Margarete Steffin

 

 

Steffin and Brecht at chess, another of Brecht's passions.

From the factual and biographical evidence, Margarete Steffin was one of the most important women in Brecht's life.  This is borne out on the basis of the poetry he devotes to her as well, where he is by turns, tender, playful, funny and serious.

 

Steffin was the daughter of working class parents from Berlin, and was consciously political from an early age.  She met Brecht in 1931 and soon developed a relationship with him.  She was versed in Russian and the Scandivavian languages.  She and Brecht were together in Paris and the south of France, traveled to the Soviet Union and she joined Brecht and his familiy in Denmark and was with him throughout his stay in Scandinavia.  Several of Brecht's best plays owe their origins to Steffin's discovery and work on the sources. -- She suffered from tuberculosis from an early age.

 

Steffin was responsible for much of Brecht's access to the Soviet Union, for his popularity there via her contacts there among Soviet writers.  It is she who arranged for Brecht and his family to cross the Soviet Union to go to the United States. Quite ill by the time the group reached Moscow,  Brecht arranged to have her placed in a sanatorium, where she soon died.  She was 33.  -- Brecht received word of this on the train trip across the USSR.  He was devastated for months afterwards.

 

 

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The Third Sonnet

We were getting ever closer - in my view,
When I started using words,  completely unaware,
About exactly what we’d done in our affair,
The most downright mean and vulgar ones I knew.  

It seemed to me as if you were horrified
Anew, as if just now seeing what we did and do.
In the many weeks that we lay side-by-side,  
Of all these words, I taught you barely two.           

Such words evoke the astonishment revealed   
To me back then when I first bedded you.
It simply now can no longer be concealed:
There really wasn’t anything you wouldn’t do.
You had better face it squarely without ducking
The word for what you were doing there was __________

 

(1933)

 

Brecht wrote to Steffin and told her that he written this sonnet for her and insisted, she fill in the final word.

 


 

 

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Eighth Sonnet
 
At night, the wash hanging on the hedge close by...
You were standing, wilderness about, by the creek...  
In a little wooden bed beneath a gilt antique...
On the Swedish bed in the workroom; it got dry

In there ...on a hill where it was really steep...
By the writing room window in an alcove...
In the country inn, stink of a kerosene stove...
In the corner of the studio, drowsy, half asleep...  

In the monastery,  pianos gave us quite a fright...   
Furnished, from the balcony you threw the key...
In one room of the hotel...actually in two...          

In the Fatherland of Working People...likely  
At every hour of the day...and the night...    
Four countries, all seasons...the whole year through...

 

(1933)
 

 

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The Ninth Sonnet      


When you were first learning how to lay
I taught you to forget me in the act and trust
Yourself to eat from my bowl to fill your lust
As if it were not me you loved but love per se.

I said, its alright to forget me, and fine                      
To pretend it’s some other man you’re seeing!
It’s a cock I’m giving you, and not my being
Its not that it feels good,  just because its mine.

If I intended then for you to dive down under
Into your own flesh,  I had never meant
You become one of those who turn to dew
When some guy approaches her through blunder.
That you not need many men, was my intent -
To realize what it is men have in store for you. 

 

(1933)
 

 
 

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The Eleventh Sonnet
                        
When I sent you to that foreign land,
A frozen place, I shopped with care
For heavy pants for your (beloved) derriere
And for your legs, warm socks all knit by hand!

I sought pure wool to see you through
For back, for breast and down below
To keep my darling love aglow,
That warmth from you might warm me, too.

This time, I dressed you with the greatest care,
As I had (far too seldom!) taken off your clothes.
(Ah, had there been much more of that to share!)

So as I dress you now, let us suppose
it - an undressing. – This is what you deserved.
Protected from the cold,  you’ll be preserved.

(1934)

This poem was written as Steffin set off alone for Moskow

for treatment for her tuberculosis.



 

 

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Concerning Dante’s poems to Beatrice

The Twelfth Sonnet

Emblazoned still over the dusty vault,
In which she lies, the one he never screwed,
Whose every move caused him to brood,  
Is her great name, that would make us all exalt.

Her remembrance is what he commanded
By writing verses about her of such beauty
That we have no choice but do our duty
And embrace the extravagant praise demanded.

Alas, what a sickly trend he there set in motion  
With that lavish praise of her unto the skies
The one he never had, but regarded only with his eyes!

Since the day a vision became the object of his devotion
Any woman who crosses the road and looks the part
But never gets moist,  is now the true desire of the heart.

 

(1934)
 

 

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The Thirteenth Sonnet

That word at which you always take offense    
Comes from the Florentine in which the sex  
Of the woman is called  fica.*  Imagine the intense
Criticism the great Dante suffered, when they vexed
Him for once using it in a poem of his invention .
He was chastised for this, as I just read,
As was Paris, who gained famed Helen’s bed.
(He, whom history gave far the more attention!)

But now you see how even Dante, so austere,  
Got involved in all the strife that still rages
About this thing, so prized throughout the ages.
Machiavelli is not the only source we’ve got:
Yes, how often in real life and in books, it’s clear,
Strife gets its start about this justifiably famous spot.

*German for fucking is ficken.

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Questions

Write me what you’re wearing!  Is it warm?
Write me about your bed!  Soft as fur?
Write me how you look!   As you were?
Write me what you’re missing!  My arms?

