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Postcards from Berlin by Bec Miles

Postcards from Berlin is a creative-critical work by Norwich-based writer Bec Miles. 

Postcards
From
Berlin by Bec Miles
Bibliography

Dear mum,

We made it through the first day of Berlin! As your least organised daughter I let Em do the legwork, so she booked us on this free walking tour. One thing we stopped to see along the tour was the Soviet memorial, which was pretty impressive (in the conventionally giant-stone-structure way). Honestly, I really wanted to (and tried to) appreciate it for what it was. But it turned strange and sour in my head when the guide dropped in a jarring comment about the mass rapes that were carried out by the Soviet soldiers. I know you hate it when I rant but, mum, they were part of the very moment in history that birthed this monument... And honestly, it struck me (pretty hard) that whether it be the borders of Berlin or the lines of elastic at the leg holes of our knickers, both seem to be regarded as territory to invade and claim. This is probably all getting a bit heavy for you, but you know what I’m like. As we walked back to the hotel we spoke about these thoughts I’d had, turns out she shared them, and suggested I could write something about today — that way how we both felt it would actually go somewhere (even if I don't pluck up the courage to post this postcard and it stays in my bottom drawer until you accidentally stumble upon it, being nosey, as you sometimes are).

But anyway, I’ve written this to you, and I’ve put it in an envelope with a little poem too.

the tomb of the unknown rapists

get a feel for this

proud and shining cream

marble built structure of victory—

a monumental erection

throbbing from the hands

of Soviet men, who raped

eighty percent

of the women in Berlin.

Dear mum,

I’m back writing at this hotel desk after another day walking through Berlin. There is so much I want to get off of my chest and rarely a person interested enough to listen to it— and these postcard things only work one way which is probably best for me (and you) because I know you often tire at my incredibly overthought observations of the world. Anyway, I found diary entries from a Berliner, a woman, who was raped by these Soviet soldiers. She said she felt she had to choose one man to constantly rape her, in order to protect herself from being raped by all the others... fucking hell it is heart breaking. She wrote: ‘Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I'm sure I am. In addition, I like the major and the less he wants from me as a man, the more I like him as a person.’ It made me realise that we are always giving up bits of ourselves, don’t you think? Like, I remember reading Rich’s cutting piece about motherhood (remember I showed you the first sentence of it and you laughed knowingly? You probably don’t) and thinking, well I suppose we ALWAYS give up (or are at least expected to give up) our freedom or our bodies, or our voice — whether that surrender is to rapists for survival, or to childbirth and motherhood. So, I’ve done it again...

the wolf and the house cat

pawing at balls of brain-pink string

I am kept like a house cat.

your harsh mouth grooms me behind soft ears—

needle point teeth nick at my flesh

just enough to draw blood without a whimper.

you are dangerous solace from the salivating jaws

that breathe wet and loud through the letter box—


so, I’ll open my soft lips just for you

and collect the scraps of canned meat and butter

that you throw at my kept feet.

Dear mum,

Today we saw the Berlin wall. I don’t have much to say about. It was decorated and some parts (I assume they were parts deemed more beautiful by some board of judges) were cordoned off. I guess beautiful things need protection, because some people can’t resist graffiti-ing, it’s like they think ‘well, I have an arm, an index finger and a spray can so I CAN graffiti’, and that logic is enough for them to do it. They don’t even regard the artists’ feelings I suppose, they probably upset themselves in some alternate dimension where they stopped and realised they enjoyed the art before they sullied it. Not sure where I’m going with that, I’ll let you or a later me make connections for myself. When we walked down the wall a guy shouted behind Emily ‘woah, big ass’, so she tied her jacket around her waist. You know, the guy was German, and he chose to speak in English despite not knowing where we were from, because I guess he wanted her to know he thought her arse was large whether she was Russian, German, English whatever. He used a language he felt would be most commonly understood. He really thought she needed to know what he thought about her arse. And I assume he probably thought ‘hey, I have a mouth and an unsolicited opinion, I guess I CAN open it and let it out’.

