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Volker Braun's Selected Poems reviewed

Volker Braun – Rubble Flora: Selected Poems

(Translated By David Constantine and Karen Leeder. Seagull Books, 2014. Paperback, 124pp., £14.50)

Reviewed by Mark Byers

Reviewing Time for Dreams: Poetry from the German Democratic Republic (1978), an ‘officially sponsored’ anthology of poems for English-speaking readers in East Germany, Michael Hamburger singled out Volker Braun’s ‘Government Decree’ as one of the few poems to allude directly to all that was rotten in the GDR. A comradely pitch for greater participation in GDR decision-making, Braun laid bare the decidedly unrepresentative machinery of governance in the communist state. Elsewhere in the anthology, Hamburger lamented, one was left to ‘read between the lines’. 
If the anthology showed Braun adept at sailing between the Scylla and Charybdis of sanction and censorship, apologia and indifference, this was partly due to the early poems themselves; lyrics whose tone never settles into definiteness, remaining irresolute, ‘screwed up to a pitch of tension’, as ‘Definition’ (1975) has it. But it was also the condition of Braun’s ambivalent stance towards the East German state itself, as well as his private understanding of what he called, in the same poem, the ‘secret blood of history’. 
A member of the East German Communist Party, the young Braun added his voice to the chorus of hope and regeneration raised by the Socialist Unity Party. In one of the earliest poems included here, and one that gives the selection its title, Braun describes ‘fiery lupins’ jumping like flames from the ‘rubble heaps’ of ‘extinguished cities’; a refining fire drawing life and social justice in its wake. Placed at the beginning of Rubble Flora almost as a motto, the poem loses some of the specificity of its hope. Such renewal was entrusted, in the early 1960s, to the inimitable daybreak of East German socialism. 
But even in early poems such as this, things are not quite as they seem; idealism comes qualified and hopes appear, at closer inspection, double-edged. Braun’s hometown Dresden may rise like a Phoenix from the ashes, but the ‘fiery lupins’ hint at intensities of discord as well as regeneration. Moreover, that ‘widows in the ruins set up house and home’ suggests not only the return of domestic routine, but also the durability of trauma (Braun’s own mother was widowed, his father killed in action in 1945). 
Such fierce and often ironic equivocation is the hallmark of Braun’s poems up to the dissolution of the GDR in 1990, becoming especially intense after the Prague Spring of 1968. A lyric poet in the era of really existing socialism, Braun’s poems from this period—gathered here under the ironic title ‘Prussia, pleasure garden’—are as torn and ambivalent as the work of a Dmitri Shostakovich, walking the same tightrope between censorship and silence. 
Thus in a poem such as ‘The Life and Times of Volker Braun’ (1971), measured hopes for a future of ‘gentleness’ (velleities surely acceptable to nervous authority) are disturbed by instabilities of language and form; by grammatical volatility and, in the following stanza, by the disharmony of a chiasmus that just falls short: 
Obsessed with my own small corner of home, I sense
That here the world might find an example of gentleness
Unrelenting gentleness, gentle determination. 
Everything depends, it seems, upon a modal verb: ‘might’ one still find ‘gentle determination’ in the GDR, or in Saxony, commitment to a socialism that cares? 
And even if this stanza holds out residual hope, the final lines of the poem throw it into doubt. Drawing on the resources of Walt Whitman in ‘Song of Myself’, Braun illuminates, with bitter irony, the distance between a voluble Bard of Democracy and an East German poet who speaks ‘too much’: 
I, moulded from the stuff of many breeds of men?
That I feel within me now, the living out of a mixed society
With mixed feelings I await my conclusions. 
For a moment in the dusk I see my shinbones shining
Like dead men’s bones, and I lie distant from myself
And ask myself whether I don’t talk too much 
Talk too much for life and limb. 
Which is far from histrionic. After signing a petition on behalf of his friend Wolf Bierman, expelled from the GDR in 1976, Braun would soon come under the panoptical scrutiny of the Stasi. As he put it in 1980: ‘I’ll hold out here, find succour in the East, / Spouting stuff that one fine day could cost / Me my neck’. 
