Small is Beautiful: On Philip Rowland’s ‘Something Other Than Other’ | Alistair Noon

The Anglophone tradition doesn’t have a lot of time for shortness. Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (quoth Polonius in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) or, say, Ezra Pound’s early Modernist quasi-haiku –

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough –

and subsequent periodic haiku mountains, the Anglophone poet has tended to like their poem to be a solid steak and kidney pie rather than a sliver of carrot with half a bay leaf on it. While Dryden and co picked up on the Horatian Ode, there was less take-up of forms such as those of Martial’s epigrams, still less the accidental minimalism of what’s left of Sappho. The quatrains of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat translation seem to have been much read but little emulated.

As in so many things, Emily Dickinson is the exception here: all those hundreds of quatrains foreshadow the early to mid-20th century’s interest in shorter forms. There was a strong minimalist streak to Imagism and Objectivism, and in their different ways, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff made a career (largely) of smallness. Basil Bunting’s self-admonitions of parsimony of line resulted in some minimalist work as well. There’s also the concrete tradition, with Ian Hamiliton Finlay’s ‘Windflower’ perhaps taking things as far as they can go in this direction. Not to forget Baldrick’s impression of WW1 artillery in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

windflower

‘Windflower’ (1976) by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley. Photograph by Chris Wevers.

At a recent reading in Berlin, US psychedelic poet Will Alexander pointed out that, for him at least, it doesn’t matter what length of form you’re working with as a poet, minimal or epic, the whole of life and the universe has to go into it (especially the universe). Debatable perhaps, but it does point up the paradox of the short form: precisely the apparent easiness of the form, the few words it needs, constitutes its enormous difficulty (this applies, of course, to lyric poetry in general, but it’s even more pronounced with short forms). Every single word draws attention to itself, to all its aspects and associations, in a way that just isn’t the case in much bigger forms. On a bad day it’s throwaway, on a good day it’s something you’ll keep forever. It requires hardcore editing skills, or total genius inspiration.

Given the relative marginality of the various short forms in English-language poetry – I mean in terms of prominence, not of the practitioners’ achievements – it’s not surprising that poets interested in writing this length often look elsewhere for their models. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands sequence of urban tankas. And at least two strongly translocal poets writing now have absorbed other traditions to pare things down; George Messo (whose 2006 book Entrances I reviewed here), and now Philip Rowland, long-term Tokyo resident and editor of the superbly produced and excellently named NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, which evidences the wealth of the minimalist tradition, resolutely international and, perhaps for that reason, little engaged with in Brexitland for example. There is nothing throwaway about what he writes.

scan-where-rungs-were

‘where rungs were’, Philip Rowland (Noon Press, 2007)

Bear with me, I’ll get to the book in a sec. I have a pet cod-theory on how poetry styles can be categorized according to the number of readings/hearings they implicitly demand of the reader/hearer. Slam poetry (on a bad day, which is, unfortunately, most days) can and must work with only one run-through. Typical UK ‘mainstream’ poetry requires two reads: on the first you don’t quite get it, but don’t worry because by the end of the second read all has been revealed. More or less explicitly Modernist-derived poetry varies quite considerably in its expectations: some offers total initial resistance, but persistence can pay off. To my mind, the more interesting strands tend to give something up straight away whilst just as much, if not more, can be discovered upon subsequent reads, ideally indefinitely and infinitely (this is what W.S. Graham did on a good day, of which there were many, and that is why he was possibly the greatest Anglophone poet of the 20th century – bam!). The pseudo-stuff, such as that which has absorbed J.H. Prynne’s surface style without the discursive substance when it’s there, gives nothing up straight away. This isn’t necessarily a disqualification, though it is banking on the reader having some other reason to not go and load the dishwasher. But subsequent reads reveal nothing more because there is nothing more.

