Great Fugue

poems by Volker Braun
translated by Karen Leeder and David Constantine

Volker Braun is one of Germany’s most important writers, widely regarded as the heir of Bertolt Brecht. Born in Dresden in 1939, he studied philosophy in Leipzig and worked at the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theatre. He is the author of numerous plays, works of fiction, volumes of poetry and essays, and the winner of the Georg Büchner Prize in 2000 and the Prix Argana Mondial de la Poésia in 2015. Great Fugue is Volker Braun’s most recent collection, an attempt to understand the strange, silent world of 2020. Drawing on Dante and Pound, and with Beethoven’s Große Fuge in his ear, Braun examines the catastrophic conflict between Progress and Nature in the Anthropocene Age. A book about the day our cities were sedated, the streets fell silent and Nature refused to submit to human ideas. The Mekong no longer finds its delta, fires burn in the dry forests, and the seas and the skies are fatally poisoned.

Cover image: Helge Leiberg, © DACS 2022

Sample Poems


The city is sedated like a plague patient Morning peace till midnight Unpeopled streets, as if freed from the scabies Of custom. The Senate closes all the pubs The stadiums orphaned LEADEN UNION. Museums For the mummies of marble, theatres for the ghosts HALT. WHO’S THERE / NAY, ANSWER ME Not before an audience, not this season. Fear of confinement Shallow breathing Catarrh in the culture industry, Put a stop to the (mischief) once and for all A YEAR WITHOUT ART That will bring some decorum to proceedings, you dilettantes. Even the soup kitchen has been shut down a protective measure But having none (have-nots) hath no care to defend it. The Chancellor advises against social contact Squad cars prowl in search of signs of life What did you do in 2020? – I washed my hands. No Shakehands, but as a precaution, the German Greeting. The LORD withdraws his finger in the Sistine Chapel To avoid infection in the high-risk group of the very old, one in four (gods) dies. A shadow passes over you simply, a sallow breath Grazes your lungs, you’re still breathing In the Anthropocene The scientists are in terror And the European mind stops (Canto CXV) China sweats the evil out in a headlock A forearm choke (: cough into your elbow) Learn, you continents, to cook lava

Gorse. Plantagenet

Britannic coasts, shining yellow, bulwarked with bushes Hunters’ cover and sight for sore eyes A Count of Anjou, sprig on his helmet, plante genet Caught hold of the name And after him Richard of York A Kingdom for a thousand dead horses, the gorse- Bloodline. Ninety varieties; gorse stinks close-up Knights of the expense-fiddle, bastards and bloodhounds The blank verse speaks the dialect of nature And Un-nature, a tenable repertoire. Scene – the Globe Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues Speaking of guilt forest offences ablutomania air violations The corruption of the abattoirs and innocence of course Family dramas with instruments of murder, in the bathroom, Inevitably, the peasant clearance of the banks Leant over the embankment, I see them riding Shining yellow, between the bushes Madmen, their visors/skulls open The roastbeef of Europe. A burst pipe ago The deluge The delusion of reason into the dry dock of Civilization: A boardgame by F. G. Tresham (from 13 years) The off-spring are on the move, this grass- Roots earth, poised as it is, plays production with us With its resources zones tides Early- and late shift till the death of us. We The reserve army in the War of the Landscapes: Wars of the Roses You want to see what a world war is WELCOME TO THE COM-POSTMODERN Said Donna Haraway. And the grey graves Are re-interred into the relations Exit old mankind.

The Leper

I saw Bahro again, in Worms. He hadn’t worn a face covering Since Bautzen, he was immune; while we were busy self-imprisoning. Who are you? I called. – A human being again, he laughed relieved: In transition – He had grown wings And he carried cushions with him for meditation Before the mega-machine. On his orders it had ground to a halt Planes plucked out of the sky, and trains are cancelled punctually. Life is slowed by decree, ‘only close to home’ Runs the Logic of Salvation, ‘doing nothing is the key’. How it is moved, all at once, to stand still, this world As if brought to its senses. ‘The obvious harbours the secret’ He continued. The old girl, gaunt, demented Screeching at us from Poundland: Pandemia Laughing and flailing around with withered arms, going berserk And Saint Rudi embraced her without fear, the smell of his sweat And other kinds of caution tore me back, though glad To have met my old mate again in better times.