I’ve probably written this for him more than you or me, because if I had his address I would mail it to him.

don't say it don't spray it

who are we to tell them

‘just because you have eyes

set inside your head

and a tongue between your lips

for language

you are not deemed

fit to open it and spit

your graffiti opinions

over the skin of us’

our minds aren’t barriers enough

nor our bodies (being ours)

or the denim of our jeans

or a jacket wrapped, arms folded

across us demanding you to

please just let us be.

Dear mum,

I started off wanting to send you one postcard, letting you know how great this holiday is... But writing all this down has become some sort of cathartic release for me, pretending to tell you all the things I want to in the way I want to. Anyway — I read up some more and found another diary, this one written at the time of the mass rapes by one of the Soviet soldiers in Berlin. In this journal he said: ‘The captured German female cats declared they were avenging their dead husbands ... They must be destroyed without mercy. Our soldiers suggest stabbing them through their genitals but I would just execute them.’ Why do they call us cats? Reduce us to domesticated animals? Not sure if I expect an answer on that, or just want to make you (or me) think further about that subject. I wrote you a poem yesterday that had the same idea in without even reading this beforehand ... and I also remember that same motherhood piece by Adrienne Rich where she mentions the nurse asking: ’had yourself spayed, did you?’. Plus, what about that Ibsen play you had me watch when I was eight or nine, how her husband kept her as a pet — I’m sure he called her a cat — no ... it was a squirrel? All these different connections light up like a circuit board in my head as I read the diary entry, and as I walked around the Berlin Cathedral today another light lit up when one of the carvings read ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ — meaning ‘his realm, his religion’. So, here’s another piece of my Berlin for you.

cathedral silence

stretched out like this

is begging to be screamed into—


‘cuius regio, eius religio’:

trading in the unique goods

of social convention

supply and demand

of our widely accepted existence.

you possess the soils

that speckle female cheeks—

so you plant your seeds,

deep, in the backs of owned throats

and we root your rotting trees

just among the bones of us.


it reaches the backs of our teeth

and we leave the urge to ring and ring

against the walls of our cathedral mouths.

Dear mum,

Another postcard that will never grace the post. I can’t seem to shake the thoughts that bombard me as I sight-see around Berlin. I am sure I should be enjoying the architecture, but since I started to see connections it seemed that the buildings and all the things I have read and am reading are talking to each other. I don’t know whether I should feel hopeless or empowered. And even though I know it shouldn’t, I think it is beginning to frustrate me to watch other visitors walk around the city enjoying the carved marble just for being carved marble. I promise I am loving it here, I know I sound pessimistic but you know how my brain works sometimes. Did you know the bunker that Hitler died in was filled in with concrete and they built a car park on top!? We found this out on our third walking tour of the trip. We also went to Willheimstraße and saw one of the few remaining Nazi buildings; it was built for their airforces but it is now the HQ for the Federal German Ministry of Finance. Made me think about whether my personal feminism is about paving over the social constructs that restrict me and creating new spaces for myself as a woman, or if there’s more power in repurposing all the phallogecentric materials in order to destroy them? The you in my head is interested enough to quiz me on this when I come home. I know you struggle with why I am so very invested in my feminist view of the world, and it’s nice to think of a you who actually wanted to understand it. I quite like that I can pretend you are digesting this the way I want you to, because usually I am battling against your disinterest when I go this deep into my own thoughts...

Anyway, I’ve popped another poem in the envelope, as you may have guessed!

In den Ministergärten

a hole has been filled

leaving a bunker-shaped

concrete cast that sits

quietly dormant under

this unassuming patch of Berlin

furnished with fine dirt and parked cars.


we fill in our own dark places

scatter wildflower seeds on top

and rake away the leaves every autumn

we make them so quiet and unrecognisable

that no one would ever know they were there.


but the sharp, screaming angles of grey

that framed this building on Willheimstraße

somehow look softer, quiet

now the regimented slabs,

first stacked up by men

in the image of something

that we can never relate to,

have been repurposed, made new.