Philip Rowland’s poems run totally counter to all this. The first reading yields a pretty rapid and apparently complete perception and meaning. Because of the brevity, a second read can follow this quickly and painlessly, offering up at least the prospect of a quite different or additional reading:

in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not

With the poet’s geographical location in mind, it’s easy to see the haiku tradition behind him:

Prelude in C –
winter sky
deep in the piano lid.

I’m not aware, though, of another contemporary poet who shows so clearly what can be done in English in the spirit of haiku. The poetry demonstrates how syllable-counting is secondary to, and a distraction from, the haiku aesthetic: those 17 syllables of the classical Japanese haiku contain less semantic information than 17 syllables of English (unless those 17 syllables happen to be pronounced by [insert name of minister/apparatchik you particularly despise]). The key thing is the haiku’s lightness and immediacy – less superdense white dwarf, more returning comet:

inhabiting repetition
listening for the sound
of our listening.

Those three poems form the book’s ‘Prelude’. The music continues: prospective parenthood, existence, our relationship with the dead, public transport, and the experience of the translocal:

still evening –
at home –
in a foreign land
going out of my way
to step in old snow

I have another pet cod-theory whereby lines get more semantically difficult to manage the shorter they are. This is because there are fewer words to do the sense work, assuming that a line visually and aurally draws attention to itself as a unit of sense. The corollary of this is that lines get more rhythmically difficult to manage the longer they are, as there’s always a threat they’ll break in half. This is why we don’t have too many septameters and octometers, and explains the success of the iambic pentameter, the compromise candidate of the English tradition: enough words to get enough sense, but not so many syllables as to become unwieldy.

There’s an odd way, though, in which all that reverses when you get down to the one-word line, which Rowland and others successfully use (the Maine poet Peter Kilgore was expert at this). The vertical replaces the horizontal as the main axis, and the sense that would normally be spread through a line is now spread through the whole poem, though with an invitation to dwell on each word and its possibilities:

winter
afternoon

sun
striping

one
skyscraper

hiding
another

Time for my final pet cod-theory: it’s not a bad idea for a poet to gradually formulate, over time, a few principles that describe and drive their practice to date, in other words, to have a sense of what they’ve been doing. They can then purposively try out forms that deliberately run against this and see where it gets them. In Philip Rowland’s case, there are some discursive pieces, longer texts, as well as poems whose initial reading offers more resistance, though never battening down all hatches. There are short prose pieces, visuals and founds, permutations, puns, word dissections, a moving recollection of a loved one’s death, syntactic puzzles –

small hours the squares of night none fits

Most things are short here, but nothing brief. Never mono-layered, each page to be paused over and returned to, a linger rather than a slog. These 80 pages have a lot of white space and every bit of it is (no pun intended) justified. Time breaks into small sections to be allowed to melt rather than be chewed –

in the time it takes the temple bell

Simple words with a life behind them. Another poetry is possible. Something other than other –

getting or not getting the last word

Philip Rowland’s Something Other Than Other is published by Isobar Press (Tokyo/London).  Click here for further details of the book.  Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here.  A new pamphlet, Quad, will appear from Longbarrow Press in spring 2017.  His full-length collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press.  Surveyors’ Riddles, a collaboration with Giles Goodland, is published by Sidekick Books.

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Memoirs of Memoirs: the Real Leningrad Sinologist | Alistair Noon

Huailai County, Hebei province, 1907 (photographed by Édouard Chavannes)

Huailai County, Hebei province, 1907 (Édouard Chavannes)

I first heard of Vasiliy Alekseyev from a German sinologist friend in Shanghai, Marcus Hernig, who together with the photographer Jan Siefke had undertaken a journey around Northern China in the early two thousands. Their trip followed more or less in the footsteps of the one undertaken by the young Russian sinologist with his older and more irascible French colleague Édouard Chavannes in 1907. Marcus and Jan had travelled by bus and train, though, rather than the springless carts and excruciating wheelbarrows that Alekseyev’s account of the journey, published as China 1907, unfailingly returns to.

