Four Poems

Photographs Taken by My Grandfather of Neu-Lobitz,
His Childhood Home, Circa 1925



This is a photograph of where the drive turns 
from the main house. I’m a bit at a loss 
about the principle that drew my grandfather 
to use film to record this view. Not much to see: 

the drive curves rightward, a few wheel-tracks 
over lines of lately-raked sand,
some short conifers (twenty years old perhaps) 
on the edge of a little island of park. 

If I could better remember 
the distinctions among conifer families 
that Frau Zapp taught in fourth grade, 
and how to translate the terms into English, 

I could say, Tanne, Kiefer, Fichte.  
If pressed I’d say Tanne = fir and Fichte = spruce
which is confusing because the names 
beginning with “f” don’t go together, 

and Kiefer—the word for both pine
and jaw— often slips my mind completely, 
even though in English 
it’s the catchall term most used. 

In any case, the branches 
hold out their plates of fingers 
in orderly fans toward the drive 
the wagons and carriages circle on. 


One time my great-grandmother ordered the carriage for a visit 
to her cousins in Klein-Spiegel, about 15 km away; 
when her husband heard of her plans, 

he had the horses unhitched 
because he thought it wasteful to use them 
for such a frivolous thing.


My brother-in-law Jan-Willem, a landscape architect from Holland, writes, it is quite difficult to distinguish conifers, let alone from a photo. There are many cultivars, grown just for aesthetic botanical purposes, and I suspect that the tree planted in the yard in the picture is such a cultivar. I also expect that tree cultivation was well developed in that part of the world 100 years ago. In garden environments, landscapers commonly do not use native tree species (which are considered too “boring,” “natural,” and “wild”) to accentuate the unique architectural and aesthetic qualities of non-native plants in the designed environment. A blue spruce would have been unusual and would have added a special aspect in shape and color to the place. So, that’s what I guess it might be: eine Blaufichte, oder Stechfichte, oder Blautanne. Three synonyms for the same tree.


Three terms my great-grandfather Carl Tielsch’s sons used to describe their father: 

Rainraiiverbohrt, ungerechte Härte, Tyrann.


On the other side of the drive, 
less orderly, clumps of bushes heap 
at the lawn’s edge and a shade tree 
fills the photograph’s upper half. 

Behind, almost crowded out by greenery, 
one wall and corner of the granary: 
timbered Xs outlined in mortar 
fill the corner boxes of the half-timber frame,

the brick’s regular pattern pretty 
and distinct. I imagine the colors 
that drew my grandfather’s eye 
and that the photo can’t capture: 

North German red brick 
against pale mortar 
and the black-brown 
of the wood frame. 

Rhododendron- and beech-green, 
blue of spruces and sky, 
the broad-spread sand 
of the drive at his feet. 

Great-Grandfather Carl Tielsch Jr.’s Desk

If a man owns a large estate, 
he’ll have to push a lot of papers, more 
if he owns a glass factory 
as well. More still if also 

he’s a government assessor. 
He’ll work from four A.M. 
to six at night 
with seven secretaries. 

If seven secretaries 
why the towers of paper 
on and around 
his massive desk? 

Nine stacks, 
all two feet high 
at least. He keeps photos 
of his loved ones 

where he works. Look: 
a forest of them. 
On the wall, a picture 
of his mother 

and in a row below her, 
three baby pictures. 
A dozen photos at least 
are ranged around the blotter 

on his desk. Sometimes a man 
with seven secretaries
has five children 
who must be raised 

to the standards 
society requires. But 
a man with seven secretaries 
(five children too)

must be careful with 
the household cash. With 
all he manages, 
the decisions he makes 

about what he deems
the household does 
and doesn’t need, 
his wife in turn 

(the secretaries too
are housed and fed) 
is tasked to practice
radical economy. Sometimes 

the task is brutal: bring 
the wormy ham to table 
or he’ll make trouble 
about the waste.

Here’s the clock 
upon the wall. There’s the face
of the barometer. 
One measures 

the chill, the other 
the atmosphere: 
oppressive. Neither measures 
how hard he is. Still, 

the photo of his wife 
is at the center 
of the photo thicket, 
right where he’ll see it 

when he works. Dark 
evening dress, 
shoulders bare, pearls 
at the throat, hair

piled high, she’s younger 
even than the year 
he met her (over thirty 
when they married): 

the woman in the photo here
is barely twenty. This is a woman 
looking as she should. 
Not as he says she should:

he doesn’t know her.
This is a woman 
looking toward 
a life she hopes for.

