Week 243: Mein Bruder war ein Flieger, by Bertolt Brecht

One of Bertolt Brecht’s most famous antiwar poems, an ironic celebration of Germany’s role in supporting the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, in particular of the pilots forming its Condor Legion, who were involved among other actions in the bombing of Guernica. You don’t go to Brecht for subtlety, but he sure knew how to make a point. The translation that follows is my own.

Mein Bruder war ein Flieger

Mein Bruder war ein Flieger
Eines Tages bekam er eine Kart
Er hat seine Kiste eingepackt
Und südwärts ging die Fahrt.

Mein Bruder ist ein Eroberer
Unserm Volke fehlt’s an Raum
Und Grund und Boden zu kriegen, ist
Bei uns alter Traum.

Der Raum, den mein Bruder eroberte
Liegt im Guadarramamassiv
Er ist lang einen Meter achtzig
Und einen Meter fünfzig tief.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

My brother was a pilot
His papers came one day
He got his kit together
And took a southward way

My brother is a conqueror
Our people need more space
And winning territory by war’s
An old dream of our race

The space in the Spanish mountains
My brother got to keep
Measures just six feet in length
And is five foot deep.

Week 242: From ‘The Prelude’, by William Wordsworth

Wordsworth was, as far as I recall, the first of my poetic influences: I read ‘The Prelude’ in my early teens and admired it greatly, the more so because it chimed so well with the kind of wandering, reflective, close to nature childhood that it was still just about possible to have back then, and which I had myself enjoyed, though in a rather less rugged environment than Wordsworth’s Lake District. Later I came to be not exactly disenchanted with Wordsworth, but to feel that he was no longer quite what I wanted or needed: what he offered, it seemed to me, was a leisurely ramble in the hills that offered you great views at some points but also involved a lot of slightly tedious plodding in between, and I was beginning to feel that a poem should be more like a fell run, taut and unrelenting all the way to the top. But here, for the sake of that early admiration, is my favourite passage from ‘The Prelude’, that I think shows the poet at his vivid, immediate best, and if I now wish that overall his gait were just a little less leisurely, I remain grateful for those visionary viewpoints that from time to time it takes us to.

From ‘The Prelude’

And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us – for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six, – I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures, – the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain; and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me – even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

William Wordsworth

Week 241: Perfection isn’t like a perfect story, by P.J.Kavanagh

This is one of several poems that P.J.Kavanagh (1931-2015) wrote in memory of his first wife Sally, who died tragically young two years into their marriage. He commemorates her in his partial autobiography ‘The Perfect Stranger’, a book which like this poem manages to be both grounded and luminous.

Perfection isn’t like a perfect story

I think often of the time I was perfectly happy,
And sat by the harbour reading a borrowed Cavafy.
You were there of course and the night before we
Played bar billiards, green under lights, in the café,
Postponing our first shared bedtime and every ball
That didn’t come back made us look at each other and down.
I collected the key and we crossed the late-night hall
And seeing the room you cried, it was so small.

We were too close. We bore each other down.
I changed the room and we found that you were ill.
Nothing was perfect, or as it should have been.
I lay by your side and watched the green of dawn
Climb over our bodies and bring out of darkness the one
Perfect face that made nothing else matter at all.

P.J.Kavanagh

Week 240: Walking Away, by C. Day-Lewis

I tend to think of Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) as the archetypal career poet: his work accomplished, urbane, but a little manufactured, a little safe, not often charged with the excitement that real poems bring, that sense that something not entirely under the poet’s control has taken him or her by the scruff of the neck and said ‘Oi! You! Listen up!’. But I do very much like this wise, empathic piece that must surely resonate with anyone who has ever been a parent, and if it should prove in the end that a poet’s fate is to be remembered for just one poem, well, that most of us should be so lucky.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still.  Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

C. Day-Lewis

Week 239: On My First Son, by Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson’s first son died of the plague in 1603, aged seven. This for me is one of the great English poems, an elegy for a lost child that resonates as powerfully now as it must have done four centuries ago. Where does that power come from? One is tempted to say that this is one time, perhaps the only time, when clever Ben Jonson, classically educated Renaissance man, contemporary and not entirely uncritical admirer of Shakespeare, lays down all defences of wit and irony and lets the words come directly from the heart. But this would not be wholly true: there is wit and conceit enough in the poem: in the concept of a child being a debt to fate that must be repaid, in the paradox that really the child’s state is to be envied, in the idea, expressed in the somewhat tortured syntax of the last two lines, of never again risking too great an attachment to an object of love. Yet here, as is not always the case with Jonson and other Elizabethan poets, the wit and conceits seem perfectly harnessed in the service of a heartfelt emotion.

Note: Jonson’s son was also called Benjamin, which in Hebrew means ‘fortunate’ or ‘dexterous’, a meaning echoed in the phrase ‘child of my right hand’.

On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, ‘Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Ben Jonson

Week 238: Festival Enough, by Terence Hards

I am grateful to the poet Michael Cullup for drawing my attention to this tender love poem by Terence Hards (1922-1991); I vaguely knew the name but had never seen any of his work. He thought I’d like it, and I do, very much: a gift to remember for my 73rd birthday today!

At first I was a bit puzzled by the word ‘desecration’ in the second line and even queried whether it should be ‘decoration’, but no, ‘desecration’ is what the man wrote, and thinking about it harder one sees that the idea here is that the preoccupation with the exchange of material gifts at Christmas desecrates – deconsecrates – the real meaning of the festival, and that goes with the idea of allowing the season’s ‘unaccustomed plenty’ to deflect us from the true ‘expectations of the nativity’.

Terence appears to have published only one book of poetry, ‘As It Was’, in 1964; he spent his last years in the Dorset village of Morcombelake, where his retirement was tragically cut short when he was knocked down by a car as he crossed the street.

Festival Enough 

We are too penniless this year to buy
A desecration for festivity,
To lay out gifts or bouquets and rely
On unaccustomed plenty to withstand
The expectations of nativity.
And so I wake you from your Christmas sleep
To see the vapour of our breath
Hang on the morning, motionless with frost,
And pause in the air above us like a debt.
I bring no presents, love, to scatter at your feet
But come more gently than the growth of moss,
And on my lips the blessing of your name
Is surely festival enough to keep.

Terence Hards

Week 237: Holidays, Explorations, by Molly Holden

Back from holiday last week. At a certain age it is natural to start to wonder just how many more times you will come over the brow of a hill to see the wide curve of a beach below and a tall sea glittering, or look out of a window at night to see a bright half-moon riding above a dark headland. For Molly Holden, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the curtailment of her adventuring, as she poignantly relates in this poem, came all too early.

Holidays, Explorations

How can I bear it
that journeying’s over
while still the heart’s un-
regenerate rover,

still longs to visit
strange hamlet, strange river,
to feel at view’s width
the authentic shiver?

Now I must practise
good grace at parting,
to wish others joy
though I am not starting

the ride through the sunrise
to valleys of vision.
I fix on my smile now
with summer precision.

Molly Holden