The book of informed travel reportage and photography that Marcus and Jan subsequently put together was to appear in 2005 as Dao Le! in Chinese and Angekommen! in German (China Intercontinental Press), but its English translation (We’re There, translated by myself) remains somewhere on an old hard disk and a printout, as the publishers of the Chinese and German versions got cold feet about the commercial viability of the English translation. Feel free to crowd-source it.

Commercially viable translation – I mean commercially viable from the translator’s point of view – seldom leaves much leeway for all the background research that might be desirable. Though Marcus’ text quoted liberally from Alekseyev’s book, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the latter in a second-hand bookshop in Berlin that I really got to grips with Alekseyev himself. The edition is a generously chunky hardback with glossy pages at fairly large point size, with some great reproductions of Chinese New Year coloured woodcuts. This was a folk-art genre which Alekseyev was fascinated by for its insights into Chinese social life and linguistic symbolism, and in which he would become a specialist. The book I have is the German translation – the Russian original seems to be not just out of print, but out of all circulation.

Vasiliy Alekseyev

Vasiliy Alekseyev

The thing that struck and fascinated me about the account almost from the word go was the high degree, on Alekseyev’s part, of what would now be termed intercultural competence. The era was one in which imperialism still dared speak its name, and imperialist assumptions remained widespread despite being increasingly called into question. But it is evident on every page of the book that Alekseyev, though fascinated by China and the Chinese, nevertheless treats it and them as a fundamentally normal country and people, amenable to rational enquiry no more and no less than Europeans. No inscrutable Orientals here but simply ordinary folk. Nor is his approach a narrowly sinophilic one. Though clearly sympathetic to the country, Alekseyev makes criticisms and finds fault on the basis of experience, observation and reflection, but without falling into or wallowing in culture shock and antipathy.

All this is a far cry from the figure of the Oriental scholar in the late Edward Said’s highly influential Orientalism (1978), in which Said took such writer-researchers to task for their acquiescence and connivance in imperial projects, making their subjects ripe for justifications of imperial conquest. One peculiarity which Said pointed out is that in contrast to nearly every other known species of academic, the Orientalists he was writing about didn’t (and in Said’s view, don’t) actually like what they study very much: hence the image and configuration of the East as a threat. Said was careful to state that he was talking specifically about scholars of the Middle rather than the Far East (reflecting his own political concerns as a Palestinian). For several reasons, not least their geographical remove from the West, the Chinese were less amenable to being cast as Europe’s century-old nemesis and Other than Islam.

With Marcus and Jan’s book in mind, my girlfriend and I ended up retracing some of their journey that had in turn retraced Alekseyev’s journey. Just as my Shanghai buddies had found, heavy industry, mass housing and mechanized transport had of course wrought enormous changes on the area since Alekseyev’s time. All the same, there were places we visited where direct observations I made could and did find their way into the mid-length poem I would write, ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’, whose China-related parts are set in the early years of the twentieth century.

Kaifeng, once an imperial capital, had still in the mid-2000s retained more of its old architectural and street-life character than many other Chinese cities, and had a distinctive local speciality which can only be termed the Chinese kebab. The enormous graveyard area at Qufu, where Confucius’s direct descendants had continued to reign for two and a half millennia, looked not dissimilar to the contemporary photo of it in China 1907. And Pingyao is now a tourist magnet for its well-preserved old streets and a beautiful dragon wall, though in my poem I may have been thinking of one in Datong, a big coalmining town in Shanxi province.

More or less just on picking up Alekseyev’s book and reading the first few pages it became clear to me that I was onto something that could form the basis for a longer poem, something I had been wanting to write for some time but without success. I had spent time in and had some familiarity with both Alekseyev’s home country and the country he visited, meaning I could draw on some first-hand imagery in relation to both. And despite the gap of a hundred years in which China has been through a series of massive political, economic, social and not least cultural upheavals, Alekseyev’s experience of and reaction to China seemed to chime in several ways with my own.

