• Email
  • Print

The Bust of Tiberius

Joseph Brodsky, translated with the author by Alan Myers

All hail to you, two thousand years too late.
I too once took a whore in marriage.
We have some things in common. Plus,
all round, your city. Bustle, shrieking traffic.
Damp alleyways with hypodermic youths.
Also, the ruins. I, a standard stranger,
salute your grimy bust in some
dank chamber storing echoes. Ah, Tiberius!
Here you’re not thirty yet. The face displays
a greater confidence in trusted sinews
than in the future of their sum. A head
the sculptor severs in one’s lifetime surely
sounds like a prohecy of power. All
that lies below the massive jaw-bone—Rome:
the provinces, the latifundists, the cohorts,
plus swarms of infants bubbling at your ripe
stiff sausage. A delight in tune
with nourishment by the She Wolf of tiny
Remus and Romulus—the mouths of babes indeed!
That sweetly incoherent mumbling
inside the toga! So we have a bust
that stands for the essential independence
of brain from body: a) one’s own, b) one
that is Imperial. Should you be carving your
own likeness, you’d produce gray twisted matter.

You haven’t reached thirty yet thus far. Not one
arresting feature to detain observers.
Nor, in its turn, does your observant eye
appear to rest on anything before it:
neither on someone’s face, nor on
some classic landscape. Ah, Tiberius!
What does it matter that Suetonius-
cum-Tacitus still mutter, seeking causes
for your great cruelty? There are no causes in
this world—effects alone. And people
are victims of their own effects,
the more so in these steamy dungeons
where everyone confesses. Though confessions
dragged out by torture, like the ones in childhood,
are of a muchness. Far the best of fates
for bipeds to have no part of truth:
it never elevates us. None,
Caesars especially. And at any rate
you seem a man more capable of drowning
in your piscina than in some deep thought.
Plus, shouldn’t cruelty be termed a form
of speeding matters up, accelerating
the common fate of things? of a simple body’s
free fall in vacuum?—in which, alas,
one always finds oneself when one is falling.

New year. A January pile of clouds
above the wintry town, like extra marble.
The brown, reality-escaping Tiber
and fountains spouting up to where no one
peers down—through lowered eyelids or
through fingers splayed. Another era!
And no one’s up to holding by the ears
these wolves consumed with frenzy. Ah, Tiberius!
And such as we presume to judge you? You
were surely a monster, though perhaps more monstrous
was your indifference. But is it not the monsters
—the victims, no—that nature generates
in her own likeness? Ah, how much more soothing
(that is to say, if one should get the choice)
to be wiped off the earth by hell-bound fiends
than by neurotics. Still in your twenties,
with stony looks hewn out of stone you look
a durable organic engine
of pure annihilation: not some dope,
a slave of passion, channel of ideas,
etcetera. And to defend you from
harsh tongues is like defending oak trees
from leaves wrapped in their meaningless, but clearly
insistent, clamor of majority.

An empty gallery. A murky noontime
soiling tall windows with the distant drone
of life. A piece of marble in no fashion
responding to the quality of space…
it can’t be that you do not hear me speaking!
I, too, often made that headlong dash
from rank reality. I too became an island
replete with ruins, ostriches. I too
struck out a profile with the aid of lamplight.
As for the things I’ve either coined or said,
it must be said that what I’ve said is useless,
and not eventually, but already: now.
Can’t that be also that acceleration
of history? A bold attempt, alas,
by consequence to overtake causation?
And also in a total vacuum, which
gives no assurance of impressive splashdown.
Should one recant then? rearrange the dice?
cut yet another deck of cards or atlas?
Who gives a damn: the radioactive rain
will scour us much the same as your historian.
Who’ll come around to curse us then? a star?
the moon? some wandering termite, driven
mad with his multiple mutations, fat
and yolklike? Probably. But having hit
something that’s hard in us, he too, I reckon,
will shudder and give up his digging.

“Bust” will utter in the tongue of ruins
and of contracting muscles, “Bust. Bust. Bust.”

  • Email
  • Print