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The Poems of Joseph Brodsky

I

One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves.

A really accurate judgment upon a poem as a verbal object can, of course, only be made by persons who are masters of the same mother tongue as its maker. Knowing no Russian and therefore forced to base my judgment on English translations, I can do little more than guess about the poems of Joseph Brodsky. My chief reason for believing that Professor Kline’s translations do justice to their originals is that they convince me that Brodsky is an excellent craftsman. For example, in his long poem “Elegy to John Donne,” the word “sleep” occurs, if I have counted rightly, fifty-two times. Such repetition might very easily have become irritating and affected: in fact, it is handled with consummate art.

Again, it is clear from the translations that Mr. Brodsky commands many tones of voice, from the lyric (“A Christmas Ballad”) to the elegiac (“Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot”) to the comic-grotesque (“Two Hours in an Empty Tank”), and can handle with equal ease a wide variety of rhymes and meters, short lines, long lines, iambics, anapaestics, masculine rhymes and feminine, as in “Adieu, Mademoiselle Véronique”:

If I end my days in the shelter of dove-wings,
which well may be, since war’s meat-grinder
is now the prerogative of small nations,
since, after manifold combinations,
Mars has moved closer to palms and cacti,
and I myself wouldn’t hurt a housefly….

About the uniqueness and, at the same time, universal relevance of a poet’s vision, it is easier for a foreigner to judge, since this does not primarily depend upon the language in which it is written.

Mr. Brodsky is not an easy poet, but even a cursory reading will reveal that, like Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, he has an extraordinary capacity to envision material objects as sacramental signs, messengers from the unseen. Here are a few examples.

But this house cannot stand its emptiness.
The lock alone—it seems somehow ungallant—
is slow to recognize the tenant’s touch
and offers brief resistance in the darkness.
(“The Tenant…”)
The fire, as you can hear, is dying down.
The shadows in the corners have been shifting.
It’s now too late to shake a fist at them
or yell at them to stop what they are doing.
(“The Fire…”)
A hand that holds a pillow fast
is creeping down a polished bed- post,
making its way to a cloud breast
by this inept and tongue-tied ges- ture.
A sock, torn on a jagged rock,
twists in the dark; its curve is swan-like.
Its funnel mouth is all agog;
it stares up like a blackened fishnet.
(“Enigma for an Angel”)
…close your umbrella, as a rook would close
its wings. Its handle-tail reveals the capon.
(“Einem alten Architekten in Rom“)
It’s not quite spring, but some-
thing like it.
The world is scattered now,
and crooked.
The ragged villages
are limping.
There’s straightness only in
bored glances.
(“Spring Season of Muddy Roads”)

Unlike the work of some of his contemporaries, Mr. Brodsky’s seems to stand outside what might be called the Mayakovsky tradition of “public” poetry. It never uses a fortissimo. Indeed, original as he is, I would be inclined to classify Mr. Brodsky as a traditionalist. To begin with, he shows a deep respect and love for the past of his native land.

The dogs, moved by old memory, still lift
their hindlegs at a once familiar spot.
The church’s walls have long since been torn down,
but these dogs see the church walls in their dreams.

* * *


For them the church still stands; they see it plain.
And what to people is a patent fact
leaves them entirely cold. This quality
is sometimes called “a dog’s fi- delity.”
And, if I were to speak in earnest of
the “relay race of human history,”
I’d swear by nothing but this relay race—
this race of all the generations who
have sniffed, and who will sniff, the ancient smells.
(“A Halt in the Desert”)

He is also a traditionalist in the sense that he is interested in what most lyric poets in all ages have been interested in, that is, in personal encounters with nature, human artifacts, persons loved or revered, and in reflections upon the human condition, death, and the meaning of existence.

His poems are apolitical, perhaps defiantly so, which may explain why he has, so far, failed to win official approval, for I can find nothing in them which the sternest censor could call “subversive” or “immoral.” The only lines which could conceivably be called “political” are these:

Adieu to the prophet who said: “Forsooth,
you’ve nothing to lose but your chains.” In truth
there’s conscience as well—if it comes to that.
(“A Letter in a Bottle”)

A sentiment with which, surely, any good Marxist would agree. As for his artistic credo, no poet would quarrel with

It seems that what art strives for is to be
precise and not to tell us lies, because
its fundamental law undoubtedly
asserts the independence of details.
(“The Candlestick”)

After reading Professor Kline’s translations, I have no hesitation in declaring that, in Russian, Joseph Brodsky must be a poet of the first order, a man of whom his country should be proud. I am most grateful to them both.

