, but I was inspired to follow suit, so I grabbed my backpack, went down the steps and past the dining room, the bottles clattering behind me.

When I got outside, the sky was clear and the stars were out. I headed down the grassy hill to the stream and found the walking stick I’d hidden under a bush. Then I took some paths up into the Black Forest and found a little opening between some trees that seemed like a good place to conjure the Devil.

I made three intersecting circles in the dirt and waited.

I sat on a stump, took a sip of wine from the bottle. I took a few more swigs and waited for about fifteen or twenty minutes. But the Devil was a no-show as I knew he’d be so I walked out of the forest and over the stream and up the hill.

The downstairs of the hotel was dark. The Last Supper was over. I crept quietly up the carpeted staircase and down the hallway and into my room. I took off my backpack and undressed and got into bed. I turned out my light and listened to the crickets chirping in the grass. Then I started thinking about how on the other side of Germany, in a small flat in Berlin, there was a woman with my baby, not so much bigger than a cricket, sitting in her belly.

It didn’t seem right. Me? A father? I’d gone 41 years without being one, it had to be a mistake. They got the wrong guy! Didn’t they?

I looked through the darkness at the faint outline of the crucifix on the wall. I looked out the window at the phantom shapes of the mountains and the stars blinking and felt suddenly weighed down by melancholy and loneliness. It was like two hands pressing down on my chest. Will a baby cure this old familiar feeling? I wondered.

I had two days until my two-month summer vacation would be over. Two days until I’d be going back to Berlin, staying in some cheap Lichtenburg hotel until I could find a new flat, then figuring out my money situation and how to make things good with her.

I was dreading it, but I was also ready for it.

I’d been hiding in the Land of Myth long enough.

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You Can’t Be Late If You Have Nowhere to Go

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You Can’t Be Late If You Have Nowhere to Go

When you wake up in the morning
feeling like an oyster
stuck in a sea bed,
and there’s cigarette burns on your pillowcase,
and your toilet’s dripping,
and your woman’s flown the coop,
and the garbagemen
are starting to look like FBI.

When you realize you spent your last six bucks
at the gas station
on a bottle of Thunderbird,
a Jamaican patty
and an area rug
with a tiger embroidered on it.

You get out of bed
and move through the soiled darkness
among hideously
enlarged
mouse-shadows and insufferable walls,
your mind
an empty
beer jug, your nerves shot, your ambitions,
hopes, dreams
set on fire and sailing on a bark built out of poems
down the Blue Nile.

Resignation,
you tell yourself.

That’s what
growing old’s all about. To learn to let go
as Madame Death
sends you her little mementoes.

Self-Portrait

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You can see from the tall window of this altbau, people creeping by; dark images moving softly in the colors of the night. A little pinkish neon light dribbles on the wet streets. A silhouette of lovers under an umbrella becomes a symbol of your onlyness tonight. You pull the blinds on them, pace the semi-darkness of your room as Mussorgsky’s Pictures plays: the tempo quickens into thick blasts of fiery dream and you tell yourself, need meets luckless nothing much; your heart’s too stung for sealing. You remind yourself, tonight you’re gonna pray (you don’t pray), but tonight you’re pacing the floors like some drunken Hungarian horn-mad idiot, your bare feet blistered, the offal king of cans and the crow pursues the dove and the story of the night torn loose with briars: shadows converse. Mussorgsky becomes Buxtehude and you walk over to the torn blind, yank it open. The window is wet with rain and all you can see is your own reflection staring back at you, the sad-sick requiem of you, pale and trembling and captured in glass.