I studied Russian at university, if not too studiously, and spent three weeks in the city formerly known as Leningrad, formerly to that as Petrograd (briefly), and formerly to that as St. Petersburg. This was in 1995, following a couple of earlier shorter visits in 1991/2 while “studying” in the provincial city of Voronezh (where Mandelstam was exiled); one of those jaunts began with me, upon arrival, going to sleep for 22 hours. I was young. Those trips percolated through into an early attempt at a slightly longer poem about Petersburg, long since gone cold and chucked down the plughole (though I got a generous and encouraging response to my effort from Edwin Morgan when I foisted it on him). I would also cannibalize bits of that earlier poem for ‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’.

While reading Alekseyev’s book I noted down particular phrasings and passages, some of which got translated, reworded, lifted or otherwise grafted into the poem; the more clearly “quoted” parts (though poetically reworked by me) are italicized in the text. Another element I had in mind was the first movement of a violin and piano sonata by Prokofiev, which begins with a melody played in a minor key on the piano and which really can’t be called anything other than haunting. Prokofiev himself told the violinist David Oistrakh that this movement was to be played “like the wind in a graveyard”, a phrase which appears towards the end of the poem. A brief German biography of Prokofiev, a contemporary of Alekseyev’s, also finds its reflection here and there in the poem.

Talking of sonatas, those interested in the work of Basil Bunting may spot an attempt in the poem to do something like his application of sonata form to poetry. I guess I also had Bunting’s reworking of a medieval Japanese prose piece into the mid-length poem ‘Chomei at Toyoma’ as a model for how to make use of prose in poetry. I showed a late draft to Kelvin Corcoran (who would subsequently publish the poem through his and Ian Davidson’s imprint Gratton Street Irregulars) who helpfully pointed out that the middle section was a bit confusing.

The richness of Alekseyev’s book, backed up by my tracking down a paper which he delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the nineteen-twenties, stood in inverse proportion to what I could easily find out about his life subsequent to his 1907 journey. He taught Chinese language and culture at St. Petersburg/Leningrad I think up to his death in 1951, but to what extent the Stalin era affected him personally I don’t know. Marcus gave me the contact address of someone who had known him, but by that time enough of the poem had been imagined that I didn’t actually need that information for the poem itself, which I hadn’t in any case conceived of as a biopic. The parts that play out in the Soviet Union are wholly fictional. This is why the poem is not called ‘Memoirs of Vasiliy Alekseyev’.

‘Memoirs of a Leningrad Sinologist’ appears in Alistair Noon’s pamphlet Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution (Gratton Street Irregulars, 2010). The pamphlet can be ordered here. Alistair Noon’s pamphlets with Longbarrow Press (Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area and his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman) are available here.

Alistair Noon appears at the Sheffield Poetry Festival on Sunday 2 June 2013, reading from and discussing The Bronze Horseman and his recent collection Earth Records (Nine Arches Press). Click here for more information. 


A Statement on Poetry | Alistair Noon

The TranssylvaniansI first heard The Transsylvanians in 1995, a few months after they had formed, at the Schokoladen in Berlin. Acoustic at the time – guitar, accordion, double bass and two violins – the band played traditional songs from Hungary and elsewhere in the Balkans, with melodies I’d never heard and rhythms that required dancing to. I heard them again not long afterwards, and during the break between sets, the audience spontaneously removed all the neat rows of chairs that the organizers had diligently set out.

The members changed and the band rocked up, going electric and starting to do festivals, touring round Europe, pitching up in the UK in the middle of foot and mouth and the Bradford riots. They put out their own CDs, which brought in enough moolah for them to keep going. Songs were reworked and there were various experiments, for better or worse. They did a piece by Béla Bartók.