Dear mum,

This will probably be the last of my postcard/poem hybrids. I’m tempted to continue them when I am home, because they have been so important for me in getting my ideas and thoughts formed (even if only for myself). Berlin showed me itself in so many intimate ways; I really connected with this place and the history of it all. But it’s our last day tomorrow. Today we went on a final walking tour, and outside the Humboldt University we saw a plaque that says ‘Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.’ which essentially means that where we begin with burning books, we surely end with burning people. This was obviously about the holocaust, a horrific premonition that sadly came to be reality, and it was on a plaque here because, at the start of Hitler’s reign, it was where he ordered all books affiliated with things he didn’t like to be burned. I couldn’t help but relate this to everything I’ve been feeling thus far, and to all the times you or dad have told me that certain jokes/comments can be harmless fun or just part of life. But what starts as ‘bitch’ in the school playground must surely end up in a society that perpetuates a culture of disrespect — and one that results in inequality. (I hope you don’t take this the wrong way — you’re the strongest woman I know, I just don’t think you know how important that is.) But on a better note: the Humboldt University hold a book sale every day directly opposite the spot where all the books were burned, I loved that — it was a final note of hope and relief that we so often search for in the things we see and read, yet seldom find.

I hope you find these one day — but if you do, don’t tell me.

where do you start?

he smells like cigarettes

and cologne-coverup

when he kisses you

(to stop you talking)

with his stale ash tongue

(to stop you talking)

and fills your nose

with the sting of harsh musky skin

that cuts in your throat so you splutter up

the raw fire sound of you

(that he wanted to keep in)


and you burn your own books—

watching the red and red and

brown leather spines stacked, piled,

cover to cover, mouths pried open

the papers a whirr of flickering tongues—

hot consumption crackles loudly

spitting their ink out in firework miniatures.


and you did it to be able to recognise yourself

with the eyes he gave you as a gift (for being so pretty)

in his mirror that reminds you

how you simply can’t see your own face

the way round that everyone else does.

so you have to trust him

when he says ‘you’re a beautiful girl’.

Dear mum,

I guess I lied, I had one more thing to say. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad I came here with just Emily. Something about being sisters and sharing this experience as millennial females has been valuable, and I don’t think I would have let half the shit that’s spilled out of my mouth do so if you and dad were here. I don’t have the energy to argue about it with you. Me and Em were laying in bed last night, exhausted after walking 80,000 steps this holiday (something you can be impressed by), and she read my postcard poem about the house cat. She said it reminded her of Schindler's List. Apparently one of the Nazi characters keeps a Jewish girl as his play thing; when he starts to fall for her he catches himself and responds by beating her violently. I’m writing this with no research into the matter, I’ve just taken her word for it, having never seen the movie. But it sent me on one of my loop-de-loop thought journeys, and I thought about you. I thought about how I’ve thought about you a lot during this trip, how I’ve written all these postcards to you, or not to you, and how I understand you not wanting to hear this. I thought about how your mind doesn’t let you see from my perspective when I talk about these things. I thought about how you’re a strong female. I thought about how you’re a strong female who beats her strength down into submission inside of herself every time she catches it bubbling up. I wish you saw yourself through my eyes, I think you would finally know why I’m a feminist, and why I’m always saying you should be too. Sorry for this one in particular, if you do ever find these...

it’s a generational thing

is the only place

you think you can scream

in a dream where you are

sea-weed-woman?

i imagine you

rooted in the sea bed

you’d let yourself

sway hysterical with the current

your hair swilling wild

around your ringing head, thrown back

and cackling out bubbles, thick

from the depths of your throat—

i hope you too can see

yourself as sea-weed-woman

when you need to most

Bibliography

Ash, Lucy. ‘The Rape of Berlin’. BBC Magazine, BBC News, 1 May 2015.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. 1st ed., Virago, 1986.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Translated by Charlotte Barslund and Frank McGuinness, Faber and Faber, 1997.

Heine, Heinrich. Alamansor. 1st ed., Tredition Classics, 2012.

Spielberg, Steven. Schindler’s List. Universal Pictures, 1993.