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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Rubble Flora

Volker Braun

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To purchase Rubble Flora

Title: Rubble Flora
Author: Volker Braun
Genre: Poetry
Written: (2014)
Length: 141 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Rubble Flora - US
Rubble Flora - UK
Rubble Flora - Canada
Rubble Flora - India
  • Selected Poems
  • Translated by David Constantine and Karen Leeder

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine overview of and introduction to Braun's poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       (East) German author Volker Braun is a noted playwright -- spending several years as dramaturge at the Brecht-widow Helene Weigel-run Berliner Ensemble, and later at the Deutsche Theater Berlin -- and has written a variety of prose works, including the controversial Hinze-Kunze-Roman, but as the translators of this collection suggest in their Introduction: "it is arguably his poetry that will be his most distinctive and long-lasting legacy". One of the 'Saxon School of Poets' that studied under Georg Maurer (and included Karl Mickel, Volker Braun, Heinz Czechowski, Sarah and Rainer Kirsch, and Adolf Endler) at the Literaturinstitut Johannes R. Becher -- East Germany's very own MFA-program, now the Deutsches Literaturinstitut -- Braun's distinctive, often reactive poetry continues to be an important literary contribution to changing times and conditions.
       Rubble Flora is, astonishingly, the first collection of his poetry to appear in English -- though many poems have been individually published over the decades. As the translators explain, this selection: "takes its lead from the hugely influential, if idiosyncratic, Selected Poems chosen by Braun and issued by Suhrkamp in 1996: Lustgarten, Preußen". (While Braun may not have quite gotten his due in the English-speaking world over the years, that collection (in its expanded paperback edition) was nevertheless named one of The Economist's Books of the year 2000.)
       The chronologically-arranged Rubble Flora is somewhat top-heavy, with a preponderance of Braun's more recent (post German-reunification) poetry over that from his East German period. This makes some of it more accessible, as Braun addresses topics likely to be more familiar to readers -- and not just because they are more recent: some of those GDR debates and issues were very much of their time and place. Certainly welcome: Rubble Flora also includes some very recent and previously uncollected poems. Nevertheless, as an introductory volume to what for most readers is an unknown poet, Rubble Flora suffers some from this tilt towards the new. If less immediately accessible, the early poetry still serves as useful material to familiarize readers with both Braun's style and concerns; a great deal of it is also very good. Without that (firmer) foundation, some readers may feel a bit at sea here.
       The useful Introduction gives a good succinct overview of Braun's life and the place of his work in East and then unified German literature. Born in May 1939, with his father dying in the last days of the war, and then growing up, as the translators note: "in the ruins of Dresden, and the 'rubble flora' that gave the title to one of his early poems (and to this volume)", Braun clearly had a hard life, but a basic attitude is consistent: in the relatively early (1971) 'The Life and Times of Volker Braun' he describes himself a: "dogged by good luck" (after all: "Not blasted by bombs, nor ravaged / By the many and various hungers of the world."), while the closing lines of the closing poem here, the 2012 'Demon' are:

See how I endure my fate
And suffer my success.
       There's a sense of adaptive fatalism, dealing with the conditions -- which turn out to be most varied indeed.
       Much here is also engaged poetry: the more familiar includes mentions of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the 2011 massacre on Utøya in Norway, and even Gezi Park in Istanbul, but the more local engagement, first with the East German regime and then dealing with the consequences of reunification are particularly interesting. "I like my causes lost", Braun writes, and his support for socialist ideals (and opposition to both socialist and capitalist realities) makes for a standpoint that remain consistently critical.
       Braun's poetry is not easy to translate, but David Constantine and Karen Leeder manage quite well, for the most part. Some of the difficulties can be seen in the differing interpretations of 'Property': compare Leeder's translation with Michael Hofmann's from 1998 (which helpfully includes the original text) -- and compare also Edward Mackinnon's useful line-by-line commentary and criticism.
       Like the work of Heiner Müller and Karl Mickel, Braun's expression is extremely tight and exact, and it's very hard to transpose that into English; enough is captured here to give a good impression, though it is a bit of a shame that the German originals aren't included here, as side-by-side comparison would probably be instructive and revealing even to those with limited German.
       A book-length collection of Braun's poetry is long, long overdue -- indeed, Braun is one of those poets that would have been well served by a gradual easing into English over the decades. Spanning more than fifty years, Rubble Flora is more than just a sampler -- but with its focus on more recent poetry it also doesn't quite do justice to Braun-as-poet. Nevertheless, it is a most welcome volume and certainly essential for anyone interested in modern German poetry, as well as (thoughtfully) politically engaged poetry.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2015

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Rubble Flora: Volker Braun: Other books by Volker Braun under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       (East) German poet and dramatist Volker Braun was born in 1939. He has won numerous literary prizes, including the Heinrich Mann Prize, and the Georg Büchner Prize.

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© 2015 the complete review

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