I’ve seen them grumpy, I’ve seen them happy. A recent gig was the best I’d seen in ages. In one song, one of them strummed chords and sang while another leaned over from behind to do a bass line on the lower string, the drummer drummed on the guitar body, and someone else did something else on the same instrument as well. The violinist did his usual stage-dive.

To quote a line from Kelvin Corcoran’s poem ‘Tocharian the I-E Enclave’, totally out of context: ‘It’s only a sustained analogy’.

www.transsylvanians.de


Traces of the Middle Ages | Alistair Noon

A good slogan is a challenge, in more ways than one. Yesterday, your correspondent and a few thousand other Berliners attended the Umfairteilen demo. The name of the demo was a play on the German for “redistribute”, umverteilen (note the pun on the second syllable). So a close-ish translation, losing the wordplay, might be “Fair Redistribution”. Or perhaps a little peppier: “Redistribute Now”. The assembly point was at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s attempt to create a central business district, complete with skyscrapers. But Frankfurt is having none of it – the banks have stayed put.

“Sink capitalism” (sprayed on boiler suits)

Placards translated as “If I wasn’t poor, you wouldn’t be rich” or “Since there isn’t enough to go round, the poor will have to cough up (Ernst Bosch)”. “Smash the power of the banks and corporations” read one handwritten piece of cardboard in German, from the Wedding Migrants’ Group (Wedding being the Communist stronghold in the 1920s and early 30s, and now one stronghold of Berliners with non-German origins, such as the holder of the placard and your correspondent). The Turkish translation on the reverse seemed even peppier, as far as my near non-existent Turkish could judge: Sisteminiz batsin. Attention was drawn to the 32 trillion dollars in onshore and offshore tax havens worldwide.

We passed a part of the Berlin Wall in the state it was after people starting chipping and knocking holes in it in 1989. To stop any more chipping or knocking, it’s now permanently fenced off.

Elsewhere along the demo route, a couple of other structures were cordoned off with riot barriers. The first was the Springer building. Axel Springer was Germany’s Murdoch, and the building is a classic target of left-wing demo ire. A few years back, the local Green Party usefully and ironically got the name of the street changed to Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, Dutschke being the 1968 student leader that the Springer newspapers hounded and defamed till a right-wing nutter went and shot him in the head. He survived, but died a decade later from an epileptic fit related to the consequences of the shooting.

The other structure under guard, a large but nevertheless discreet building that barely advertises itself, is the light and airy House of German Industry, right by a bridge over the river Spree. It’s where various employers’ associations meet under a glass-roofed atrium, and the Chancellor may be invited around of an evening for a glass of wine, at a couple of hundred Euros a bottle (I have a second-hand but credible source for this).

As usual, the police looked mostly miserable, but so would you if you had a riot helmet dangling off your leg, or had to march around with a five-digit number on your back (recently and controversially introduced to identify coppers who whop demonstrators over the head) and in full-body protection that made you look like you’d been on a SupersizeMe diet. Spread out along the riot barriers by the Springer building and the House of German Industry, they had that very furrowed brow they often have, except when they’re standing close enough together to chat with their mates.

As well as the guys and gals in their riot-gear look, the other constants of German left-wing demos were there: Christian Ströbele, now over 70 and white-haired, with his pushbike, pullover and black bushy eyebrows as ever, last remnant of whatever radicality the Green Party may have preserved in its Long March through the Institutions; and the song Keine Macht für Niemand (roughly, “No Power For Nobody”), demo anthem from cult 70s/80s band Ton Steine Scherben. As this was a broad alliance demo, each participating party / organization / movement brought its own van-borne sound system. The Jusos, the youth wing of the SPD (Germany’s New Labour, more or less, except that they never really needed to get New) were, alarmingly, playing AC/DC. We took cover behind Attac.

