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Poet Bargen writes of postwar Europe in 'Endearing Ruins'

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Walter Bargen poetry Endearing Ruins

Imagination is "the eternal home," writes Walter Bargen in the introduction to his latest book, a bilingual edition released by German publisher Liliom Verlag. "Home is the sum of the stories we carry with us no matter where we find ourselves. We are nothing without our stories, and our stories always spring from this sense of place."

For those of us who have grown to love Bargen's rich, narrative-driven sketches of rural life, "Endearing Ruins" will be a welcome complement. Bargen's sense of place arises not only from Missouri, where he's lived for more than 40 years, but from Germany and Switzerland, where he spent his youth.

"My most vivid and formative memories were of playing in the ruins of World War II in the early 1950s," Bargen has said.

So, while narrative remains the driving force in these poems, the dimmer, harsher realities of postwar Europe are new territory for Bargen. The result is often haunting, showing in stark detail the intersection of a young imagination with bullet-riddled walls and buried shell casings.

"I saw the black outline of a machine gun / exposed by the retreating water / but I couldn't swim the current to save it," he writes in "Lost Ordnance."

Such images, burned in the poet's memory, are not recalled as political but as personal and tragic: "It didn't matter which / side I was on, the dying was so easy."

A supporting theme in this collection is that of Bargen's German-born mother, the central figure in many of the poems. She is his bridge to old Germany and all it has come to symbolize in his imagination.

"I was seventeen when I learned / that my mother spoke with an accent," he writes in "It Goes Without Saying." Then his aunt and uncle appear, sitting around a kitchen table, "lost in another language":

There are empires fallen

and falling around them, concentration camps

short borders away, rubbled cities

broadcast daily, and I can't ask more than,

"Haben sie Hunger?" I can't speak

German, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish.

I cannot speak at all.

In such passages Bargen perfectly articulates the feeling so many of us have, perhaps especially Americans aware of our immigrant heritage, of both intimacy with and detachment from our older homes. We find that when thinking about our parents and grandparents, of here and there, we straddle two worlds.

Poetry helps Bargen — and his readers — bridge these worlds and find a sense of home in "the sum of the stories we carry with us."

Aaron Belz has published two books of poetry including "Lovely, Raspberry" (Persea, 2010).


Walter Bargen

With Carole Cohen, Sharon Bangert Corcoran, James Wilson

When • 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where • Focal Point, 2720 Sutton Boulevard

How much • Free

More info • 314-560-2778; stlouispoetrycenter.org


'Endearing Ruins / Liebenswerte Ruinen'

By Walter Bargen

Published by Liliom Verlag, 96 pages, $18

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