Author's note: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, blending an aspirational communism with anti-fascist politics, while developing a satirical, "epic style" of drama that broke new theatrical ground. Famously, in The Threepenny Opera (1928), Brecht posed the question: "Who is the bigger criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?"
Brecht, who identified as a Marxist and revolutionary writer, produced a rich and wide-spanning body of poetic work, including lyrics of love, landscape and personal memory, anthems of proletarian solidarity, and deep-delving poems of social and civilisational critique.
The sequence below deliberately straddles the line between translation and original tribute. Although I was conscious of the lapse between his life and circumstances and my own, my main concern while writing was to respond to Brecht's poetry in a way that drew out (without suppressing any one element for the benefit of another) its range, lyric elegance, and radical fire. I may not have succeeded, but I hope that my admiration for his work, at least, is clear.
On a personal note, I'm thankful to Conor Brennan, who some years ago gifted me a copy of The Selected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, translated by H. R. Hays, which was my first introduction to Brecht the poet.
A Resistance Writer Reflects On His Life
(Variations on poems by Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956)
by Ciarán O'Rourke
In the rippling mirror I catch my face:
well-fed and water-logged, an exile's countenance.
Tomorrow's outcast! That shining place,
where, with the girl who god forgot
and drowned, I'll no doubt vanish also,
strange to the ways of your bleating world.
But I was something once
no time ahead could fathom:
a human soul, seduced by need
to paint the boardroom butchers of the age
in lurid colours, my verses shaped
like sleeting fists, my hunger
like a storm. I lived in rage
and love in equal measure;
my life knew every texture, had
the beat of living history
a-thrum in it. And I worked
(in my way) like all the rest. At dawn,
the miners dragged their boots in song
along the cobbles; my coal-
blue fingers smudged
the page in praise.
What, today, you call a river
to me was second nature – gifted,
like the grey boughs donning
in a rush above me years before,
or the pounding clouds
that clapped the forest doors
till birds emerged
to shake the clearing after,
and the rains she kissed me under
earth – volving lovely
down my body –
this, the haunted mist
I breathed involuntarily,
year by year.
My spirit hummed the brightest
in fits of vision built from sense:
when I saw through spinning water-wheels
the village children growing thin,
or when I tuned my pen
to the famished noise of carolling machines.
And so, my last, light-filled request:
to log, if you will, my voice of ink
among their numberless possessions –
the agitators, legislators, the million-
faced and rebel poor, whose words
were sent to the burning marsh,
whose bones were sunk
in a box of zinc.
So we come to the hatred
of arrogant men,
who, strolling from banquet
to feast in their suits,
hector the nation with rations;
who promise a reaping
of luck while they're fat, and let
the fruit rot beneath sheeting;
who evict brittle children onto
the streets, and wrap them
in data and numbers; who funnel
society over a cliff
and proclaim their own
fitness to govern.
I was moved by a hatred
of arrogant men.
The people I love are bright and harsh.
Their fingers stitch the velvet coats.
Their bodies lift the singing roads.
They shake the wheat. They shape the loaf.
They carve the skyline named in stone
for the emperor and the boss,
and they always bite the famine-dirt
when their ledgers lodge a loss –
but they know far more than this, oh yes...
as the wave unbolts the ocean
and the slave commands the dawn,
my people's hands have threshed the wind,
their faces creased the sun.
What is food for?
To clothe the hungry
dream with heat.
What do dreams become?
A star a stone a fist a mob, to make
the richest citizens
tremble in their beds.
What are poems for?
To fortify the body,
to weaponise the mind.
What should we remember?
Amid the chronicle of cruelties,
my yearning to be kind.
Who is this?
Brecht: so mean, so dry,
so stricken, so strung, I could
sleep (or march).
Ciarán O'Rourke is a widely published Irish poet, living in Leitrim. His poetry appears in the Culture Matters anthology, Children of the Nation, and his first collection, The Buried Breath, is available here.