Shoes

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My first room in Lisbon was next to the community bathroom. The walls were very thin, and I could hear everything. I tried to cover my ears with my pillow, but my pillow was just a little larger than my face and it didn’t quite reach. One person after the next would go in and out. It was as though someone had rolled my bed up to a bathroom stall at a baseball game. I said something and got moved to the building next door. It was much better over there, but there was no a/c in the building, and it was July. I had two choices at night. Either take off all my clothes and spritz myself with water so I could sleep, or open the window and let a little breeze flow through. The problem with opening the window was I was right on the Rua da Palma, and the traffic was non-stop, and the trolleys would go by with a loud snake-like hissing, and there were drunks shouting all night in Portuguese or Spanish or French or some strange African tongue. The good thing was there were very few people on my floor, and the community bathroom was all the way at the end of it. It was late morning and I was walking down there to take a shower when I heard a woman moaning. “Yes, Oh, ooo, yes! Just like that, yeah..” I hesitated for a moment. It was coming out of a room with a pair of pink shoes parked neatly outside of it. I looked down at the shoes, and continued on, the moaning following me, playing about my ears.

When I came back later, the shoes were gone. And I never saw them again. And I never saw the woman who owned them. It was the Story of the Pink Shoes and it meant… something.

Two weeks later, I was in the Black Forest, in a little mountain town called Bad Wildbad. I had the cheapest hotel in all of Southwest Germany, and it was run by Christians. The first thing you saw when you walked in the place was the propaganda, the fliers, the booklets, the Bibles, the John Calvin poster. On the nightstand in my room, there was a thing that looked like an ice cube with a long wire standing
out of it and what looked like a roach clip on the end of the wire. Attached to the roach clip was a little red business card that said in German,

“I love you!”
“I love you!”
“I love you!” — God

The owner of the hotel had thinning gray hair, a bird-like face and broad shoulders. He was about six-feet tall, and when he’d talk to you he’d keep closing his eyes, sometimes for ten or twenty seconds, and rock back and forth on the balls of his feet. His wife was the maid and cook and factotum of the place. She was about sixty, with cropped gray hair and little myopic eyes. She usually wore a blue t-shirt and a scarf of towel-like material, a long denim dress, and plain black rubber-soled shoes.

Her story was her shoes.

They were born for one thing only. To be worn on the feet of a public servant. I have worn the same kind before. Black so no stains show. Shoes drained of light and hope. Shoes of murk. Shoes that were self-actualized in public restrooms, in laundry rooms, in oily garages, in diners with a little slime or egg yolk languishing on the shoestrings. If you saw these shoes parked outside someone’s bedroom, you probably wouldn’t hear moaning coming out of it. You would hear nothing, or maybe, if it didn’t take too much energy, you’d hear an argument, and the shoes would sit outside the door looking tired and miserable.

In the two weeks I stayed at this hotel, I only heard one small fit of rage. I didn’t know what it was about and I didn’t wait to find out. I was walking through the lobby and heard the old lady shouting at her bird-faced husband. The next time we saw each other we all pretended it never happened. But it made me wonder about her husband. It seemed like he was working her to death. Was the hotel struggling? He used to sit up at night in his office with all the lights out except the light of his computer. Was he trying to save on the electric bill? And why did he keep his eyes closed when he talked to you?

“Ich liebe dich!”
“Ich liebe dich!”
“Ich liebe dich!” — Gott

I never did figure out the answers to my questions, but whatever they were, I felt sad for the old lady. I felt sad about her tired, woebegone shoes.

I think when the day finally comes
and some great earthquake slices the earth apart.
And the sea boils.
And the ravens fall out of the sky.
And the sky rains blood and ash and bone.
And the bridges and buildings and all the landmarks crumble.
And humanity crumbles.
And all of Earth’s history gets wiped clean.
There will be one thing left: a pair of shoes like hers.

And they will explain everything.

On Sincerity (& a Quote by Van Gogh)

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What I strive to be more than anything is sincere, to speak with genuine feeling about myself, my experiences and the people around me. This may seem like an easy task, but it’s not. Easy is to say what you only half-think, or to be flip or sarcastic, like a 20-year-old fratboy. To be sincere takes more courage. It also takes a deeper delving into one’s self.

Sincerity is the language of the human heart. But the human being is such a complex structure, such a beehive of contradictions and cover-ups and cross-purposes, that half the time we either can’t or don’t want to decipher what our hearts are saying. We are lost. And the only thing leading us through our darkness is some stodgy old habit.

No thanks, I say.

Let me hear the voice inside,
the voice of the heart, the blood and of deep true feeling;
that ever-renewing fountain of purity;
there where nothing grows old
and the Holy Grail waits to be found.
Let me hear it.

