This Writer's Life

Back from Berlin


Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, Germany.


My return trip from Berlin last week started with an airline pilots’ strike and ended with a twenty-seven hour trip that required eight boarding passes. I was relieved to get home, to say the least.

My article about the Zebra Poetry Film Festival will be available to read at Connotation Press November 1. Until then, here’s a memory from the trip.

One of my favorite things to do in Berlin is visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. The Berlin Wall, that grim concrete symbol of the Iron Curtain, was constructed by the Soviet Union and East Germany between 1965-1975. Checkpoint Charlie was the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.

Most people could not leave East Berlin legally, whether to visit or to emigrate. The more daring attempted to escape, breaching the Wall via tunnels, homemade aircraft, or by hiding in unimaginably tiny spots. My favorite parts of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum are the escape rooms, which are divided into “successful” and “unsuccessful” escapes. Here you can see old photos of people emerging from the backs of cars, where they had hidden under black tarps, or stepping into West Germany from a tunnel they dug under the Wall, or – the photo I find most striking – a young woman folded into a stereo cabinet. This image inspired my poem, “In Front of the Reichstag,” which first appeared in Lake Effect in 2011:


In Front of the Reichstag


When he stood here in 1956

my father decided to set his life to music.


American jazz, the language of home.

To learn forgiveness, listen to the blues.


Fifty years later

I step across the mended street


to read about the girl

who bent herself into a quarter note


and escaped to the West,

wedged into a stereo cabinet,


her body twisted

like the fossil Archaeopteryx.


She was so small, a gamine –

airy as the swan-bone flute


dug up in the Hohle Fels cave

from which the oldest music comes.


Where else did the children hide –

crammed into cello cases, coiled into drums


as the little birds of Berlin

called out in tones of gold and mercy?



How times change. You can buy pieces of the Berlin Wall in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum gift shop. Sections of the Wall stand behind Plexi-glass in museums, safe from souvenir hunters. In a suburb of Berlin, near Kleinmachnow, a dozen sections stand ignored in a field.

I think that’s why I visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It reminds me of the power of the human spirit to affect change. People put the Wall up, and people brought it down.


For some interesting facts about the Berlin Wall, courtesy of the Checkpoint Charlie Mauermuseum, go here:

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