Apophasis and circumlocution, grammatical slipperiness and parataxis, allow Braun, in the poems of the 1980s, to say what he wants without appearing to do so; or at least (what may be the same thing) to dramatize the risks of his writing. Perhaps the finest example of this is ‘Walter Benjamin in the Pyrenees’ (1986), where Benjamin’s disastrous attempt to flee occupied France enters into the making of the poem itself: ‘Step by step, as chance / Offers a narrow foothold / in the material’. Like Benjamin’s mountain path, the poem offers no means of escape or redress, but new horizons have been opened nonetheless: ‘In every work there is a place where we feel a gust of cold / blowing towards us like the approach of dawn’. 
That Rubble Flora offers an involuntary companion to postwar German history is confirmed in the second section of this selection, ‘The Massacre of Illusions’, in which that ‘dawn’ is experienced as reunification and the abrupt introduction of market capitalism into the socialist east. In these poems, Braun comes to terms with the collapse of East German socialism, the loss of the hopes it raised, and the ‘chilly byways / of market economics’. With ‘socialism out the door’ (replaced by ‘Johnny Walker’ of course), a new and darkly satiric mode emerges in Braun’s work. It is still a poetry, however, that reserves its judgement. 
That’s me still here. My country’s going West.
I helped it out the door with all the rest.
What paltry charms it has it gives away. 
After winter comes the summer of excess.
And I can go to hell is what they say.
?I don’t know the meaning of my text. 
If the speaker of such lyrics of late capitalism appears lost, it is not only within a wilderness of ‘excess’, but also within the ruins of his own hopes and sense of history, which even at the moment of their gleeful destruction remain curiously ambivalent: ‘I’m of the opinion / That socialism must be destroyed, and / I like my causes lost’ (‘Theatre of the Dead’). 
The dead are, as Karen Leeder notes in her fine introduction to the volume, inerasable presences in the poems of the new Federal Republic. In ‘West Shore’ (1995) ‘dead ideas’ persist in ‘aerial combat’ in a Germany where ‘above is below and death life’. In ‘Pliny Sends Greetings to Tacitus’ (1996), Braun is the elderly Roman naturalist before the fire-breathing mouth of Vesuvius, drawn ineluctably into the ‘centre of catastrophe’. And in ‘Bay of the Dead’ (1996) the ‘meeting place of the deceased’ raises grain by grain its ‘dunes of bone- white sand’. The ash-heap and morgue of ‘hope’, of ‘history’, and of the ‘cause’, reunified Germany is a utopia of spectres, built upon the bones of the dead. 
Part of his dialogue with the deceased involves Braun in conversations with other poets: Whitman, Brecht, and Rimbaud above all, but also Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, Ezra Pound, and Jaime Gil de Biedma. For all its obsession with ‘my own small corner of home’ then, the poems are defiantly international, something which comes to the fore in the work of 2000 to 2013, collected here under the title ‘Findings’. 
In ‘The Empire Considers a Map of the World’ (2003), for instance, the Unites States is a geopolitical John Wayne, swinging ‘Great Britain Italy Spain’ from its ‘hip’ as it swaggers across the Middle East. And in one of the most recent poems in the selection, ‘Conversation about the Trees in Gezi Park’ (2013), a few ‘silent upright creatures like us’, threatened in central Istanbul, become the momentary focus of ‘dreamy calculations’ for the ‘unmade day’. 
But if Braun was never a mouthpiece for official East German socialism, neither are his more recent poems the simple transcription of naked political dissent. A stylistic legacy of censorship and surveillance, perhaps, the poems collected in this volume bear witness to a body of lyric work in which the ostensible stands perennially under siege, thrown into doubt by sweeping semantic crosscurrents, by the shifting ground of an unstable grammar, and by unnoticeable transitions in tone and voice. 
Appended with notes (mostly Braun’s own) and a list of sources, Leeder and Constantine are ambitious to catch such inflections, even if, as Leeder notes, Braun’s work presents special difficulties for the translator. 
17 May 2015