From a round, bright pink tower a few metres high, marked with the big white words “Traces of the Middle Ages”, two policemen looked down, their riot helmets in their hands, their five-digit ID numbers invisible. The tower was advertising a current exhibition in Berlin, and we passed the exhibition pavilion, which looked more like a large and slightly dilapidated greenhouse in a gardening centre, beside the three-lane highway we were walking down one side of. Along the pavement, officially sanctioned print graffiti tied in with the exhibition, explaining for example that the bridge was where logs were collected in the Middle Ages before being floated further downstream, a trade controlled and taxed by the Margrave of Brandenburg.

At the final rally, beside the stalls of various organizations and left-wing newspapers (which exist in Germany), a stage was set up that could have accommodated a band with enough space for a vocalist to run around. Slogans are even harder when someone expects you to chant them: a female/male compère duo attempted to rouse the participants into mass exclamations of Um-Fair-Teil-En! Um-Fair-Teil-En! and Reichtum besteuern! Reichtum besteuern! (the latter with roughly the meaning and certainly the naturalness of “Taxation on wealth! Taxation on wealth!”). But the rally was decidedly slow on the uptake.

In fact, it was positively comatose. It may have been the polysyllabicity of the slogans. Or else the gut feeling that a slogan needs to be intuitive and more or less – assuming a few shared principles – beyond argument. Given the enormous surplus value creamed off other peoples’ hard work 24/7 by major shareholders and top managers, coupled with the pressure on public finances for things like old-peoples’ day centres (our local one is under threat), big-style redistributive taxation seems to me a more than legitimate demand.

But much as we might agree on it, its subject matter is not as reducible to a moral imperative as old demo favourites such as Nazis raus! There’s the issue, for example, of how to ensure democratically that the retrieved tax billions are used for public services rather than more bank bailouts the next time they come. And the nagging feeling that a Marxist scepticism towards reform of the current system might not be wholly up the spout. The female/male compère duo continued their attempts to get the audience to sing along, a slight note of desperation creeping into their voices, then to be replaced by defiance again. Few joined in. I checked out the stalls. The longest queue was for the Bockwurst.

There was also a group dressed in white boiler suits, that held up a banner sideways to the march, stating that what was needed was not redistribution but smashing Capitalism (with another play on words I forgot to note down). At the rally they were chanting their own slogan, the kind prevalent among the more anarchistically inclined, that literally requires choir practice, and which one witnesses much as one might listen to cathedral choristers: beautiful to listen to, and hard to join in with.

Then we nipped off for a coffee.

30 September 2012

Alistair Noon’s Longbarrow Press pamphlets Across the WaterAnimals and Places and Swamp Area are available to buy here.  To listen to a selection of Alistair Noon’s poems (set and recorded in Berlin) click here.  Earth Records (his first full-length collection) is available from Nine Arches Press.


My Top Five Strange Poetry Readings | Alistair Noon

From the series ‘Sketches for Summer’ by Andrew Hirst

5  In a working Alpine farm hut at an altitude of 2,200m. The audience (five culture/outside human contact-starved summer farm workers) sat round the huge cheese-making tub.

4  The gig where 6 people turned up – me, the four other readers, and a mate of mine. Not even the organizer was there – a certain “Boris” who none of us, it emerged, had actually met. There was a bar nearby.

3  On a pleasure boat going down the Spree in Berlin. I was reading water-themed poems through the boat’s megaphone. Just as I was reading a line about coming out into the light or something, we passed under a bridge, and came out into the light.

2  As a sound poet in the late nineties, doing a festival in Bordeaux. Halfway through my set a guy started, and kept on, heckling me. The guy seemed to be complaining that (a) my extended vocal technique-based sound poems were a heap of shit and (b) I was going on too long and was eating into his time. My French mates yelled “Continu, Alistair!” The guy stormed off, didn’t do his set, and started clearing away his other contribution to the festival – an installation composed entirely of (very artfully arranged) potatoes.

1  Recently, a dance/poetry collaboration without prior rehearsals/coordination. A Turkish poet read a long poem about police torture. This was followed by a pair doing the cha-cha.

