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Poetry: 1920 - '33

Click on poem titles for German originals!

poor b.b.

Concerning Poor B.B.

I, Bertolt Brecht, come from the black forests.
My mother - before my very first breath
Carried me into the cities.  And the cold of the forests
Will be in me until the day of my death.

In the asphalt city I am at home.  From the start
Provided with every ultimate sacrament:
With newspapers. Tobacco. And brandy.
Distrustful and lazy and in the end, content.  

I am friendly to people. At times
According to their ways, I don a top hat.
I say: they are very peculiar smelling animals
And I say: so what?  I too smell like that.   

In the morning in my empty rocking chairs,
I sit down with a few women now and then.
I look at them heedlessly and tell them:
I’m not a fellow on whom you can depend.

It is men I seek out towards evening.
We acknowledge each other as gentlemen.
They put their feet up on my tables.
And say, Things are getting better.  I don’t ask, When?

Towards morning in the gray dawn the fir trees piss
And their vermin, the birds, begin to scream.
About this time I finish up my drink in the city and throw
My cigar butt away and sink into a troubled dream.  

We have sat here, a careless species
In buildings indestructible in our notion
(Thus we have built the tall houses of the island of Manhattan
And the thin antennae that sustain the Atlantic Ocean).  

What will remain of these cities is what swept though them, the wind!
The house bringeth happiness to the eater.  He’ll empty it out.   
We know that we are transitory sorts
And that what will follow us is not worth talking about.    

In the earthquakes to come, I will hopefully
Not let my Virginia cigar go out due to a bitter taste,
I, Bertolt Brecht, enshrouded in the asphalt cities
From the black forests in my mother in early days.



Click on title for German original


A Song for My Mother

1. I no longer recall her face as it was, when she was not in pain. She brushed her black hair away from her forehead. I can still see her hand.

2. Twenty winters lay siege to her, her sufferings were legion, Death stood shamefaced before her. Then she died, and what remained was the body of a child.

3. She grew up in the forests.

4. She died among faces that had looked at her too long while she was dying, that had grown hard. They forgave her for suffering, but she went lost among these faces before she fell apart.  

5. Many leave us without our holding them. We tell them everything, there is nothing more between them and us, our faces are hard at parting. But we do not say the one important thing, saving up as we are for the essentials.

6. O why do we not say the important thing, it would be so easy and we will be damned for not saying it. Easy words they were, just behind our front teeth, words that fell out when we laughed, or ones that got stuck in our throats till we choked on them.

7. Now my mother has died, yesterday evening of the first of May!  And I now I couldn’t rid myself of her even if I tried scratching her off my body with my fingernails!



future generations

Click title for German original


To future generations

I admit it;
I have no hope.
The blind talk about a way out.
I have sight.


When every erroneous way has been tried
Our last partner sitting across the table

Will be nothingness.




Click title for German original


The Tenth Sonnet

I don’t care if this world loves me or not      
I’ve heard it all and can readily say, I’m soured;
And though I’m quite capable of being a coward,
Humankind’s lack of grandeur bothers me a lot.

And if there was a table set for all the great
I’d like at least to sit among them at that table.
If there was fish, I’d eat just the tail if I were able,
And if I got nothing, I still would sit and wait.

A book to tell me of that table and its story!

Ah, if there were justice! - Even if none for me -
I would be happy even if I were being tried.
Does all this exist and I’m the one who’s blind?
What I don’t like to admit is, it is precisely I  
Who despise those in trouble and left behind.


(about 1927)

I don't care

Click title for German original


Sonnet #5: The Feeding Cow

She sways her broad breast on the wooden crib
And feeds. Look, she’s chewing up a piece of hay!
For a while its point sticks out from her lip
She grinds it carefully, so it does not fray.

Her body thick, a sad look in her ancient eyes
Used to ill, she hesitates while her molars grind,
Arches up her brows with nothing on her mind.
You can nudge her and she shows no surprise.  

