Friday, December 15, 2006

Say Berlin to your friends and collect reactions. Put them together with the Cold War, mass surveillance, Love Parade, JFK's iconic statement, "Ich bin ein Berliner" the year he was assassinated, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and Berlin's own version of Pride - Christopher Street Day. No city's simple and for anyone over 50, this city is still west and east, the cultural division we were brought up on. Berlin's as symbolic as Soweto, another city that so readily conjures division, and visiting the Potsdamer Platz, where glass and steel have occupied noman'sland, is like standing on the corner of Vilakazi Street where Mandela used to live, watching tourist minibuses and souvenir sellers.

But what better place for poetry? Isn't it the pull between places that makes us write? A quartet of poets in Berlin, reading at the Humboldt and Free Universities. We were invited by the gentle and hospitable writer, John Hartley Williams, editor of the most recent issue of Hard Times, a literary magazine for English speakers in the city. There was the amazingly prolific Robert Minhinnick whose work's coiled with energy and comes back at you on unexpected trajectories like a ball on elastic, Tim Liardet, currently shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize whose prison poems show us what a true interrogation of self means and explore the truth of relationships far beyond those enforced by incarceration, and Jeremy Over who invites you to daydream with him about rain on a window and takes you into images that no hallucinogenic drug could hope to match. Plus me, tottering through the streets on my first night in new red shoes with ribbons rather than laces. I thought they were right for Berlin, somehow.

Yes. Bars, restaurants, the river and trees outlined in lights. A Christmas tree on a crane above the Brandenberg gate, the Soviet war memorial, Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, in Treptower Park. Yevgeny Vuchetich was the sculptor of the 13 metre high figure of a Russian soldier with a child in one hand and sword in another that dominates the memorial. Vuchetich died in 1974. He also has a sculpture in the UN garden - Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares. The architect of the space was Yakov Belopolsky, who died in 1993. After the memorial he worked mostly on enormous housing schemes in Moscow.

This kind of public space defines a city. A space, like Hyde Park, which brings you back into yourself and away from the duty of keeping one foot moving in front of another on behalf of the paymaster. We visited late in the afternoon. The sun was going, the light was that perfect knife-edge of change. Somehow the memorial demands silence. Even the traffic noise is kept away. Perhaps it's the symmetry, so utterly controlled, that makes you withdraw into your own chaotic self. If the place had a roof, it would be a cathedral, but the columns are there in the planting - poplars and weeping silver birch - and the tomblike blocks with reliefs on. It is also a graveyard, so it's fitting the place should generate respect in us.

Peter Eisenman, architect of the Holocaust memorial near the Brandenberg gate, also chose symmetry to create his space. While Belopolsky, though, designed something open and devotional, Eisenman's space is tight, claustrophobic and scary because he uses the idea of symmetry to warn us.

Oh, you could play in his labyrinth, but as you go deeper in, you become more aware of the darkness of the blocks and their unpredictability. And while you know you might see a familiar face popping out from behind a monolith, that knowledge doesn't diminish your fright when it happens. It might even enhance it. Eisenman said he wanted to create the impression of a field, of waves and have no single entrance or exit. I was intensely conscious of daily life going on around the edges, visible from any point, but felt, too, that this labyrinth was truly a secret and alarming place to be.

Back to Brighton late on Thursday evening, nerve endings seriously raw from the litres of wine and beer, so it was soothing to go to St Peter's church for my children's carol service. My daughter was singing in the choir and we belted out Christmas hymns. They'd decorated the house, too. So I arrived home to sparkling lights in the fuschia tree and front window and tinsel hanging from the mirrors. Berlin's lights must have sneaked into my rucksack with the wonderful poems I listened to and brought back in my head.

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