by Michael Chesla
A cat leaps from the bushes, then darts and vanishes. Suddenly the poplars shimmer. Holder observes what comes after the beautiful commotion – the silence, the sun-filled road.
Frau Zimmer cuts the potatoes and ladles the cabbage, while her daughter, in a blue dress, sits drawing. Her husband eats silently, not saying a word the entire time. Frau Zimmer pretends not to notice the silence, but it unnerves her husband.
“What about your poetry?” Herr Zimmer inquires.
Holder continues eating.
“Do you need quills or ink?”
He is untouched by Herr Zimmer’s kindness. The writing has been so hard, nearly impossible. Why should he let Zimmer know, or, for that matter, anyone?
He swallows a morsel of bread that scrapes his throat.
Headaches and mental scourges make Holder dress sloppily. He would prefer to dress like he did in Frankfurt: a frock coat, silk cravat, and high-laced books. But he has no money. And who would he dress for now?
Herr Zimmer knocks on Holder’s door.
“I don’t ask for rent, but perhaps you can share a poem? I would be interested in seeing any poems you write here.”
He is like the others, Holder thinks: readers who think poetry is easy. Zimmer stands there in expectation.
“I don’t have new poems. But, but if you need something … from me, I can help you at the shop.” A pain shoots through his head.
Zimmer’s face registers disappointment.
“Maybe you need more time,” Zimmer says.
“Time for what?”
“To write, of course.”
Holder is too overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts to answer. He hangs his head.
Zimmer exhales and leaves the room.
When the headache subsides, Holder paces the floor, regretting his brusqueness. After all, Zimmer is a modest and sincere man. A man of small stature, a carpenter with dwarfish hands. Why is Zimmer in his life? His thoughts race and eventually yield a conclusion: Zimmer is an exemplar of simplicity, a quality the world sorely lacks. It is a revelation. He vows never again to use hexameters, nor alcaics, nor asclepiads. Meter makes verse artificial and stifling. Let everything be natural.
He runs to the door to catch Zimmer, to explain himself, explain something.
But Zimmer is gone.
On a beautiful spring day Holder walks the fields. Crows perch in the trees. Nothing is happening and he is impatient.
Holder knows the doctors are wrong: he will live for many more years. And he has given up on things getting better. In his room, there are only four walls, not the four corners of the world. Next to the house flows the Neckar river, not an Apollonian stream. Let there be no more allusions, no more illusions. There, in the center of the room, is his shoe. Lying on its side, tongue open, lace curled down. Achilles’ shoe? Nein!
“Come play,” says the accordion man in the market. His shirt is checkered red and black.
He hands sweets to the children who dance around him. Holder follows the motions of the children, at once fluid and chaotic. A mother holds her child back, fearful. Holder smiles and waves for the child to come back. The woman relents. Holder claps his hand to the music.
At one of the stalls, he buys mushrooms and leeks. He remembers his mother in her darkened kitchen, compulsively wiping her hands in her apron. She felt she deserved a better son. Throughout the seasons, the kitchen smelled of smoke and sweet candlewax.
Holder dates the letter 1802 even though the year is 1807. “Dearest Mother, I have been living in Tübingen with the Zimmer family. Herr Zimmer came to visit me at the clinic the day before I was released. He had a book of my poems in his hand and offered me a room in his house next to the Neckar river…” He breaks off writing as the dutiful son. It was her plot, along with his friend Sinclair, to take him away and put him in the clinic. He was abducted in midday, restrained in a coach, his arms tied behind him. Surely, in those days his strange behaviors were noticeable, but he harmed no one. Someone told him he used to scream in public. Is shouting in the streets harmful? He shakes his head and crumples the letter. He can’t stand having failed his mother.
On a bitter winter day Holder walks the fields. The wind whistles through the dried-out cornstalks. That’s all there is: cornstalks and wind.
Holder has become dull again. Things are slipping away from his mind. Memories come to him from the clinic: ice baths, the scream mask, a rat hunkering down in the corner of the hallway. Then his mind goes blank. Why does only pain fill the void?
There is someone waiting to talk to him, says Zimmer. Someone who comes from Berlin, an editor for the periodical, Musen-Almanach. Holder dons a white dress shirt. The man asks him many questions, mostly about literature. Holder talks for hours, expatiating on many subjects, such as the sorry failure of the French Revolution, the decadence of present-day Europe, the ruinous Hessian diet of uncooked grains, and full moon apparitions. He perversely enjoys sharing spontaneous, nonsensical thoughts with someone who rejected his early work. He also hopes word will get out that it’s not worth paying him a visit.
