Stefan Brecht, the son of the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and a poet and scholar in his own right, maintained a writing studio in the Chelsea Hotel throughout the eighties and nineties. Every morning, Stefan walked up 8th Avenue to the Chelsea from his home in Greenwich Village, recording his journey in photographs. The photographs are not what you might imagine, however, not street scenes or portraits of Chelsea neighborhood characters. They are instead photos of the sidewalk itself, the actual pavement over which Brecht walked, with all its cracks and crevices, its grease stains and gum spots, revealing the history of the many generations of feet that have trod over it. The photos, in black and white, have a striking, abstract expressionist quality. Hopefully we can see them in a show someday; blown up to a decent size and hung on a gallery wall they would surely be impressive. In the meantime, Onestar Press has a book of the photos in the works, due out this fall.
Brecht also recorded his daily journey in poetry, and these poems have been collected in a new book, 8th Avenue Poems published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. In a straightforward, no nonsense style, Brecht sets aside a lifetime of erudition to channel the unadorned essence of humanity in its naked struggle for survival on the mean streets of New York. In these poems we encounter the junkies, the homeless, the trannie whores; the cleaning ladies cleaning and the young toughs preening. Brecht’s practiced method allows him to penetrate to the heart of these people, to capture and bring back the very kernel at the core of their being, allowing us to grasp this kernel intimately by showing us that way down in the depths of our souls it is the most fundamental basis of our own struggle as well. Consider:
It is undoubtedly an American,
but a gross sight, he is defecating in a doorway,
his pants down decently in the back only,
in a crouch, ready to jump, peering about apprehensively,
his large face up and moving. (72)
With no attempt to sanitize, but with always an eye for the true human pathos inherent in every situation, Brecht lets the scenes speak for themselves, and speak they do, most eloquently. They tell a tale of lives shaped—in many instances warped and twisted--by the exigencies of the harsh, Darwinian grind of the city’s overwhelming, terrible/beautiful immensity:
...in the street men carry/the faces of Indians as though some upheaval/had brought to the fore in their faces the arched cheekbones, opaque/agate eyes, the wide expanses on skulls like boulders/of this race exterminated hereabouts and in the islands... (76)
Brecht is a keen observer of human nature, able to turn his gaze upon a street scene objectively, dispassionately, and to discern the formal beauty even in the midst of a seemingly formless—and sometimes downright frightening--chaos. It is nonetheless clear, however, that he feels a close bond of kinship with his subjects, and his poetry is best when he lays aside all artifice and engages with the people of the street, as in this poem in which his eyes meet--for the very first time—the eyes of an insane homeless woman he has passed a hundred times in the street:
...and her face distracted into a grimace./ Now I don’t know if she was showing ironic contempt for my inability to/maintain non-recognition, mocking/me with some slight savagery, or if the rictus within which her eyes flared/was a genuine smile, better than mine, but distorted by some muscular/dyscontrol... (58-59)
These I/Thou encounters pop up seemingly at random, surprising and touching us, as we feel they do Brecht himself, with the depth of their poignancy. It’s a common, though doomed, strategy to attempt to remain aloof, enclosed within one’s own self, when walking the streets of New York. For the outward danger of the streets—a danger in no sense inconsiderable—is dwarfed by the profound inward tax that the city inevitably extracts from one’s soul:
“Nickel,” he says, “Smoke,” between his teeth like at the refectory table/in the big house, graduating/up to the big time, but me at the corner of 17th in the smoke of his young/business man’s whisper see my old girl friend in her 35th year/slipping back into the steadying habit,/taking high aim, her nerves shot,/and the innocent enterprise of this punk/gets on my arse,/ a regrettable lack of detachment. (43)
We are all like this in New York, doing our best to stand up straight and hold our heads high as we walk the streets, yet possessing a scarcely concealed fragility at the core of our being. Several of Brecht’s photos of 8th avenue are scattered throughout the book, as if to drive home the point that, like the sidewalks, the people in his poetry are worn and cracked and bear the stamp of a thousand footfalls as well, and are nonetheless as durable, as enduring as the pavement upon which they walk.
[Stefan Brecht was born in 1924 in Berlin, Germany and came to America in 1942. He has published several books on the theatre, as well as a volume of his poetry with City Lights. He currently lives and works in the Chelsea area of New York. 8th Avenue Poems, Spuyten Duyvil Press, New York, will be available in bookstores soon, or you can order it at www.spuytenduyvil.net.]
-- Photo of Stefan Brecht at the Hotel Chelsea, Room 1010, 1979 by Maggie Hopp. A special thanks to Caroline Hansberry for providing the review copy of the book as well.-- (Ed Hamilton)