Blank of Light (Interior with Mirror and Two Windows)   

If the painting at the left were the one 
that always hung in my grandmother’s dining room 
when I was a child, and the light washed into this room 
every day over the chair placed 

under the mirror between the windows, and the light 
washing the room hit not just the runner on the floor 
and the crystal chandelier, the immobile groupings 
of chairs around tables, the carpets’ 

gentle wrinkles, the vases with their flower bouquets 
in this Gesellschaftszimmer, made for company 
but empty now save for the massive tile stove 
standing behind my grandfather 

as he takes this photograph (though 
on some winter nights electric light played 
in the chandelier’s drops and his mother’s and his sisters’ 
hair, the aunts seated together by the stove), 

and if to catch the sun
had stepped a bit to the left perhaps 
or forward, and the angle of the mirror tilted less 
off the wall and more into the room, 

then instead of the crisscross of the rugs’ patterns
apparent but almost erased in the light that climbs 
the narrow mirror’s glass or in the switchbacks 
of the polished parquet between them, 

as it winds its way, a river carrying the space 
between the paths their feet most tread, like the currents 
that ten years later scattered the remaining inhabitants
of the house, the most precious items distributed

among the family (so that the painting 
that hung in my grandmother’s dining room
may well have been the one that hangs here at the left
in this photograph)—then perhaps I would really know

something of this room, perhaps at least his shoes 
would appear in the reflection, perhaps even his face: 
twenty, barely: as he studies the scene to select the aperture,
just catching at left in its massive gilt frame the shape 

of a faraway Tuscan hillside, road, stone home 
and two or three human figures before it, a family standing
before the house they must have lived in for generations, 
the oil paint shining gently in the reflected morning light,

the house, the land, the people, the trees, all perched 
high above a wide sea, and beyond the limit of the frame,
the almost-empty family room with the photographer
watched by the painted family standing still together.

The photos

the glass beads 
found in ancient gravesites
near the sheep meadow on the estate
the papers the archaeologists publish 
about the graves 
the glass that flowed off the factory line 
for sixty-five years the frame
of a window: a single pane 
made it through the war unscathed
the borders on the map 
or not the borders    
just their consequences
the plan my grandfather drew (not to scale)
of the manor house and grounds
documents saved
documents lost
and all that went undocumented
the rising tones in my daughter’s voices 
as they quarrel and
the virus particles wafting 
in the air this present catastrophe
rise and fall 
of the dog’s chest as she lies sleeping
lamplight on a dark day
the damp 
the sweater I pull tight
across my middle 
its bone buttons at my chest
the past
the weight in my DNA the yarn I knit
the sweater from what unravels
when I press against 
what hurts
the knife of anger rising in a voice 
that cuts if I heed it 
and also if I don’t
the limits of our daily lives in our home
the porcelain plates on the wall
and in our glass-front cabinet 
that hail from the long-evaporated manor
or the other factory my family owned and 
in the engagement photo
taken in that home
in 1934: my grandparents’ hands resting 
his left upon his left knee
her left upon his right 
heads turned toward each other 
eyes joyed: the smiles on the faces 
of family ranged around them 
but also what the photo hides or misses
his mother’s absence 
the fire she lit that took her
all the losses that later came 
translucent as glass thread spun
on factory drums
the wartime drums 
just warming in the wings 
the true inheritance they’d craft and then 
the small porcelain fawn at rest 
upon the sideboard 
their chairs push up against
who knows where that faun is now
(sold, looted by one army
or another, shattered in a landfill’s layers
or whole still, in the vitrine
of some other descendent?) the hair
on my eldest daughter’s head
thick like my grandmother’s 
and glossy
my younger daughter’s smile 
almost like my grandfather in the photo 
though I never knew him
extractive capitalism and its consequences
how the tooth 
scrapes greedy against the pit the tick 
of the analog clock on the wall
as my daughters click through
to another online class
what I’m tallying from the couch 
as outside the day’s events roll on 
harder than glass 
the next headline my own face 
turned toward or away 
from what I feel powerless against
what lies within my grasp
what feels too remote to touch
my grandparents’ hands
their graves beside each other now 
the ivy the headstone with their names
an ocean away
my daughter’s hair
the anger
in her voice 

Monika Cassel was raised in the United States and Germany. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in GuesthouseLongleaf ReviewPhoebe Journalpetrichor, and The Laurel Review, and her translations from German have appeared in POETRYAGNIMichigan Quarterly ReviewGuernicaAsymptote, and Harvard Review Online, among others. Her chapbook Grammar of Passage (flipped eye publishing) was the winner of the 2015 Venture Poetry Award. She was a founding faculty member at New Mexico School for the Arts, where she developed its creative writing program. Currently she is a degree candidate in poetry in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College and a teaching artist with Writers in the Schools in Portland, Oregon.