There’s an epigram by Bertolt Brecht that circulates on social media, usually translated something like this: “In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” People often seem to share this verse—published in 1939, while Brecht, a vehement anti-Nazi, was exiled from his native Germany—as a token of hope, a testament to the human spirit’s eternal resilience. But it also articulates the stultifying effects of crisis on the imagination. During dark times, all anyone can talk about is the dark times, and it’s hard to say anything original or useful; the talk becomes treacly, or else cynical, the echoing clichés lulling listeners to sleep. Brecht assumed a responsibility to keep readers attuned to the sound of his era’s brutality and banality. He was less interested in song as a source of relief than in its power to awaken an audience—and provoke a reckoning.
The ugly music of our own moment resonates, stark and dissonant, in the very first line of Daniel Borzutzky’s latest poetry collection, “Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018”: “Through predictive analytics I understood the inevitability of the caged-up babies.” This mixture of visceral horror and authoritative detachment—not conventionally lyrical—feels disturbingly familiar, epitomizing the tone of what Borzutzky calls “the blankest of times.” “Blank,” here, is both adjective and absence, a Mad Lib of cataclysm that is impossible to fill in.