as Hegel had it, and as Brecht had up on the wall of his Danish retreat (der Dänische Zufluchsstäte) and later in his New York home. it’s a pleasingly astringent thing to say to yourself whenever you find your thoughts becoming too fanciful or high-flown.
i’ve been really enjoying the poems in the Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems, edited and with a really good introduction by Michael Hofmann, and have been coming back to the Brecht poems in particular. This one’s been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:
(although I don’t speak a word of german i do like pretending i can pronounce the words, so original first, then translation.)
Ein Ruder liegt auf dem Dach. Ein mittlerer Wind
Wird das Stroh nicht wegtragen.
Im Hof für die Schaukel der Kinder sind
Die Post kommt zweimal hin
Wo die Briefe wilkimmen wären.
Den Sund herunter kommen die Fähren.
Das Haus hat vier Türen, daraus zu fliehn.
(A Place of Refuge
An oar lies on the roof. A moderate wind
Will not carry away the thatch.
In the yard posts are set for
The children’s swing.
The mail comes twice a day
Where letters would be welcome.
Down the Sound come the ferries.
The house has four doors to escape by.
trans. John Willet)
Why do I like it? There’s a ghostly sense of uncertainty and unease about the now of the poem. The absences are alarming. It’s tense and watchful. The first line has a strange and unstable image – the oar on the roof feels like the consequence of an atmospheric upheaval, but the wind is only moderate. In fact the second line claims stability – this instability is in fact solidity. The yard posts are ‘set for / The children’s swing’ but there is no swing there. Has it been removed? a reminder of loss of innocence, of flight maybe? Or is it yet to come? If a swing has been there before, it can be set between those two posts again, when there are children once more. In its absence it holds in potential both possibilities, swinging neither this way nor that. Will there be a future here, where there was a past? Both future and past flow away from this isolated point in time.
‘Down the Sound come the ferries’ – this is something that happens daily, continuously, reliably. Solid, habitual present tense. ‘Down the Sound’ feels like a rather jangling translation. The original German has a lovely balance and flow: ‘Den Sund – herunter kommen – die Fahren’ – with the lingering, almost longing sound of ‘Fahren’ before the blank practicality of ‘Das Haus hat vier Türen’, again balancing something continuous and reliable – the ferries – against spatial and temporal uncertainty: any one of those four walls, any direction, might need to be the method of a sudden exit, at any time. The refuge is necessarily porous. And after all, what else might those reliable ferries bring?
It all constitutes the refuge as an ambiguous notion – a place of safety, but also a place to which you run out of fear or danger.
I’m uncertain about ‘the mail comes twice a day / where letters would be welcome.’ It’s an unnerving image – communication without anything to be communicated, administrative continuity but without any ability to bring things that you actually want. And what are the letters that are wished for? Letters from loved ones who have not left Germany perhaps? Or letters to relieve solitude and fear, bringing a sense of the outside world?
It’s a very guarded poem – it won’t put its money on any particular outcome. But, like the other Brecht poems I’ve read, it’s also wide open, like a raw nerve or an open eye – it’s not a self-indulgent poem (he does not seem like a self-indulgent poet).
Expanded existentially, it could be argued that it becomes about a permanent state of uncertainty and futures being held in abeyance in the face of that uncertainty, though I think Brecht would reject the existential reading (not KONKRET enough) and just say in times of war and state violence this is who you are, refuges are where you live, this is what the world becomes.