Translator's notes

An Account of Despair

By Volker Braun

Volker Braun is a humane, witty, brave and bitterly disappointed poet. He does what poets should do: he bears witness. He suffers the times, and tries to make sense of them for himself and for others. His work has turned on the Wende itself, on the colossal shift, upheaval and turning point of November 1989. Poems of rage, grief and determined hope before that moment are faced, after it, by others expressing an equal disappointment. So much hope, so much disappointment. Wanting what his mentor Brecht called ‘a life worthy of human beings’, he got first the betrayal of socialism then the sell-out to a triumphant capitalism. As for us, we cannot now pretend that his criticisms only apply to the other system and the other side.

Like most writers, Volker Braun  has his own touchstones in world literature, and many of his poems set quotations from, for example, Rimbaud, Hölderlin and Brecht, into his own context, where they work as ironic illuminations of a present plight. Thus in ‘The Turningpoint’ he includes the sardonic exhange which Büchner invented for an epigraph to his revolutionary comedy Leonce and Lena: the idealist Alfieri asking: ‘E la fama?’ and the realist Gozzi countering with ‘E la fame?’ In ‘Pliny sends greetings to Tacitus’, a poem addressed to fellow-dramatist and -dissident Heiner Müller, Braun quotes from the letters of the Younger Pliny to Cornelius Tacitus and Maecilius Nepos, and  so illuminates the man-made catastrophes of the twentieth century (and his own involvement in them) by an imagery taken from AD 79.

There are more poems by Volker Braun in Modern Poetry in Translation, no. 18, ‘European Voices’.

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