My father was once mistaken for a hit man. A tweed-wearing, mustachioed former Peace Corps volunteer, he appears the most unlikely assassin. In 1977, my thirty-four-year-old father lived with my mother in Ottawa. He worked as a consultant for the Health Sciences division of the International Development Research Center. On his way back from a business trip to La Paz, Bolivia, where he scouted rural areas as possible loci for sanitation projects, my father stopped in front of a leather goods store in the middle of El Alto International Airport. In the shop’s display window hung a dark brown leather trench coat, with maroon undertones, selling for the equivalent of a hundred and fifty U.S. dollars. My father imagined himself in the trench coat, braced against the glacial Ottawan wind chill that drove his neighbor—a young Texan landscape painter who kept an armadillo skull above the fireplace—to hang herself with a clothesline the week before his trip.
At the counter stood a thin-lipped man in his mid-sixties, with fraying white hair and an unusually wide forehead that resembled the bulbous, speckled hide of an inverted pear. My father smiled and pointed to the display jacket, asking, in Spanish, if he might try it on. The man replied that he was welcome to do so and began to move from behind the cash register. My father, a linguaphile who’d lived for four years in Berlin, noticed the man spoke Spanish with a heavy German accent. “Das Leben is wie ein Kinderhemd, Kurz und beschissen!,” my father joked, recalling a well-known German aphorism. (“Life is like a child’s shirt, short and shitty!”)
As the man heard his native tongue coming from my father’s mouth, his face greyed and he backed away from the counter, disappearing through a door at the far corner of the store. A few moments later, a young Bolivian salesclerk walked up to my father and asked him what he wanted. After trying on the trench coat, my father left the store with the double-breasted leather flaps unfastened. He heard them slap his chest as he walked toward his gate, dragging his alligator-skin bag.
The leather jacket still hangs in my parents’ coat closet, darkly militaristic among the grey pea coats and bright, nylon windbreakers. Because of my father’s love of saddle-soaping his leather possessions (a tendency I’ve inherited), the trench coat seems to have broken free from time—it’s as supple and saturated with shades of maroon as it was the day my father flew with it back to Canada. The jacket has hung in the closet since before I was born.
My father has two theories about why his switching from Spanish to German so terrified the immigrant salesclerk in El Alto:
A. The man, given his age and location, was a Nazi in hiding.
B. The man, given his horror at the language, was a Holocaust survivor.
In either scenario, language morphs into a force of terror, an aphorism slips into a death threat, and instead of handwritten notes about rural water systems my father’s briefcase totes a MAC-10. In either scenario, a stranger flees in mortal fear through an exit.
In seventh grade, I had a yearlong conversation with a stranger. I never saw him in person or learned his name. Our correspondence took place daily, in pencil, scrawled across the surface of a school desk twice as old as we were: one of those hip-bone-shaped maple projectiles attached to a blue plastic chair, as if the piece were once a sleek Space Age invention—its curves and surfaces grown slowly derelict, now gouged with penknives and ossified in liver-colored gum. I began the correspondence unwittingly one day in health class, by writing “I Love Matt” in the upper right-hand corner of my desk. The next time I sat down in my assigned seat, I noticed beneath my graffiti the words: “Matt who?”
In the classic anthropological text, The Stranger (1908), German sociologist Georg Simmel articulates his concept of a unique sociological form. A “peculiar tension” arises, Simmel suggests, from “the stranger,” who manages to be both close to and remote from us at once. The value of such figures in society, then, stems from the strangers’ “objectivity.” Because they aren’t intimately connected with our lives, we feel freer to confess to them our secrets. In pre-modern societies, Simmel writes, most strangers within a group made their living as traders or tradesman, those “‘strange’ merchants” who move closely among us in a crowd, performing necessary tasks, even as they remain enigmatic.
Though I have only language as proof, I like to imagine my first ancestor—the first person who claimed my surname—as a strange merchant, a traveling journeyman, dragging his carpenter’s bags from village to village. The surname, “Journey,” comes from the French journée, the latter of which denotes the time span of one day. A journeyman, then, has the right to charge a fee for each day’s work. Because such tradesman have completed apprenticeships but aren’t yet master craftsmen who own shops, journeymen aren’t fixed to one place. They may uproot and travel to other towns, improving their skills at other workshops. The whereabouts of a journeyman can be a productive flux.