And while she is occupied taking in more hay         
Someone takes her milk. She shows no concern;       
The hand pulling at her udder is after all a perfect fit.   

She knows that hand. She does not even turn.   
She shows no interest, lets him have his way,  
And takes advantage of the twilight time  to shit.



Click title for German original


Don't Be Misled

Don’t let yourselves be deceived!
You won’t be coming back this way.
The light of day must be believed.
The night wind says its time to leave.
Don’t think you’ll see a better day.

Don’t let yourselves be tricked!
That life’s not worth the while.
Better drink it deep and quick.
It won’t be such a kick,
When comes the final mile.

Don’t get put off from your goal!
You don’t have too much time!
Let the grave care for the soul.
It’s life that’s great and whole;
Every minute counts as prime.

Don’t let yourselves be misled
To work mind and body sore
What’s left of fear to dread?
Like all mammals we’ll be dead
And after this there’s nothing more.  

September 1918.  Brecht used the poem in 1929 in Mahagonny.


Click title for German original


On Swimming in Lakes and Rivers


In the pale summer when the winds above
Make the leaf-crowns of the great trees swell
It is good to lie in rivers or in little lakes
Like the tangles where the pike-fish dwell.
The body grows light in the water. When an arm
Arcs lightly out of the water into the waiting sky
The small wind lulls it forgetfully
Thinks it brown tree-limbs drifting by.


The sky proffers the great peace of noon.
You close your eyes when the swallows come.
The mud is warm.  When cool bubbles well
We sense how through us a fish has swum.
My body, thighs, and my tranquil arm
Lie calmly in the water, all at one
And when the cool fish swim among us
I feel above the pond - the shining sun.


When in the evening you grow lazy
From lying so long that all limbs sting
Throw everything, heedless, clapping
Into blue rushing rivers in a headlong fling.      
It s best to hold out until the evening
Because then the pallid shark-sky grows
Evil and voracious over the river and bushes
And the deep intent of all things shows.


Of course you should  lie on your back
The usual way. And be borne along and led.
You don t have to swim, no, just pretend
That you are somehow part of the gravel bed.
You should stare up at the sky and imagine
You are carried by a woman, and yes, it is so.
Without a lot of stir the way God himself does
When he swims in his rivers in the evening glow. 



on swimming

Click title for German original

Coal for Mike


I’ve heard that in Ohio
At the start of the century
A woman lived in Bidwell
Mary McCoy, the poor widow of a brakeman
By the name of Mike McCoy.


But every night from the thundering trains of the Wheeling Railroad
The brakemen threw a lump of coal
Over her fence into the potato patch
And a quick hoarse voice called out,
For Mike!


And every night, when the lump of coal for Mike
Hit the back wall of her shack
The old woman got up, crept out
In her nightgown still half asleep and gathered up the chunk of coal
A gift from the brakemen to Mike, who had died, but
Was not forgotten.


She rose every morning before the gray of dawn and put away
Her presents from the eyes of the world, so that
The brakemen of the Wheeling Railroad
Would not get into trouble.  


This poem is dedicated to the fellow workers
Of the brakeman Mike McCoy
(Who died of weakened lungs
On the coal tenders of Ohio)
For their comradeship.




Coal Mike

Click on title for German original


The Revolution was finished and done
When up stepped the great Napoleon:
It was the citizens made him their emperor
Because they were now the overlords.
His very top general was a barkeep's lad,
And the soldiers' pay was not too bad,  
And his overwhelming artillery
Created new space for industry.
But when the people of Europe made him stop,
They found their own Princes still on top:
The Really Big Guys got away with the take:
The Big Boy was bad, but they took the cake.

Note: After Napoleon’s defeat, which took a combined international effort widely supported by all classes of Europe, who contributed their resources and their lives, the royalty of Germany and Russia and other kingdoms reasserted their control.  Reforms that much of the population desired did not come about.




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