No one born too far from Niedersachsen, said Oma,
ever quite captures their sing-song intonation.
Characterized by subtleties, like an umlauted vowel,
all non-native imitations sound inevitably as ******
as would a cry of “ello, guv’nah!” in a London coffee shop.
Her Plattdeutsch instincts neutered
by decades abroad, married to a son of Milwaukee,
her permanent, dormant longing for Salzgitter awakes only
to trigger hunger pangs of irreconcilable nostalgia
at the passing whiff of a Germantown bakery.
She taught me the word “sehnsucht” over lukewarm coffee
and a pause in our conversation: a compound word
that no well-intentioned English translation
could render faithfully.
It isn’t the same as just longing, she sighed— longing is curable.
Sehnsucht holds the fragments
of an imperfect world and laments
that they are patternless. How the soul
yearns vaguely for a home
remembered only in the residual ache
of incomplete childhood fancies;
futile as the ruins
of an ancient, annihilated people.
How life’s staccato joys soothe
a heart sore from the world,
yet the existential hunger, gnawing
from the malnourished stomach
of the bruised human psyche, remains—
Long enough ago, a reasonably-priced bus ride away
from the red-roofed apartment in which she babbled her first words,
a kindly old man in a pharmacy asked her
about her peculiar, exotic accent. Once inevitably prompted
with the question of where she was from, she responded only
that she was a tourist off the beaten track.
And when I pointed out, to my immediate regret,
that she gets the same question back here in Ohio,
I realized then that, not once, has she ever referred to the way
the people of her pined-for hometown spoke
as though she had ever belonged to it.