Cares of the Body Politic

The bodies look at the body politic. Things just got Serious. What’s coming down the pike? Nothing to be seen, and they laugh, curse Drink beer. The state deigns to rule So much ado about nothing else, routines bluff In the parliaments. A question of breaking even. It has not thought hard for a long time, has put nothing aside, Kept no thoughts back. Not even the toilet paper That would be worth the stake. Now it can take things in hand In both hands, call on the people etc. etc. Now the Queen will speak. Boris Johnson Is in intensive care; either that or he’s on the mend. A bust of Pericles stands in his office, Downing Street, number 10. The strategist, who stashed the citizens behind the Long Walls Before he unleashed the war in Attica Where in the turmoil death held sway. His two sons Victims of the plague, Pericles too. Boris thinks That the best still lies before him A common creature Asks on the radio: how long has this been going on? That we’re at an almost unholy standstill, and as it seems Only the machine of profit and loss keeps turning Without any obvious public cultural sense? – The Athenians Got their theatre their money and grain handouts. In accord with what I am as I see it I keep my distance and und tweet on request: I am not him And my endorsement you is something do not have. We don’t know what can become. we But naturally there are more elaborate metres For words like suffering com- passionately,yearning for a common cause the humanly possible, when things get serious. Where are we heading in our words, our thoughts – More than we think, we are said someone – out of The blue

Sixth Circle

When we have climbed through the centre of the earth At the Bornholmer where the gap opened wide Was it by destiny or chance, I am with the Curious crowd at the Antipodes. All of us as though emerging from air we could not breathe Which had clouded my vision and my heart All the morning sky was laughing in the brightness. First thing my distracted eyes take in: The leafing forest of the press I have long dreamed of The newspaper kiosk with opinion-sheets And I understand that I must purify myself. So: purgatorial fire, from the documents We know full well that faith was a stranger to you What’s missing is the mark branded on the forehead Where you wait to be enlightened (: are a subscriber) To climb up out of the barren sphere. Into the circle of the bon vivants! And lust and Covetousness lift me onto the sixth floor Remarkably skinny people here, bald-headed We look at one another: is that me? is that us? So Dante foresaw the consumers. Not into Elysium, into Illusium The way has led me and all of us Thus far. And now onwards Comandante. And I saw the pole Leafing green in the city centre. The place Hiroshima, the time: after An old man Who had stood a long while rooted there Stepped to my side, explaining the world to me What do you see? A mast, it was a tree And still is And it alone survived Of all its kind – that is, only the trunk Flames took the branches, in such heat Human beings melt. But, I asked How come the green? – Yes, the leaves Sprouted from the black bark. We Were silent before this memorial wholly without humanity How should we speak of it, Ann. – ‘Not the sweet And bitter, but steadfast language.’ – Our Tree Of Knowledge, said the old man softly Whose ears were also hewn from the trunk As I saw, lowering my eyes

Hour of the Ghosts

When night came, the grave stones Just about still legible, the dead began to speak With our tongues, which they lack And memory, for want of bowels So that we came to their aid: then Hensel arrived And she distributed the corpses while we pulled out the quotations – ‘We do still have certain possibilities’ Horrors! Miracles! Teschke read Arendt Volker spoke Mann, brought hither dead Tragelehn Brecht whom he knew and so Made nothing up. Laabs gave Hilbig in an improved dialect Lammert Hermlin, the inimitable Groschner: Zweig Arnold who always did have his own work read out to him while he lay on the sofa. And with small steps, any animal can do it One woman walked there who got right to the back And was all awry and in pain. Eerie place We still just about breathing carried them all to their graves And expect the same. Seghers dispatched With military honours, the people banished to the gate Tears came to eyes Or Mayer the outsider Came back to the East Because in the West for eternity he was uncomfortable Hacks isn’t here because Muller is Mickel gave the order: Not in the angle of vision! Kirsch the copyist had in good time worked up a stone Muller gave gold for iron that rust eats Grashof made a joke: Tabori in the exhaust fumes. The Chausseestrasse was listening, Hegel: What is true is the whole, and cancelled the utterance Dirt in his ears, dialectic What is whole Is not the truth. The dead alive We ghosts creeping through the ivy The gravel grated near Brecht & Borsig. Schenker absent, Altmann replaced him If he Monstrous even in life, had Blown, miracles! horrors, none of us Would have survived it and willingly with the trumpet Breathed out –


‘a bracing, fascinating collection.’

Mistress Quickly’s Bed