When my father encountered his strange merchant in the leather goods shop, he felt free to forge a kind of inside joke with the man. He felt free to belly laugh and drum his fingertips on the counter at the aphorism’s off-color punch line. After all, they’d both traveled a long way to get to Bolivia. Weren’t they both outsiders, facing one another across a similar distance? And yet didn’t they share a closeness, too, through knowing the German tongue?
Throughout his only book, Letters to a Stranger, Thomas James addresses in his poems a mysterious “you.” The “Thou” in the poems, as Lucie Brock-Broido says in the collection’s introduction, “is you; it is I; it is the beloved, the Master; it is God; he is strange, and stranger too.” In the final three stanzas of the poem, “Letters to a Mute,” James writes to one who remains forever unable to answer:
If I could stick my pen into your tongue,
Making it run with gold, making
It speak entirely to me, letting the truth
Slide out of it, I could not be alone.
I wouldn’t even touch you, for I know
How you are locked away from me forever.
Tonight I go out looking for you everywhere
As the moon slips out, a slender petal
Offering all its gold to me for nothing.
There’s an erotic charge to James’s conditional sentence that begins, “If I could stick my pen into your tongue / Making it run with gold, making / It speak entirely to me,” as if the act of giving language to the mute “you” is a wordsmith’s alchemy—a Midas touch tinged with eros, rarefied and lingual. The line breaks rupture the sentence, over and over again, as it extends across four lines, spilling into the next stanza before the if-clause ends in longing. If the silent one finally speaks, James suggests: “I could not be alone.” Even though the poem’s speaker knows such a union with the mute isn’t possible, he keeps searching for the lost “you.” He eschews the easy illumination of the indiscriminant moon, who’d offer “all its gold to me for nothing.”
“Matt who?” asked the stranger from another class period on the grainy surface of my seventh grade desk. “None of your goddamn business,” I wrote back, provoking a string of retorts: “Matt has seven nipples”; “Matt sticks hamsters up his butt.” The exchange soon lost its ire, however, probably because both graffiti-scrawlers got bored staring at diagrams of genital sores or educational videos in which the grown up actress who played Annie in the late seventies Broadway musical talked about puberty. We switched to sharing our favorite anti-authority symbols, such as the anarchist’s jagged “A” within a circle, and complaining about the inane prisonscape of high school and its cold overflow trailers. We wrote “Haha!” in response to each other’s wisecracks and offered advice about the best places to take narc-free smoke breaks. We wrote supportive things like “I know what you mean,” and “Hang in there, dude.” We drew smiley faces and doodles of teachers with farting butts. The stranger and I—we needed each other.
One day, I arrived to my health class’s trailer to find Mr. Gainer had switched our assigned seats. I now sat several rows away and a couple of places up from my old desk and its graphitic mix of conspiracy and cuneiform. I gazed through the trailer’s interior, the slim space jigsawed with thirty desks, thinking, “How are we ever going to find each other?”
The Israeli spy agency Mossad found one of the most ruthless Nazi architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, hiding out in Argentina, in 1960. He’d fled Germany after World War II, finally winding up in Argentina, in the early fifties. Eichmann lived in the Buenos Aires area for ten years, where he assumed a false name, and worked variously as a foreman at a Mercedes-Benz factory, a junior water engineer, and a rabbit farmer. Similarly, the Gestapo captain Klaus Barbie—the “Butcher of Lyon”—fled to Argentina after working briefly for the CIA, eventually settling into a bungalow in Bolivia, which overlooked the Yungas Road. Before Barbie was extradited to France, in 1983, did he stand behind a counter at El Alto selling leather trench coats to travelers? Did he imagine the airport a house of endless escape routes? Was he comforted by the many doors? Was he soothed by the constant roar of departing planes?
I’ve asked my father why he bought a coat from a shop he believed may have employed a Nazi in hiding. At the time, he assumed the German salesclerk had disappeared into the back room to locate a coat in the storage area, that because the latter man was elderly and slow the younger employee simply took over when he saw my father waiting. As my father walked to his gate, however, he began to think about the initial clerk’s reaction to the German language spoken among the dark Bolivian coats. He began to wonder what associations lay beneath the language.
“Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth,” says Paul Celan.