Write me how you are!  Are your spirits high?
Write me what they’re up to!  Are you fit and strong?
Write me what you’re doing!  Is it coming along?
Write me what you’re thinking of?  Is it I?

Of course questions for you is all that I have!          
And I’ll accept whatever answers I get!               
If you’re tired, I can’t be your trusty staff.         
If hungry, I’ve nothing for you to chew.                        
It is as if I were no longer here, but set                     
Out of this world, as if I had forgotten you.  

(Autumn 1934)

 

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Love Habits

That pleasure simply fails is just not so.  
Sensed often , it increases often all the more.     
To do again what we have done before
Is the very thing that forces us together so.

That slight twitching of your ass, so long
awaited!  Oh, this flesh of yours, this teasing!
And that second thing, the act itself so pleasing,
That you have been begging for all along:

Your yield to copulation! This parting of your knees!
This trembling then through which my flesh discovers
The recurrence of  desire from which you just recovered!
This lazy turning!  This casual reaching out for me
While you are smiling!
Ah, doing it as often as we would -
Were it not for doing constantly, it wouldn’t be so good.

(1934)

 
 

Click on title for German original
                 
Buying Oranges: London

In the yellow fog along Southhampton Street
Suddenly a cart of fruit beneath a lamp,
Plucking at her bags, an old disheveled tramp:
I stood dumb and could not move my feet

Like someone looking, then finding at close range.
Oranges, yes, of course!  I knew I had to have some.
I cupped my hands, blew warmth between my thumbs  
And quickly fished my pockets for some change.

Between the time I grasped the pennies though             
And searched for the price that was written down                      
On newspaper with charcoal in a smudgy smear,                   
I noticed that I was already whistling low.               
And all at once it grew all too bitterly clear:               
You are not here, not even in this town.

(1934) In this sonnet Brecht, in London, recalls the period when he lived in Paris w. Margarete Steffin

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The Nineteenth Sonnet

On a day when once again you sent no word
I called the keepers: the elephants, now!
All six to the Arc de Triumph! and that's how,
Near eleven p.m. in Avenue Wagram stood the herd.
 
Swaying softly, they looked me over.  I said:
‘I ordered, when I put her under your safekeeping
That anyone who caused her pain or weeping
Be pounded seven times to pulp beneath your tread.’
 
They stood silently, until the male, a ten ton
Beast lifted his trunk, slowly, maliciously took aim,
Pointed and trumpeted at me, the guilty one.
 
And thundering, the herd came after me. I fled,
And ran into the post office, bathed in blame,
Where I wrote a letter, peering out in dread.

 

(1937)

 

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Sonnet No. 1
     
And now in war our path grows harder still.
As companion, you are meant to share its pains
With me, narrow places, mountains, plains,
As learners, teachers, both with new skill

And both fleeing with the same goal.
Know this: that this goal is no more
Than the path itself, if one falls in a hole
And the other leaves him striving  for  

A final goal, the goal itself would vanish,                
Unrecognizable, nowhere to be found.                     
He would run, stand gasping, banished,        

Drenched with sweat in an empty place.              
At this milestone I say this to you, and am bound               
To charge this poem’s muse to plead my case.

(1939)
 

 
 

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For M.S.

She examines everything I say,
Henceforth corrects every single line,
Schooled in the school of those who fight oppression.
From that moment on, gave me backbone,
She, weak in health, but of a cheerful spirit,
Who takes bribes from no one, not even from me.
Often, I cross out a line on my own with a smile,
Because I know what she would say. 
 

 

 

 

Click on title for German original


On the Death of My Collaborator M.S.

I

In the ninth year of flight from Hitler
Exhausted with the travel
With the cold and hunger of winter-bound Finland

With the wait for a passport to another continent
Our comrade Steffin died
In the red city of Moscow.

II

My general has fallen
My soldier has fallen

My student has gone away
My teacher has gone away

My care giver is gone
My patient is gone

III

When it was time and Death, who was not unrelenting
Showed me, shrugging his shoulders, the five ruined lobes of her lungs
Incapable of expecting her to live on with only the sixth one
I quickly pulled together 500 jobs and assignments
Matters to be done immediately and tomorrow, next year
And in seven years hence
Innumerable questions, decisive ones, to which
She and she alone
Knew the answers -
And thus occupied
She died an easier death.

IV

With my little school teacher in mind
Her eyes, their angry blue fire
and her worn cape with the broad hood
and its broad bottom seam, I re-named
Orion in the heavens the Constellation Steffin
Looking skyward and watching it, shaking my head,
I hear a weak cough from time to time.

V

The Remnants

The wooden box that holds the notes for our work on plays is still here
The Bavarian knives, the stand-up desk, still here
The chalk board still here, and the masks as well
The radio and the soldier’s trunk are both still here.
The answer is still here, but not the questioner
High above the garden
Still stand the stars of Steffin

VI

Since you have died, my little teacher
I walk around sightless and restless
Staring dumbly at a gray world
Aimless, like a man who’s lost his job.

I am not allowed
Access to the workshop, like all
Non-employees.

I still see streets and facilities
But not at the usual times of day,
And so I hardly recognized them.

I can’t go
Home either: I’m ashamed
Because I’ve been laid off
And am wretched.


(1941)

 

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