Alistair Noon

Written in response to Tom Chivers. Alistair Noon’s Longbarrow Press pamphlets Across the Water, Animals and Places and Swamp Area are available to buy here.  To listen to a selection of Alistair Noon’s poems (set and recorded in Berlin) click here. Earth Records (his first full-length collection) is available from Nine Arches Press.

Welcome to Sunny East Berlin | Alistair Noon

East Berlin and me got off to a bad start. I had arrived with my mates on an S-Bahn with hard wooden seats, queued up for half-an-hour at the Friedrichstraße railway station-cum-border crossing, changed my mandatory 25 Deutschmarks into non-convertible Ostmarks, and got my entry stamp off the glum, spotty, pale-skinned border guard in the booth, his table lamp lighting him up from below like a floodlit monument.

I had long brown hair and a black biker’s jacket, and as I moved through customs, I was invited to reveal the contents of my red and yellow ethno bag from Camden Market. Out came a copy of the West Berlin entertainments magazine Zitty (the name a mispronounced “city” of course, rather than a reference to the skin of the guy at passport control).

Kommen Sie bitte mit? I was escorted off behind a curtain into a room with grey walls, a small desk, and bright lighting. I was now invited to turn out my pockets. These contained a cigarette lighter, odds and ends I can’t now remember, and to my surprise and mild alarm, folded up small, a sheet of paper I had picked up in a Kreuzberg bar a few nights before. The typewritten and photocopied text was a call-out to a demo. Above the text, much like an emblem on a piece of headed notepaper, was a hammer smashing in the head of an eagle, wings aspread. The eagle was holding – and this is why I was concerned – a swastika.

Would the People’s Police take the trouble to read the text properly and look at the picture closely? Both Zitty and swastika-text were removed for further study out of eyeshot, while I stood where I was and said nothing, as did the remaining border guard. About 20 minutes passed.

Another border guard returned. I could take my folded-up demo call, but not the Zitty. Not even, as I enquired, the middle bit with the event listings (in those days a kind of easy-to-pull-out supplement on crappy paper). Nein, leider nicht. I think they wished me a bemused Auf Wiedersehen, and even smiled when I quipped “Hopefully not”.

April is the cruellest month, T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land begins, but in Berlin, then as now, April is in fact the nicest month, after the cold from October to March, and before it gets all wet again in May. I remember it being very bright as I came out of the subdued lighting of the passport hall and saw my relieved and slightly impatient mates waiting for me.

We spent the day looking at sights and trying to blow our Ostmarks, on a meal in the Rotes Rathaus, Berliner Pilsner, or East German flags in the department store on Alexanderplatz which in the not too distant future would become Galeria Kaufhof. It really did feel like not just a different city but a different country: the bricks, the cars, the traffic lights, the shops, the adverts, the clothes, the uniforms, the buildings. The waiters – far more fearsome than the border guards at Friedrichstraße – would resolutely prevent you, verbally and if needs be physically, from adding a fourth chair to your table of three.

But one thing, in itself very trivial, was a reminder that this was West Berlin’s lost sibling. In both Berlins – and nowhere else in West Germany that I’d been to – a small extra sign attached beneath the street signs would gave the house numbers of the block that street sign was on. It was a genetic inheritance from the two Berlins’ time in the womb together.

I pass through Friedrichstraße now most days on my way to work, a dingy passport hall turned into a bright shopping mall. Roughly where you came out of the passport cabins is where I sometimes pig out on something like fish and chips, before stepping out into the daylight.

Alistair Noon

This is the text of a podcast for NPR Radio on 22 June 2011 (‘Alistair Noon on the East German Police’). Listen to the podcast here. To listen to a selection of Alistair Noon’s poems (set and recorded in Berlin) click here. His Longbarrow Press pamphlet Swamp Area (comprising several long poems and sequences about Berlin) is available to buy here.