Spiegel im Spiegel
BY PETRA HILGERS
If you’ve ever read H C Anderson’s fairytale Die Schneekönigin – which I played endlessly on our record player when I was little – then you know to be wary of those broken mirror pieces. However, the piece that hit me one day while I was fighting it out with a poem turned out to come from an altogether different mirror, revealing magical truth instead of twisting truth into ugly lies. It took me back to that day in my teens when I arrived early for my Ballettstunde and Herr Rebaski asked me to help him transform the cold old school gym into a dance studio.
Together we wheeled the huge folding mirror out of the equipment store and arranged it at the top of the room where it would catch and reflect back the light from windows and neon tubes. As I was about to unfold the two side wings, Herr Rebaski stopped me and – in his Latino German that always sounded more authoritarian than I wanted to believe he was – said Steh da. Bleib! and so I stood still in the gap that had opened between the two wings. He closed them up a bit, just enough for my shoulders to fit in squarely. Then he pointed to the main mirror facing me and stepped back, Schau!, and let me look.
And look. And look, look, look, look, look, look. It took my breath away. Whichever way I looked, my reflection looked back at me endlessly from many different angles – I never knew there were so many sides of me. I could have drowned in perspectives, yet the white wooden frame held them all together in one whole piece. Herr Rebaksi had created a kaleidoscope with millions of particles of me. It was endless and peaceful all in one. That day in the quiet of waiting for the rest of the class to arrive, Herr Rebaski forgot for a moment his upright teacher discipline and was pure excitement and magician; I forgot for a moment to be all the mess and ugliness I usually saw staring back at me from the mirrors of my teens. Herr Rebaski had opened up a new universe and I took it, folded it up and away, deep in my memory store.
Some thirty years later, puzzling over the most fitting English word to describe a sentiment in a poem, the writing mentor I worked with asked me how I’d express it in German. So I told her, wrote it down for her to read and explained its literal meaning. She suggested, ‘Just use the German phrase, it fits perfectly’. I was shocked at first because the immigrant in me had always aspired to be perfect in English and not substitute a lack thereof with German. But now she asked me to see it as an extra dimension of my poetry.
That was when I suddenly remembered the Tanzspiegel and Herr Rebaski in his navy blue ballet tights who knew only too well the messiness of being an immigrant, and he’d long transformed it into a kaleidoscope for me. The disarray of my life at ever-changing addresses in a multitude of countries, continents and climates began arranging itself in astonishing symmetry held together by the frame of language. They all fitted and, like a kaleidoscope brought together, they were not only so much more magnificent than the individual pieces, they suddenly made sense.
This is what I’ve held on to ever since in my writing: to let them all in, the fragments and pieces in whatever language they want to show up and to trust the imperfections and Germanisms to tell their own stories and give them a place in a much bigger whole.
About the Author
Originally from Germany, Petra Hilgers has lived in South Africa, Northern Uganda, London/UK and now lives in West Yorkshire, UK. Her writing is greatly inspired by travelling and the curiosities of a bilingual life. Her poetry has appeared in South Bank Poetry, Pennine Platform, Under The Radar, Structo, Acumen, Stand Magazine and The Dawntreader, and has been highly commended in the 2019 Open House Poetry Competition of The Interpreter’s House, the 2022 Buzzwords Poetry Prize, the 2022 Wildfire Words – Every Breath Competition and the 2022 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition.
Her debut collection, ‘“’The Heart Neither Red nor Sweet’, won the 2021 erbacce poetry prize.
Petra also publishes on her blog: https://petrahilgers.wordpress.com/author/petrahilgers/