Cheryl Passanisi on City Scattered by Tyler Mills

City Scattered takes us back to 1930’s Berlin during the economic inflation considered to have been brought on by German reparations for WWI as well as a worldwide depression.  The images and narrative derive from a report, an ethnography of office workers, secretaries, who worked at repetitive tasks during the day and then went out to the excitement and dazzle of the fabled Berlin night life of the 1930’s.  The report referred to is an historical document that Mills uses as a template to describe the “City”, the inhabitants, and this episode in history between wars, amidst social and political changes that would have worldwide consequences. 

Mills portrays a haunted city filled with displacement and alienation.  Ruins, (“cut / past the building bombed to rubble / in the war / Ruins sculpt the air”), persist from WWI and are visual reminders of the brokenness of people and the social order.  “Voices” alternate: the voice of the “Study” and “Chorus” reflect language used in the document by Siegfried Kracauer’s Salaried Masses published 1930.  Another voice is a “Woman in Berlin”, one single woman representative of the salaried workers referred to in the study document.  A fourth voice is “Interlocutor” which is a voice from the present looking back to the 1930’s with a perspective of present historical knowledge.  The voices weave in and out from objective clinical descriptions of their secretarial roles as interchangeable (“can someone take you-r place?”) and futile (“I was dismissed without notice.../ Am I a cyclist? Am I in a labyrinth?”) to the delirious night life (“We come to the city in search of adventure and roam / like comets   with our small incomes”).  

“Lines and lines of men in trench coats / ripped at the shoulder / spattered with mud at the hem” stand in unemployment lines because there are no factory jobs or white-collar employment. This leaves you to wonder if the women working their secretarial jobs are part of a strategic social engineering experiment: working because they cannot get married and live a conventional life due to the economic conditions; or, is their work consider beneath a man’s dignity to perform; or, is it a manipulation of roles in order to put pressure on norms that spur on certain political consequences.  Alternately, is this part of a plan to make the men feel displaced and impotent in order to stoke prejudice and groom them for another war?

In certain cases, the women may not want to lead a conventional life because they have a different sexual orientation or a nihilistic attitude (“I type / faster and faster / A girl / from high / school... / etudes at / home on / the piano / the rotation / speed of / the record / gradually, increasing. / Faster and faster...”).  

“A number of women / punch cards and write. / Heaven what a scheme. / We slip in short breaks for ventilation.../ the whole system,    marvelous.” This poem references the work the women do: punch cards, infamously primitive IBM computers and punch card system used to keep track of the Jewish population and other segments of the population not deemed “desirable”: homosexuals, gypsies, communists, etc.  So, then it seems the girls might be government workers assisting in the ultimate plan of genocide and holocaust.  

Reference is made to thickening wallets as the currency is worth less and less from uncontrolled inflation and children “build pyramids with bricks / of cash in the road”.  The heaviness of the wallets of worthless cash weighs oppressively throughout the narrative as one aspect of the desperation and insecurity experienced by everyone in Berlin at that time.

“Where three judges reached their decision at once / like meteorologists studying the weather.../a few heretical jottings / like victims washed ashore.”  This speaks to the threat of deviation and the ostracization for nonconformity.  Dangers of harassment are all around: “One of my friends is pregnant” and “count each month’s days of blood / fight the manager / sliding his fingers / in & he says do I like / going up, up, up, gags me”.  

The mundane descriptions of these women’s lives “I wake, put on a silk slip, a wool skirt...” or “A woman buys shoes in a large store. / She recounted to me / her involuntary wanderings.”  Or “after filing paper all day while their / personalities waited outside like bicycles.” 

They feel a sense of hopelessness and entrapment.  Their work seems meaningless and this gives way to the night life of gin, sexual encounters and amnesia.  She tastes the gin from the previous night, remembers the lips, a kaleidoscope of encounters and anonymity: “last night’s gin / tastes like mulberries on my tongue. /  My pulse at my temple flickers / like a copper butterfly / the moist morning / feels like another mouth...” and “cigarette smoke  My lips on / his lips  My lips on   her / lips on   him   them...”

The voice of the individual “woman in Berlin” is at times dazzling as she describes the city: “green and shimmer as the city wakens / like water shoving through the wreck / of a ship: the pewter cups and spoons, / the bones of the captain at the hull.” This gives an image of leadership as cadaverous and ghostly, foreshadowing the future death marches and death camps.  She is frequently taking a bird’s eye view: “At the top, all is calm.  From above, / What do you see, birds?  I think I am / you some mornings...”  or “this treetop calm everywhere / in the higher spheres.”

“(T)he city scattered its sequins / like starlight over the floors / ... if the city swallowed / death like the crescent of a melon...” contrasts with “... the city coughed out coal / powder in the swirling eddies / of the sky – the sunset like ostrich / feathers framing the face / of a movie star.”  The dirty linen stained by coal hanging out of windows eerie, foreboding and dark in comparison with “ the city by night   star-spangled / In the window of one store, / mannequin dolls pose / in petalled clothes among the orchids”.  

Mills describes an agonizing scene at the bakery: “so I could buy a hot-cross bun / at lunch though the marks shot up, / though the crust shone like a new coin / and could not be touched by the woman” who also waited in line, who had promised a bun to her hungry child.  The “Woman in Berlin”, the secretary who has a job and no child, justifies her ability to buy a bun because “I starched my blouse / and practiced the answers to all / the questions and ribboned my curls / and yes, I bought the knot of bread.”

The warning: “Don’t lean out / someone wrote across the window.”  The danger and decadence create a complex picture of a time and place.  The images often remind me of movies such as “On the Wings of Desire” about 1980’s East Berlin prior to the wall coming down: the scenes equally haunting, desperate, and nihilistic.  The movie, shot in black and white, is reminiscent of the poems in this collect which are also in grey-tone with accents of ostrich feather and glitter.

Cheryl A. Passanisi is a nurse practitioner, poet, singer, and has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, the American Journal of Poetry and the upcoming issue of Alaska Quarterly Review.  Her book of poetry was published by Finishing Line Press in June 2020 entitled:  Geraniums from the Little Sophias of Unruly Wisdom.  She lives on the San Francisco peninsula.