“Sincerity is a duty.” ~ Van Gogh

Turgenev, Flaubert & German Bureaucracy

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So, today’s the day I go to the Ausländerbehörde to get my Visa renewed, hopefully for another year. The problem is I don’t have a document that was required the last two times I renewed it, so I have to figure out how to talk myself around the document, auf Deutsch, using a tactic the Germans call die Charmeoffensive, i.e. overwhelming them with charm.

I’m expecting to fail.

Germans were the inventors of the soulless bureaucratic institution, so to think that I, with my comical grasp of the language, can pull the wool over one of their stuffed suits or automatons is presumptuous to say least. But it’s all I got. We’ll see what happens.

For the past week, I have been reading a book of letters between Turgenev and Flaubert. I got the book because of Turgenev, my favorite writer. I had read some of his correspondence elsewhere, letters he’d written to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and others, and really liked them, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong with Flaubert. Well, I can’t exactly say I went wrong. There are a few diamonds in the book. But mostly it’s Turgenev grousing and griping about his gout, and Flaubert pouring praise on Turgenev, and the two of them trying to fix appointments to meet each other, and missing each other, and waiting on letters, and falling off the radar for unknown reasons, and you can’t help but wonder how much different and easier things would’ve been for them if they’d had computers rather than ponies delivering their messages. We forget how lucky we are sometimes. Although maybe we’re not totally lucky. With the internet comes a billion-and-one distractions, none of which ever sleep. How can a man get into that solitudinous, somnambulant state of mind that’s so important for poetic musing when all day long he’s being assaulted by instant messages, emails, newsflashes and so forth, fighting off temptation like Ulysses when he was tied to the mast of the ship and had his ears stuffed with wax to keep him from drifting off to the beautiful song of sirens?

There is one thing, however, one major thing, that hasn’t changed a bit since these letters were written in the 1870s. This comment, by the good Flaubert, could’ve just as easily been written in 2018.

“I am overwhelmed by public stupidity… Never have affairs of the mind counted for less. Never have hatred of everything that is great, contempt for all that is beautiful, abhorrence for literature been so manifest. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but the sea of shit is beating up against its walls, it’s enough to bring it down.”

So that’s it. I am off to Ausländerbehörde.

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Morning After Blues

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All you remember eating yesterday
was a piece of ham. And then last night on the boat,
drinking with a German you’ve known for five years
who believed until two days ago your name was Sam.
“Like, Son of Sam?”
“Exactly.” Also there was a fluffy-haired Liverpudlian
with expertise in the field of South American
dirt, The Wallflower, a moonfaced Kazakh girl
showing much cleavage,
and an Israeli named Nimrod (who found nothing
strange about the name).

Drinking beer and car bombs
and tequila and Mexikaners on that old docked boat.
Walking home in a late-night summer thunderstorm,
the lightning glittering off the gaping
windowpanes and wet cobblestones of Falckensteinstrasse.

And today, waking up too too early, a colony of bees
buzzing in your head, your belly broiling a froth
of radiator fluid, listening to invisible
fingers feeling up
a keyboard somewhere. You curse the ceiling,
look to the floor,
observe the damp pile of clothes
that wore you last night.
It stands up, walks out the room. A door slams shut.
A hand opens the curtains.
A horrendously magnified dragonfly
floats
along the wall, its wings on fire.
Sunrise.

On Revenge

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All my life, people have described me as laid-back I am. I don’t know if this comes off in my writing or in the person I appear to be in social media. But in social situations, among small groups, I am generally quite relaxed. I drink, I joke, I listen, I sometimes say outrageous things or philosophize, and then I go on my way. People rarely get to me. I guess because most of them I keep at arm’s length. Sometimes, however, someone will cut through that distance and reach me, and burrow under my skin. When this happens, I have been told, I react emotionally. The problem is that when I am upset, not just my head, my whole body gets attacked. It has something to do with my nervous system. Something electric pulses through me, stimulating my flesh, eating up fat cells, boiling my blood and keeping me from sleeping. That’s the worst part – not being able to sleep. I have enough trouble as it is. If someone exacerbates the problem, my mind in those bleak hours descends to a place of ashen darkness inhabited by fire-breathing salamanders, and poisonous flowers, and gloomy dwarfs.

