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Thursday, 12 January 2012

Bertolt Brecht: When in my white room at the Charité


Blackbird (Turdus merula), male, singing, Bogense havn, Funen, Denmark: photo by Malene Thyssen, 13 May 2004

When in my white room at the Charité
I woke towards morning
And heard the blackbird, I understood
Better. Already for some time
I had lost all fear of death. For nothing
Can be wrong with me if I myself
Am nothing. Now
I managed to enjoy
The song of every blackbird after me too.

Hospital, East Berlin: photo by Zimontkrowski, June 1958 (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Bertolt Brecht: Als ich in weissem Krankenzimmer der Charité / When in my white room at the Charité (May 1956), translated by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, from Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (1976)


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ah, "The song of every blackbird after me too."

If anyone ever forgets Brecht the Poet, this is the line to send them ...


TC said...

In May 1956 Brecht was hospitalized for complications of influenza at the Charité (the main hospital of East Berlin, just a block away from his theatre). He remained unwell through the following summer and, on August 14, four days after taking part in a rehearsal for a guest performance in London of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by the Berlin Ensemble, passed away.

TC said...

(By the by, Don, this is the Brecht poem I was thinking about when we talked a while back about "The Learner".)

Nin Andrews said...

I love "the white room at the Charite" which sounds oddly like the room one would enter before passing . . .

And yes, the song of the blackbird after. Beautiful.

aditya said...

Oh ! What a beauty.

For nothing can be wrong..

At Charité he knew what as coming?

TC said...

Yes, what an ending. The dissolution of the ego -- I am nothing. From which moment begins the rest of the story: everything that I am not.

aditya said...

Oh yes Nin.. Reading your comment I now know why I was so moved reading this.

Sometimes one simply doesnot care for the whys .. but thanks for the white room just before & the song of blackbird after!

I feel I can better appreciate the poem now.

Anonymous said...

"I woke"; "I understood better"; "I
I had lost all fear of death"; "I myself / Am nothing"; "I managed to enjoy".

This is an instance of the tyrannical poetic first-person I can not only abide but revel in. Not so much strictly a progression, though there is a linear kind narrative at work, but a realization of what was always the case. The joy of self-understanding that no longer requires the self to understand.



Yes, from waking "in my white room at the Charité" to "The song of every blackbird after me" -- that orange eye-ring and beak of that beautiful bird perched there on vent-pipe top against pale blue sky somewhere in Denmark (can almost hear it here). . .


first grey light in sky above blackness
of ridge, waning white moon in branches
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

effect of earlier recalling
observed, which white

is familiar, like with whom
appears, is not heard

bright orange of sun rising above ridge,
whiteness of moon in sky across from it

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for the other shoe, which I realize may be taken two ways ("The Learner" and the city) so, well, let's ...


vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

What can you say about this poem? Let me relate one of my favorite Greek stories:

It was a balmy spring day and the window of the one-room village schoolhouse was open;the teacher was going on and on about how important it was to pay attention and study your lessons so as to become a valuable citizen etc. etc. etc. when all of a sudden, the voice of little Johnny--who was sitting next to the window--was heard: "Be quiet, teacher, so we can hear the birds singing!"

WF: outta! (As in we gotta get outta here)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Something very similar actually happened to me in 1st grade ...

One fine spring day, teacher was giving a spelling lesson and, since we were so close to summer vacation, she had written on the blackboard "S-u-m-m-e-r." I was busy looking out the window at spring.

While erasing the word from the board, she called on me and asked me to spell summer. I couldn't. She suggested that I stay in my seat until I could.

The bell rang at 3 o'clock and everyone went home but me. The teacher reiterated that I must stay until I could spell summer and left me alone.

I took the bus two miles to school everyday, which for a 1st grader might as well have been 200 miles, and had obviously missed my bus home. I sat and sat and thought and thought.

I would still be there if ...

