Poems on Contemporary Themes

Bertolt Brecht

I
I Hear You Say

I Hear You Say:
He speaks about America
He knows nothing about it.
He was never there.
But believe you me
You understand very well, when I speak about America.
And the best in America is:
That we understand it.

A cuneiform
Only you can understand
(It is, naturally, a dead thing)
But should we not learn about people
Who have understood
The art of making themselves understood?
You, sir
Are not understood
But one can understand New York
I say to you:
These people understand, what they do
Therefore one understands them.

1926/7

II
700 Intellectuals Pray to an Oil Tanker

1.

Without an invitation
We have come
700 (and many more are on the way)
From all over, where the wind no longer blows
From the treadmills, which grind slowly, and
From the ovens, behind which, it is said
Not even a dog remains.

2.

And we have seen thee
All of a sudden, the night long
Oil tanker.

3.

Yesterday thou wert not there
But today
Thou art the only one.

4.

Come, hurry, ye!
Ye who saw the branch on which ye sit
Working folk!
God has descended again
In the form of an oil tanker.

5.

Thou, the repulsive one
Art gorgeous!
Exercise force over us
Thou, the objective one!
Snuff out our ego!
Make a community out of us!
Then, not as we want:
Rather, as thou wilt.

6.

Thou art not made of ivory
And of ebony, but of
Iron.
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!
Thou, the unprepossessing one.

7.

Thou art not an invisible one
Nor art thou infinite!
On the other hand, seven metres high
There are no secrets in thee
Rather, there is oil,
And thou dealest with us
Not discretely, nor unfathomably
But with calculation.

8.

What is grass for thee?
Thou sittest on it.
Where, formerly, there was grass
There thou sittest now, oil tanker!
And for thee an emotion is
Naught.

9.

Therefore listen to our prayer
And deliver us from evil.
In the name of electrification
And of Ford-step* and statistics!

* The play on words is not translatable. Fortschritt (progress) has been converted into Fordschritt (Henry Fordís conveyor belt).

1927

III
The Confinement of Great Babylon

Brecht was, of course, referring to Nazi Berlin. This poem, however, has a contemporary relevance to the caesarian operation which reproduced Washington-London. It is, as Dickens might say, a tale of one city. Translator.

As her difficult hour approached, she withdrew to the
Interior of her bedchamber and gathered doctors and
Fortune-tellers around her.

Whispering ensued. Self-important persons with
earnest demeanours went inside the house and came out with care-worn expressions Ė white faced. And the price of white paint doubled in the cosmetics shops.

And people assembled in the streets and stood there
From morning till evening, their stomachs gnawed by hunger.

The first thing to be heard had the clang of
a colossal fart in the roof timbers and there burst out a
violent cry PEACE! whereupon the stench grew apace.

Directly thereafter, blood squirted out in a slender,
watery fountain. And now followed rackets-in-non-stop
sequence Ė one more dreadful than the other.

The great Babylon threw up and it rang like
FREEDOM! and it had a coughing spell and it rang
like JUSTICE! and it farted afresh and it rang like
PROSPERITY! And to the ringing of bells, a squealing
brat, enshrouded in a bloody sheet, was brought to
the balcony and displayed to the people and this
was the WAR. And it had a thousand fathers.

1938

IV
The American Airmen

Sister, please come here
For a while, let your doll be!
Run, run, in the heaven up there
There is something nice to see.

On our backs, we want to lie
With our eyes upward bent
And see the American airmen fly
Silvery, under heavenís tent.

Mother, I am so hungry
When will there be a little bite for me
Mother, I do not know
Why I feel so very hungry.

The American airmen fly
Silvery under heavenís tent, and all around
The Colorado beetles lie
Gorging on potatoes on the German ground.

This poem was written as a part of the series: childrenís poems. It refers to the Berlin airlift. The Soviet and Democratic German authorities blamed the newly rampaging plague of potato-eating Colorado beetles on the pests thrown out by the American airmen. A fragmentary part of this poem was found posthumously in Brechtís papers:

Father, I am hungry
When will there be a little bite for me
Mother, I do not know
Why I feel so hungry

The American airmen fly
Silvery under heavenís tent, and all around
The Colorado beetles lie,
Gorging potatoes on the German ground.

Father, something to eat
How long can one hunger bear?
Father, please tell me: why in the house
You with empty hands appear

The American airmen fly
Up above and away they run

In far off Washington.

1950

V
War Has Been Created By Men

The lightning strikes and there is the rain

The clouds are by the wind blown
But the war does not come in windís train
The humans create war, all on their own.
The rain moistens the earth, in the springís flush
And the heavens above are high and still
But peace does not sprout as the grass and the brush
It blooms, when it is mankindís will.

And a few there are who have the steel
And it does not suit them to build a plough
And for those few the whole earth is no big deal
And nothing for them is enoí.
They count the men, they count the gold
And war is the final balance-sheet
And these few are too much for this world to hold.
Put an end to this death-dance and its beat.

Mother, thy child is at stake
Defend yourself, and do not allow!
Whether we, the millions, can put a brake
On war, this decision takest thou!
And this the great decision we must take all with one accord
And if we all say: Never!
Then war will be a thing of past record
And peace will reign in future forever.

1950

VI
A Fragment

Should it be said of your city NEW YORK:
A few old people
Have seen 70 of your still standing towering-houses
And heard the noise in

But the people who lived there, did not remain there but caused devastation
From continents, so
The city does not stand any longer.

Why do you build airfields in Lombardy and un-
Load tanks in Lisbon?
Why roll on your armoured cars in Champagne?

Your music is without hope

You fulfil the hopes of vultures only.

1950/51

In this connection we may recall Maulana Hasrat Mohaniís verse written in 1945 shortly after the atom bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was possibly the first poetical protest against this war crime.

Why ask about its nest from the nightingale woebegone?
When the gardener himself asks: where was the garden?
If the artificers of the bomb continue in the same vein,
People will ask one day, O Hasrat; where, then, was London ?

Translated from the German by Fowpe Sharma.

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