I start thinking about revenge.

I think of the hundreds of divine and diverse possibilities for going about it, ranging from cruel to so ruthless I’d never do it, but it sure is a pleasure thinking about it.

At least for a while.

Until your emotions let down and you realize the greater pleasure and best revenge is simply to ignore, to avoid, to forget about the whole damn thing. No one needs to be taught anything. But if they are going to learn something, your silence and absence will teach them the most.

Ezra Pound & Phanopoeia

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Monday afternoon. Blue skies. My flat cold as an iceberg. Something’s wrong with the heating in here. I’m sitting here at my desk in sweats and socks and two shirts and a thermal blanket thrown over me. I’ve been back in Berlin now for four days, and am just about over my jetlag. The flights weren’t too bad. With the help of Xanax, I was able to sleep a little on both of them and in the Dublin airport. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was reading ABC of Reading, by Ezra Pound. I very much like Ezra Pound, but when I contemplate some of his opinions, I can’t help but think what Hemingway once said about him. “Ezra is right half the time, and when he was wrong, you were never in any doubt about it.”

Ezra, at times, reminds me of a guy who’s been up too many days in a row snorting biker-rails and proselytising a host of grand and magnanimous ideas, most of which will seem totally ridiculous when he sobers up.

I would say The Cantos, his life project, was one of those. I have had the book for 20 years, and still haven’t read it all the way through. It’s just dreadfully boring in parts, with too much foreign language and rigmarole about economics for my liking. But there are some parts of it, some lines, some images, some whole cantos that taught me more about poetry than anything I’ve ever read.

In ABC of Reading, Pound uses a term called phanopoeia, which is a word used to throw a visual image onto the reader’s imagination. The Chinese, he said, did this best, probably because of the way their language was written. But Pound himself, I think, was also great at this, especially in those parts of The Cantos that I found so incredibly instructive. Here’s a sampler:

The silver mirrors catch the bright stones and flare,
Dawn, to our waking, drifts in the green cool light;
Dew-haze blurs, in the grass, pale ankles moving.
Beat, Beat, whirr, thud in the soft turf
Under the apple trees,
Choros nympharum, goat-foot, with the pale foot alternate;
Crescent of blue-shot waters, green-gold in the shallows,
A black cock crows in the sea-foam.

And here is something I wrote, with Pound, and Chinese poets like Li Po, and phanopoeia at the forefront of my mind. I have posted this before, but have since given it a haircut and a new suit of clothes.

Initiation

The lantern is lit.
The music is Japanese.
The walls blossom with hyacinths.

I am the only guest here.
Sitting on a broken bamboo chair, a sense of spiders
infesting my heart.
Grief gathering in the carpets.
The scent of dawn expunged by the low ceiling.
The blown glass
on the table filled with oleander and bitter-root.

I drink up.
Strings vibrate.
Jewels tingle in the mouth of the captive bird.
Red-gold, yellow-bronze, gossamer spins itself.
The lantern shimmers and sighs.

An unborn child
gazes at me
from the muttering darkness.

Wallflower by M.P. Powers

My poem, Wallflower, has just been published in In Between Hangovers.

In Between Hangovers

He’s one of those guys
you see at the bar all the time,
but never quite realize he’s there, so little
is the impression he makes on you.

You’re not the only one. No one seems to notice him.
He kind of moves about the place like a shadow,
now attaching himself to a party
of three near the pinball machine – standing behind them
pokerfaced – now sitting bent up in the corner,
his bland eyes panning to and fro.

One day, after realizing I’d been seeing him
around for ages and knew nothing about him,
I asked my friend Helmut for info. “He can say ‘I’m hungry’
in twenty different languages,”
said Helmut. “He thinks it’ll help him pick up chicks.”
“Do you think it’s ever worked?” I ask.
“He said it has – twenty times.”

Helmut and I watch as he cleaves his way
through the crowd…

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