Everyday, an 8th grader came in and whitewashed all the blackboards. I was sitting in my seat, by this time crying because it seemed I would have to stay forever, a very long time, indeed, for a 1st grader. The young girl washing the boards came to me and asked what was wrong. I told her and she spelled 'summer' for me.

Eventually the teacher came back to the room and asked if I could spell summer. I did and she let me go home. She never asked how I knew or found out.

To this day, I don't know how she thought I'd come up with this magic formulation of letters. She simply let me go.

Now, since this was a Catholic nun it would seem there was a more important, deeper lesson that might have been imparted.

However, all I was left with was this story and the necessity to find my own way home.


TC said...

Beautiful tales of learning through experience.

Don, as we have no car, your tale of the nun's severity caused a sympathetic pedestrian to identify, and enquire, I wonder how Don DID get home that day?

And Brad, this --

"Not so much strictly a progression, though there is a linear kind narrative at work, but a realization of what was always the case. The joy of self-understanding that no longer requires the self to understand..."

-- offers an interesting way into Brecht's deceptive simplicity (or shall we call it perceptible economy?).

There are various temporal and logical orders here ("I had lost..."; "Nothing /Can be wrong.."; "Now/I managed..."), and the movements within these create something that's as subtly complicated as it is immediately accessible... until finally and completely mysterious.

BB's poetry has a remarkable way of remaining personal and universal at the same time; is there is something of an "Eastern" poetics in this perhaps?

Bertolt Brecht: The God of War

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Being in Catholic grammar school in the late 50s, we had no school buses, so it was all dependent on public transportation, the #40 bus. It ran less frequently past a certain hour - I believe it was after 4:30 that I got out - and the simple lack of familiarity with the later schedule, a different driver and strange passengers, and the double whammy of getting in trouble once I got home for getting in trouble at school fixed the memory forever in my brain.

Of course, the nuns were never wrong.


TC said...

I knew those nuns.

And their wooden rulers.

(There was a venerable arthritic sister named Mother Marie whose bony right hand had permanently deformed in its rigid clutch upon the punishment-ruler... which fell across the pale clenched knuckles of any daring classroom perpetrator...)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

I suppose this isn't funny, but considering how very cruel they can be I can't help but laugh.

My 2nd grade nun, Sr. Charles Albert, also had arthritis so severe that when she pointed her finger at someone ("You - stand up!"), 3 or 4 students in the general vicinity all stood up wearing the same sheepishly guilty look.

Annie said...

The steps to enlightenment outlined by Robert Thurman in The Jewel Tree of Tibet mirror Brecht's awakening towards morning. But lucky for us, Brecht again addressed his unenlightened audience directly. Gives the heart that bittersweet wingbeat... Didn't Rhiannon's blackbirds sing you into a trance so that you might cross over into the Otherworlds?
Here is some blackbird song to enjoy:

ACravan said...

Both these Brecht posts (and all the Brecht pieces) and the life events associated with them have been going through my mind since I read them. The writing is that insinuating/direct and haunting. Even though the final hospital visits took place in the mid-1950s, I keep thinking how far away they seem from a world consumed by 24-hour television, instant electronic communication and "celebrity news," although I'm sure Brecht would have found a way to make even the Kardashians seem profound and somewhat meaningful as pieces of the puzzle. Curtis

TC said...

Annie, the otherworlds always a flutter of the heart away.

But does Mr Blackbird care?

What a brilliantly commanding singer he is. Do you suppose he is merely commenting on the avian congregation in his garden... or offering helpful instructions to the general assembly?

Curtis, yes, one consolation of being in that white room at the Charité would surely have been: no 24-hour tv!

Marie W said...

For nothing can be wrong with me if I myself am nothing. How long does it take to reach that level of insight?


TC said...

For some, no more than a moment.

Others can spend their lives seeking it, and never quite getting there.

(Said he, from experience...)

Sometimes it seems poems and other works of art discover truths which not even those who have made them can say for certain that they have quite understood... or will not soon forget.