NER DIGITAL | A Sense in the World | Maria Hummel
Die Aschenblume Anselm Kiefer
Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas
149 5/8 x 299 1/4 inches
Image courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

The day I first encountered Anselm Kiefer’s paintings, I was seven months pregnant with my first son. Because I am no longer that not-yet-mother, I can see her in my mind’s eye, wearing her mint green jacket, blond head tilted back, hand on her belly as she enters a gallery filled with massive, brooding landscapes. At first she doesn’t know where to look—all the canvasses are so arresting—and then one catches her eye and she drifts slowly over.

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, the year the Third Reich ended. He is nine years younger than my German father, who raced down to the basement shelter when his hometown was bombed by the Americans and emerged the next day to smashed streets and imminent surrender.

Kiefer’s paintings made windows of the museum walls, with dramatic views of a black, gold, battered-but-still-fertile earth. I remember the paintings as a collective, except for one giant gray canvas depicting a ceremonial hall. A sunflower hung upside down at its center, its blossom husk nearly touching the floor. The label read: Die AschenblumeThe Ash Flower. The hall was the Grand Mosaic Room in the former Third Reich Chancellery, painted and then smudged with ash.

As I stared into the gritty, cracked canvas, I felt a thrum of recognition. My father was a good man, raised by Mitläufer, Germans who went along with Naziism, reaping its benefits and later its consequences. My father witnessed his own father, a doctor, deployed to an army hospital in Weimar, then after the war, get stripped of his license to practice public medicine and sent to work on a logging crew. My father experienced his mother dying in the childbirth of his youngest brother in 1942, and lost all the fingers on his right hand in an accident in 1944. By the time Anselm Kiefer was born, my father was orphaned, permanently injured, and starving under the strict international aid laws of the reconstruction.

All my life I had weighed these facts against the Holocaust and come up empty.

I stared into Kiefer’s Ash Flower. The ruined interior, the dried flower-stalk hanging upside down—it was an arid scene, but it contained the residue of life and renewal.

“There is no history,” the artist said in a video outside the exhibition. He sat loosely before the camera, a shaved-headed, intense man with a quirk of humor about his mouth. His English was broken but emphatic. “[But] each human being tries to create a bigger context.” To create that context, you created an illusion that you stayed on the earth for a century and saw what unfolded. “This reassures you to find a sense in the world because there is no sense.”

Kiefer had borrowed his image from a Paul Celan poem, and now I would borrow it from him. I would seek my way by writing toward the Ash Flower and my own sense of it, my own meaning. The ash flower: the blossom of fire and dust over bombed Germany. The springtime end of the war, the Holocaust exposed, renewal and guilt and suffering spun together. The blighted innocence of children like Kiefer and my father.

My own son was born. I began writing a book. At first it was about my grandfather’s experiences at the Weimar hospital and his flight across war-torn Germany to reunite with his family. A year into the draft, my son fell acutely ill, and I realized the heart of the novel was elsewhere, mostly in the home, where the children were. It was watching a new mother try and fail to keep three boys safe and well as the Reich crumbled. Retreating armies and liberated concentration camps drifted offstage, and in their place rose intimate scenes of neighbors betraying neighbors, a baby struggling to walk in a cellar shelter.

The novel’s original title was The Ash Flower. I knew the title would change: I had entered my book through a doorway that Kiefer had made, but I would exit through my own. The travels of a novelist are always one way, and once-great vistas become postcards in a long, idiosyncratic journey. Yet Kiefer’s work will always possess, for me, a humbling and magnetic power. When I think back to the young woman I was, gazing at the upside-down sunflower, I realize how tall that bloom must have been, when it first grew upward from the earth. It would have towered over me.

Maria Hummel’s most recent contributions to NER include her poem, “The First Turn Might Be the Right One Home” in NER 34.1, and her story, “No Others Before Me” in NER 31.2. She is the author of Motherland (Counterpoint, 2014) and House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman Prize.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” is a bi-weekly series in which we present a writer’s encounter with a work of art such as a book, play, poem, film, painting, sculpture, or building.


New Books from NER Authors: Motherland by Maria Hummel

41-5fNSwrDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Congratulations to NER author Maria Hummel, whose novel Motherland will be published in January by Counterpoint Press. Inspired by her grandfather’s wartime letters, Motherland depicts one family’s struggle through the waning months of World War II.

Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, writes, “Fear, grief and the will to survive fuse in this beautiful novel… Motherland occupies a relatively unexplored space in World War II literature, in which political sympathies and oppositions are vastly less important than finding enough tinder to keep the children warm… this book is a reminder of the reach of love, how it can blind, and how it can heal.”

Maria Hummel’s poetry and fiction have appeared numerous times in NER. You can find her most recent poem, “The First Turn Might Be the Right One Home,” in 34.1.

Motherland is available through Powell’s Books and other booksellers.

No Others Before Me

31-2coverMaria Hummel’s short story “No Others Before Me” appeared in NER 31.2:

Laura’s labor was long and difficult, not because it was hard to squeeze the villagers out, but because several of them tried to climb back in. After their town finally collapsed into a mud of placental fluid around them, they sat in the muck, rubbing their skinny arms. They submitted to being prodded by the doctors and lay listlessly on the mattress while Laura and I cooed at them.

“Give them as much body contact as possible,” advised the nurse. So we spread them out like Christmas ornaments all over Laura’s naked belly and thighs. They curled. They sighed. Then finally one fellow reared his head and pronounced his new world cold and inhospitable. He told the others that they were being punished for exploiting their paradise in the womb.

“It’s okay, little guy,” Laura said, in a voice I had never heard before. It was gentle and singsong and full of authority. She guided the man toward her breasts. “It’s okay.

After a good feed, he revised his opinion and called out to his brethren about a land of milk and honey. Laura pulled the others to her and they waited their turn in a cranky huddle. 

“See?” she said to me, her eyes glistening with tears.

I nodded. I saw. They needed her. All that tugging and sucking. All those itty-bitty sounds. This was what my beautiful wife had wanted: to be everything to them. And my job was to make it possible for her.

I drove them home in three car-seats, each with eight snug pockets where the villagers rode and tossed their arms at their mama.

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2013 Honickman Book Prize Winner Maria Hummel

NER contributor Maria Hummel has received the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Her manuscript House and Fire was chosen by this year’s guest judge, Fanny Howe. Howe will also write an introduction for Hummel’s book.

Maria Hummel’s poetry and fiction have appeared in NER, most recently in 31.2. Her story “No Others Before Me” and her essay “Kingdom of Dumpling” were featured on our site.

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Kingdom of Dumpling | By Maria Hummel

Maria Hummel

From the moment we enter the restaurant, I am craving the pop. I know it will be over too soon, and I am almost glad to wait for a table in this small, steamy room.

My five-year-old son is with me, climbing onto one of Kingdom of Dumpling’s ripped red seats, touching a soy sauce stain on the wall. He is a radiant child, all eyes and platinum hair. When the waitress comes, she smiles at him, as most people smile at him, with astonishment and pleasure.

We order shrimp and chive dumplings, onion pancake, farmer’s cucumbers. My son gleefully clatters his chopsticks, dropping three. When we moved to this mostly Chinese San Francisco neighborhood last year, he had just finished months of isolation from his bone marrow transplant. We were free! Why not step into a tiny, crammed joint and try something new? I had never eaten food like these glistening white pockets, pinched at the top by a cook’s fingertips. First they slid into my mouth, slick, whole, and then my teeth crushed down. The pop.

Artwork by the author’s son

At twenty, I dreaded my thirties. I knew I would dislike aging—who doesn’t? But I didn’t understand that I’d also face despair. My life of late has become so slippery, so full of uncertainties: how to pay our next rent, how to keep our health insurance, to find a permanent job. How to know whether the pink now blooming in my son’s cheeks comes from steam or fever, or what makes him still bleed inside. Once, I married a wonderful man. Once, I had a son. Then he fell ill, and we saved his life. But these days, I can’t find any signs that I am changing for the better.

The pop comes when the dumpling skin breaks. Juice, meat, and greens slide out, shocking my tongue. I swallow. I fumble for another one. Smoothness gives way to exquisite texture.

“Too hot,” my son says, pointing at his plate, so I cut his dumplings for him. He slurps the ragged pieces from his fingers. “Yum. More, please.”

He doesn’t know the pop yet. One day he could experience the sensation, but for now he knows only the taste of it and the taste is good.


NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Maria Hummel’s recent poetry and prose have appeared in PoetryNarrative, and The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.