A Holocaust survivor and French citizen of Jewish-Bukovinan descent, Celan continued to write poems in German all his life, because the language of the Gestapo who murdered his parents in the death camps was also his own native tongue. German poetry, though, as Celan understood it, needed to break free from the euphonic language of the lyre. The diction of the German lyric poem needed to become flatter, greyer, more factual, in order to contain the “sinister events in its memory.” “It does not transfigure or render ‘poetical,’” Celan suggests in his Collected Prose; “it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given and the possible.”
In his poem “Alchemical,” Celan writes:
Silence, cooked like gold, in
close, like all that’s lost,
All the Names, all the al-
Similarly to Thomas James’s “Letter to a Mute,” Celan’s voiceless “al-/names” remain unreachable in their silence, although the “alchemy” evoked here is utterly sinister—people are “cooked like gold” and left “carbonized.” Paradoxically, what’s lost remains “close”—a phantom kinship—through a dark memory, through the poem’s stark echo of “All the Names.”
Celan’s relationship with his mother tongue was an uneasy one. As he moved away from the lush music and surrealistic imagery of “Death Fugue” and into the sparer diction and clipped syntax of “Stretto,” his use of neologisms (“venomstilled,” “wordblood,” “heavencrazed”) also increased. And although neologisms are common in German, Celan’s linguistic combinations are subversively mispaired—a paradoxical uniting and sundering of sense. Were Celan’s strange coinages his way of doing violence to the German language, a forging of unexpected intimacy as two words collide to make an unstable, charged new sign?
From what truth did the coat salesman hide in his refusal to reply? Which sinister events—and how many names—might his speaking in the German language have mapped and measured?
The speaker in Thomas James’s poem “Letters to a Stranger,” seated inside a church, confides:
…the wine rides through my breast
Like a dark hearse.
All the while I am thinking of you.
An avalanche of white carnations
Is drifting across your voice
As it drifts across the voices of confession.
But the snow keeps whispering of you over and over.
James’s speaker takes Holy Communion as if to make his absent stranger transubstantiate, but only a snow of funerary white flowers moves to reply.
I decided to try to continue my “letters to a stranger” by finding my seventh grade graffiti pen pal somewhere in the slew of reassigned seats. I returned to the former desk we shared and wrote the coordinates of my new seat. I drew a little map with a treasure chest’s “X.” A few days passed, and I suspected the stranger hadn’t thought to check the site of our old correspondence. Then, after a week, that familiar writing drifted its silver, once again, all across the maple’s waiting grain.
I once had to write my own last name a hundred times in a row after misspelling the noun “journey” on a third grade spelling test: journey, journey, journey, journey, journey…I’d spelled my name correctly in the upper right-hand corner of the test, in the blank space after “Name,” but I grew so terrified of screwing up on the test that, in my nervous energy, I inverted the “e” and the “n.”
I like to think that my ancestor William Journey changed the spelling of his last name by deleting “man” from “Journeyman,” in the late 1600s, as he left England on a ship bound for the New World. I like to think he reinvented himself in the middle of the Atlantic, as he leaned against a salt-worn railing on the top deck, dreaming of tobacco fields, an unnamed creek, watching the open water foam.
The trench coat still hangs in my parents’ downstairs closet, brought out each crisp Virginia winter by my father as he slants the tweed brim of his Greek fisherman’s cap into the wind. And since before I was born, the supple sleeves of the trench must’ve been touched by thousands of people. By now, its dark leather’s been brushed by all of us: by the countless elbows of travelers swirling through the airport store, by the palms of the Bolivian clerk who rang up my father, and by the stranger from Germany who, far from home, once crouched in the display window, lifting the heavy leather flaps over the sloped and armless torso of a plaster mannequin. As he returned to the cash register, he leaned back. He watched a man pause in front of the jacket and absently rub his shoulders as if to keep off a chill, although it was warm in Bolivia. He watched the man approach him, pointing, just beginning to open his mouth.
Author’s note: The passages quoted from Paul Celan’s Collected Prose (Carcanet Press, 1986) were translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. The poem “Alchemical” and the neologisms referred to (“venomstilled,” “wordblood,” and “heavencrazed”), all from Celan’s Selected Poems (University of California Press, 2005), were translated by Pierre Joris.
Anna Journey is the author of two collections of poetry: Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. She received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Read Anna Journey’s essay on Remedios Varo, “Splendid Derelicts,” here.