Bertolt Brecht and Margarete Steffin

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Love in a Time of Exile and War

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Translated by David Constantine
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Brecht:

When we were first divided into two
And one of our beds stood here and one stood there
We picked an inconspicuous word to bear
The sense we gave it: I am touching you.

The pleasure of such speaking may seem paltry
For touch itself is indispensable
But we at least kept ‘it’ inviolable
And saved for later, like a surety.

Stayed ours, and yet removed from you and me
Could not be used yet had not ceased to be
Not rightly there and yet not gone away

And standing among strangers we could say
This word of ours as in the common tongue
And mean by it: we know where we belong.

 

Steffin:

Emboldened, putting off formal address
Now I am given to you and wish your good entirely.
Whatever I lack I shall be well unless
Your love should ever be withdrawn from me.

The little word that we decided on
And none but us knew touch was what it meant
Word of the irresistible seduction
For months my hoard of good in banishment

That word is an embracing and a kiss
I who must wait so long for you I kiss
The word in every letter you write to me

And when I read it all my tears mean
Is that now you are with me once again
And I want nothing. As though you slept with me.

 

From Love in a Time of Exile and War. Introduced by David Constantine.

Bertolt Brecht and Margarete Steffin met for the first time in October 1931. He was 33, from Augsburg, son of a well-to-do bourgeois family. She was 23, from a poor district of Berlin, an activist in the world of Communist music, poetry and theatre, daughter of a seamstress and a builder. The occasion was the rehearsal of a satirical review of which he was one the authors and in which she had a part. Soon after that she acted in his play The Mother, they became friends, lovers and collaborators in his work, and he began to pay for the treatment of her TB, which she would die of ten years later.

Steffin was a gifted linguist. Besides her native German, she had good English, French and Russian; and could manage effectively in Danish, Swedish and Finnish. She put those languages, together with her skills as a secretary and her ferocioulsy independent critical mind at Brecht’s disposal.

Brecht has often been accused of using people, women especially; but his relationship with Steffin, his love for her and his work with her, should make us think more understandingly about what it meant, in those times, in the struggle against injustice and Hitler’s fascism, to use and to be used. Both equally desired, and thought it their responsibility, to be useful to the cause. Brecht’s poems to Steffin are poems of a love which is, in its mixed entirety, tender, sensual, solicitous, jealous, protective, unkind and kind. But at the heart of it, unchanging, was a loving and fighting collaboration, a commitment to serve, to use and to be used, in a matter which, quite rightly, they understood to be one of life or death.

And alone among the women Brecht loved and who loved him, Margaret Steffin could answer him in poems.