Poems of Witness: An Examination of History and Cultural Complexity in Katherine Hollander’s My German Dictionary

Very infrequently is it that readers find a contemporary poetry collection that presents the past in such vivid imagery that readers feel they are entering the present. In poems spanning historical and philosophical relevance, Katherine Hollander’s My German Dictionary, instead of playing on the darkness and anger often stereotypically associated with German language and perhaps even German history, compactly yet gracefully weaves word play and photograph-like images to portray seemingly personal, yet universal, histories. By the collection’s end, the word plays and images culminate in a celebration of language, symbolic definition, and a defiant rally against literal and figurative death.

The collection opens with the prayer-like “Confession (Invitation):” “I couldn’t be a good Jew, so I tried / to be a good historian. I couldn’t be / a good historian, so I wrote poems.” In these first lines which act as part individual benediction and part identity foundation, the narrator admits self-doubt, possibly personal failure. The establishment of identity relies upon cultural and personal elements to form universality, but they also serve as an introduction to both the narrator as well as the histories and herstories that follow in other poems. This introduction-invitation technique continues in the poem final two lines: “Pull on it, and from the wide sleeve a little / cedar ladder nudges out, ready to take you away.” The introduction-invitation ends but continues, with the ladder imagery extending to grant the reader entrance into not only the collection, but also other eras and experiences.

My German Dictionary divides into three unique sections. The first section opens with the poem “Answers to the Question Europe,” a poem that acts as both historical reminder and contemporary warning. Moreso, with simple, yet thought-provoking lines like “not making a path I could follow home,”  the poem tackles postulations and manifestations of ancestry, a subject that with the advent and advertisement of products like 23andMe , Ancestry DNA, and MyHeritage, as well as ongoing heated discussions about immigration policies, more and more perpetuates conversations in American society and politics. The poem’s most notable lines–“My mother was a Polish Catholic. / My father was a Russian Jew” and “I slept under a blanket of nations”— bear witness to both historical and contemporary European and American attitudes regarding ethnic identity by once again establishing the complexities of personal and national identities that both haunt and taunt those struggling to understand themselves and their originations.

The collection’s second section stitches together personas and characters familial and literary to once again explore and affirm the complexities of personal identity. In poems of denial and hindsight, pariahs and victims, this section reiterates a cycle of violence separate from that which occurs from the reliving and acknowledgement of history. The violence and confusion amalgamates in “War Suite,” a series of poems depicting American-esque family interactions like eating “blackberries / and bouillabaisse, falafel and cherries, / cheeseburgers with bouquets of hot / yellow fries all shaken with salt” before an all too American recruiter, described as “the pimp who lures the beautiful boys / in alleys and in waterbeds,” appears like an “Unholy shepherd.” The violence portrayed in “War Suite” segues to loss, and returns to a meditative, yet violence-acknowledging series of poems titled “Book of Ikons.”

Despite the alluded to violence in “Book of Ikons,” this series of poems is truly the second section’s most noticeable part. Here, notable figures such as Osip Mandelstam, Rosa Luxemburg, Angelica Balabanoff, and Karl Kautsky receive a veneration of which even Mary and the entire canon of saints in Catholicism should be jealous. Lines such as “For you I would rename this kinship of stars” establish Mandelstam, and rightfully so, as martyr, savior, and victim. Others such as “The party paid for your own nurse and how sad it was / for your friends to see the portrait of Big Brother / Togliatti somebody had hung in your room” remind readers of an era during which propaganda and cult personalities overruled logic and freewill, while in the series’ penultimate poem the line “I can feel your crosshatchings on your body” reestablishes the notion that even future generations bear the weight of history in whatever form it may take.

My German Dictionary concludes with a third and final section consisting of alphabetically listed German words defined not literally or with standard, weighty dictionary entries but by existential images raw in their awareness and honesty. The words’ meanings become implied by the images and symbols, and stand, as in the poem “Die Seele,” “Round-headed, round-eyed, / curious, astonished, / like an owl or a sea lion.” While some poems are more imagistic than others, the section as a unit acts like a manifesto or declaration depicting self-doubt, loss, and change. The best of example of this is the unit’s notable poem “Ohne,” which fuses images of escape—”I wrote this word on your tree, / leaving the island in a hurry”—with loss—“The knife was hard to hold, / the tree slipped left”—and then promise: “I know, to come at once, / dearest sister, dearest brother.” The section’s final poem, titled “Zusammen,” reminiscent of Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” is eloquently defiant in both its initial opposition of death—“Death, do not talk to me / all the time, just sometimes”—and its acceptance of it: “Call everyone. Call everything loved. / Take my hand. Let’s go.” With the final poem’s command, readers not only end the connection, but begin anew.

Readers specifically interested in witness poems of both the personal and historical variety will appreciate Hollander’s collection for its expanse of time, place, and personage. Those with linguistic interests will quickly engage with the collection’s celebration of an often misunderstood language, while those interested in ancestry and the complexities of identity will easily relate to the Euro-American conversations political and otherwise. My German Dictionary is a collection worthy of multiple readings, with each reading providing a new interpretation and linguistic and artistic experience.

Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as co-director for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven ChroniclesAppalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, is the recipient of a July 2020 Writing Residency at Gullkistan, Creative Center for the Arts in Iceland, and is a Tupelo Press June 2020 30 for 30 featured poet. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from the UK press Black Spring Eye Group in 2022.