II

Joseph Brodsky is thirty-two; he has been writing poetry for just fourteen years. His poetic achievement during the decade since 1962 bears comparison—in my judgment—with that of the thirty-two-year-old Anna Akhmatova (as of 1921), the thirty-two-year-old Boris Pasternak (as of 1922), and the thirty-two-year-old Marina Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam (both as of 1924). Whether Brodsky will one day stand beside these four giants of twentieth-century Russian poetry it is perhaps still too early to say. I myself am confident that he will.

Many of Brodsky’s themes are traditional: love and death; communion, separation, and solitude; suffering and betrayal; sin and salvation. But he shares Shestov’s very contemporary and “existential” sense of the unbearable and unrationalizable horrors of human existence. One of Brodsky’s earliest poems has as its refrain the phrase “in anguish unaccountable” (“A Christmas Ballad” 1962). Gorbunov, in the long poem “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” (1965-1968) declares that “the points / of all life’s pains are focused in my breast / as in a prism.” Later in the same poem we confront “men, and creatures driven mad / by ghastly lives within the womb and after / the grave.”

The “Elegy for John Donne” (1963) is a somber and powerful poem about death, solitude, and salvation, and the binding up and healing of what in human life is broken and torn.

…the busy snow whirls through the dark,
not melting, as it stitches up this hurt—
its needles flying back and forth….

For though our life may be a thing to share,
who is there in this world to share our death?
Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
by him who will, at this edge or at that.
It falls to shreds and is made whole again.
…And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.

The “Passion” theme—the nature and function of religious suffering, or the religious nature and function of human suffering—which Brodsky had explored in “Adieu, Mademoiselle Véronique” (1967), appears again in “Gorbunov and Gorchakov.” The names are significant: “Gorbunov” (from gorbun, “hunchback”) is beaten down and tormented by the world; “Gorchakov” (from gorech, “bitterness”) is a bitter man who embitters the lives of others, especially Gorbunov. Both are long-term inmates of a mental hospital. In the end Gorbunov emerges as a kind of Christ figure and Gorchakov as a kind of Judas figure: he reports the unorthodox content of Gorbunov’s dreams to the psychiatrists and as a reward is promised release “at Easter time.”

Like Mandelstam and Tsvetayeva, both of whom he greatly admires, Brodsky makes skillful and extensive use of Greek mythology. The poem “To Lycomedes on Scyros” (1967) uses mythological and religious symbols to drive home its intensely moral point about the duty to resist evil:

I quit this city, as old Theseus quit
the labyrinth, leaving the Minotaur
to rot, and Ariadne to make love
with Bacchus….

When all is said and done, a murder is
a murder. And we mortals have a duty
to take arms against all mon- sters….

Men can
return to where they have done evil deeds,
but men do not return to where they’ve been
abased. On this point God’s design and our
own feeling of abasement coincide
so absolutely that we quit: the night,
the rotting beast, the exultant mobs, our homes,
our hearthfires, Bacchus in a va- cant lot
embracing Ariadne in the dark.

For Brodsky, as for Rilke and Eliot, poetic language has the same degree of “reality” as the world; words regularly interact with things. In “Isaac and Abraham” (1963) the transformation, in Isaac’s dream, of the word kust (“bush”) into the word krest (“cross”), which takes place painfully, letter by letter, symbolizes the transformation of a part of nature into the altar on which Isaac is to be sacrificed. Even Isaac’s name becomes an anagram of his fate: the Cyrillic letter s (which is shaped like the Latin c) mirrors the form of the victim—a sacrificial lamb with forelegs and hindlegs bound together.

There is a nightmarish section in “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” (Canto V) in which the Russian word skazal (“he said”)—in such phrases as i on skazal (“and he said”) and i on yemu skazal (“and he said to him”)—becomes almost a thing and, although it is a verb, is inflected like a noun.

The same poem contains a remarkable meditation on the nature of speech and silence:

…silence is the future of all days
that roll toward speech; yes, si- lence is the presence
of farewells in our greetings as we touch.
Indeed, the future of our words is silence—
those words which have devoured the stuff of things….”

This passage ends:

Life is but talk hurled in the face of silence.”

Brodsky assumes, with the Pasternak of “The Poems of Yuri Zhivago,” an essential “unity of poetry and life.” And he continues, with extraordinary energy, to hurl his poetic speech against the silence that surrounds us all.

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