In spring, he goes for walks daily. Heat. Shadows. Everything has become an abstraction. Particulars don’t matter. Is this the manifestation of Universal Spirit? How can this be put into words? He writes about spring: “when the warmth appears…” It is not the incision he used to write with. But it is the truth. Not that his earlier work wasn’t the truth, it’s just that the truth changes over time.
Zimmer is making a window frame in his workshop. The shop smells of freshly sawn pine and linseed oil.
“It’s for a house in the market square,” Zimmer says. “Do you take many walks in town?” he asks.
“Not many,” Holder answers.
“It’s more peaceful here by the river anyway,” Zimmer tells him. “You are lucky I had the room in the tower available. I usually rent to students, but students can be unruly,” he says and stops sawing. “You might be unruly yourself, on the inside.”
Holder is staring at him. He feels asked to explain something overwhelming and personal.
“It was good to walk by the forest edge today.”
The men stare at each other. Zimmer gets back to sawing. Holder notices the flecks of saw dust, suspended and glistening in the air, like angels suddenly visible.
Holder’s walks take him through meadows. Large dragonflies hum and flitter about. He lies down in a hay field and lets the world overtake him. The sun’s heat harmonizes the sounds of cattle, the rustling wind, a blue sky. He has discovered something in that moment. Quick, write it. But what to say? All the details melt into the heat of the sun, all powerful, all knowing. One word: Sun.
The headaches return. He locks himself in his room, not wanting to be seen. The sounds of the Neckar surge like the rushing thoughts in his head. He cups his ears, but that only makes it worse, like Lethe flowing through his skull. At night he sits facing the wall, examining its cracks and patches, like a map of the German-speaking lands, also fractured. After a while he sees it as a map of his past — cracks for Nurtingen, Jena, Frankfurt, and now Tübingen. He is sickened at the thought that he lives on a crack in the world. What a pity, the ways people are separated, bearing the scars of isolation.
After dinner, Frau Zimmer retires for the evening and Herr Zimmer lights his pipe. Holder sits near the hearth where an expiring fire evaporates the glow in the room. He sees the look of contentment on Zimmer’s face, his whiskered cheeks, and he reflects that nobility still exists on earth. Zimmer sits in his high-backed chair like a craggy king. Holder is pleased with the metaphor, discovering that, as if for the first time, a metaphor harmonizes the separate things in the world, in an act of grace.
“You are fortunate. You have a wife and a daughter,” Holder says.
Zimmer stops puffing on his pipe. Holder feels like an oracle, a speaker of truths.
“I once had a love, Susette Gontard. In Frankfurt.”
“Diotima, in the poems?” Zimmer’s eyes widen.
“Yes. Everything I wrote I wrote for her — the elegies, the hymns, the odes — all of it,” Holder says and sits upright
Zimmer blinks, trying to understand Holder’s loss. “What happened to her?”
Holder takes a deep breath.
“She died in the summer of 1802, when I was walking through France….”
Zimmer imagines Holder walking through meadows and forests and along roads, following paths, and never having a destination. Never wanting a destination since he could not have the woman he loved.
Holder is exhausted and falls back into his chair. Silence once again fills the room. After a while, Zimmer puts down his pipe and tucks in his chair. Zimmer’s right hand is shaking as he collects the plates.
“Thank you,” Holder says.
“For the meal?” Zimmer asks, unaccustomed to hearing gratitude.
“Thank you for taking me in. I had nowhere to go.”
Zimmer lowers his eyes and slowly nods his head.
Holder realizes that Zimmer is the only person in Tübingen with whom he has spoken about Susette. Not even in his correspondence did he mention her name. Strange the sound of her name on his lips, so unused and yet so fresh.
It is a bright day. The wind is biting. His head is hurting as he goes for a walk along the river, past trees that are drooping and dipping into the current. He peers down into the water where he can see his reflection: his face is worn, surrounded with long, tangled hair.
For a moment, under the glistening surface, the face of a child appears. There – he can make out the eyes that yearn to see.
The wind wobbles the reflection. The river rushes by, swift and strong.
Michael Chesla is a writer living in Newburyport, Massachusetts with his family. He has travelled to places in Germany that were significant in the life of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, including the city of Tübingen, which is the setting for “The Harmony of the Sun.”