Translator's Note: Hollywood Elegies
Because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of the German writers and composers who took shelter there during the Nazi period. If you grow up in la, it doesn’t take long to figure out that history is something that takes place elsewhere. That’s why the idea of Thomas Mann in Pacific Palisades or Bertolt Brecht in Santa Monica, places I knew as a child, is so powerfully strange. These artists came at the end of an infinitely complex, self-conscious, and tragic cultural tradition. Yet they were living in a place that was (and maybe still is) synonymous with democratic opportunity and natural benevolence—the very qualities that drew my own grandparents to Southern California, from Brooklyn, during the wwii years.
I first encountered these poems by Brecht as the texts of songs by Hanns Eisler, a German composer who was exiled from Nazi Germany on account of his Communist politics, and spent the war years composing music for Hollywood films. At the same time, he wrote more than two hundred lieder, including many settings of Brecht, who also fled Germany in 1933 and ended up in Los Angeles in 1941. Brecht and Eisler had been friends and collaborators in Weimar Germany, and they worked together on one film, Hangmen Also Die. But the so-called “Hollywood Songbook” expresses—in Eisler’s tense, largely atonal music as in Brecht’s verse—their feelings of despair and alienation in the midst of California’s peace and abundance.
The first five poems I’ve translated are from the group Brecht called “Hollywood Elegies” and were written in Southern California. The sixth, “On the Term of Exile,” was written after Brecht left Germany but before he came to America. My versions or imitations try to capture the ideas and mood of the originals, while extrapolating somewhat from Brecht’s imagery (though the most obscene images—Dante’s shriveled ass, the golden diaphragms—are in the original). I’ve also recast Brecht’s free verse into meter and rhyme, hoping in this way to accentuate what strikes me most about the movement of the poems—its ironic, epigrammatic curtness. —ak
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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine