The Essence of the Written Word

I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.

– Bertold Brecht

I saw the last section of this (revised) poem on Facebook the other day when a friend posted it alongside a story about a Chinese dissident who had barricaded himself into his home to avoid persecution. I read it and immediately put it into Google to find the author.

Bertold Brecht was a German writer born around the turn of the century. He lived through both World War One and World War Two, although he got out of Germany for the second war. When I read this poem (which is only really the middle section of a longer poem, with a couple lines deleted) the words stuck in my mouth. They felt heavy, like they meant something regardless of context.

It’s so rare to see powerful writing, particularly in the everyday. It’s something I’ve been working on, hopefully with success.

I was going through emails the other day tossing out old ones and I came across one I wrote to the former editor at NHPR about the mess in Transvale Acres following the Irene flooding. Check it out:

The fact is most of the lots originally were campsites and were never supposed to be anything more. People bought them and built illegally because they knew they could never get building permits for so close to the river. The neighborhood is private, without town roads or infrastructure, so the development largely happened under the radar. They built everything without talking to the building inspector, so half the houses were shacks jacked up on cinderblock stilts. People obviously knew it was happening, but town officials going back 40 years ignored it.
It’s hard to fault the current administration for a problem they inherited. Officials don’t like to talk about it, but they tried to deal with the problem before the storm. They looked for ways to clean up the neighborhood, but without funding to compensate property owners for the homes they would have been forced out of they didn’t get anywhere.
Then the storm came. The emergency declaration gave the town the deep pockets it needed to finally address the problem. It took political will for town officials to step up and enforce regulations their predecessors ignored for four decades, but most people think it was the right thing to do. 22 people had to be rescued out of Transvale Acres on the night of the storm. The question has come up: What happens if durring the next flood a firefighter dies trying to rescue someone out of sub-standard housing that the town allowed to stand? It may seem draconian now, but over the long term it’s the right move.
The real fault here lies with the people who built houses illegally 30 years ago and the officials who ignored it then. Everyone else is a victim. Sure, illegal construction happened more recently, but by that point the problem had become too widespread: What’s the point of issuing a violation for an illegal porch if the house it’s attached to isn’t supposed to be there? The town, and the homeowners who bought from the original owners, were in an impossible situation.
So that’s the story: the situation sucks, particularly for homeowners, but the town is stepping up and doing the right thing for the first time in decades. And although it’s going to be painful, without the storm there would have been no mechanism to compensate these people.
I like to thing it’s strong writing. Her response was this should become part of the script (the script, however, never got written). I keep playing with my writing to see what I can make it. It’s nice once in a while to feel like you’re writing with weight, not just to get the basics of an idea across.
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