“August,” a Russian émigré poet explained to me, “is a man in Russian language,” “so when you say in your poem ‘The housemaid, August’….” He groaned. In Russian, the months have gender. Nouns have masculine or feminine endings, but unless they are personified, the months are simply nouns. Of course, in the pastoral tradition there were traditional personifications for the months. May was feminine, a white girl in a white dress in a meadow of white flowers; June vibrated with the furled thunder of the rose, with the opening hearts of its lovers; December was a hoary, icicle-bearded ancient. But these personifications were a calendar’s images, and not grammar. If August, in Russian, was a man, what was he to this exiled poet? A wheat-haired worker with a pitchfork on a revolutionary poster?
I had seen August as a housemaid-cook, her ebony head in a white kerchief as she whipped sheets from a clothesline in a house near the sea, the way that storms, in the hurricane month, whip sails from the Caribbean horizon. In the rasp of the month’s sound there was the rustle of dry grass as well as the gusting of laundry and the sibilance of surf, but if the English word were to shift its shadow to the Russian landscape, to its imagined summer, I could personify it as either man or woman. August, the man, could have been one of those bored, idle intellectuals in Chekhov’s plays, with a voice as lulling and finally as soporific as its leaves, but August was also Nina, in The Seagull, a girl like a cabbage-white butterfly attaching herself to Trigorin’s elbow, by a stunned lake. It was impossible for me to understand Mikhail’s anguish or ex-asperation over the name of a month, but it is one of the desolations that accompany translation.
Joseph Brodsky’s new volume, To Urania, protracts this challenge line by line, phrase by phrase, syllable by syllable. Of course every conscientious translator endures this challenge, but one feels that Brodsky wishes the book to be read as English verse, not as translated Russian. This has its difficulties, its knots, but one is grateful that the knots are there, that the rough nap of the lines is not smoothed over by the flatiron of an even English diction, that kind of fatal leveling that has so often made his compatriots, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva, and even as tough a poet as Mandelstam, acquire in translation the sheen and gloss of greeting cards. The kind of translation that turns Doctor Zhivago into Omar Sharif.
The month of stalled pendulums. Only a fly in August
in a dry carafe’s throat is droning its busy hymn.
This is from Brodsky’s Roman Elegies II, in his own translation. * The fly, of course, is not “in” August, but August itself. The insect personifies the month, but it does so without gender. In English the sound is androgynous, the sex of the housefly, unlike that of the housemaid, is not identified or important. What the translator is after is the simultaneity of assonances that breed from the rasp and hiss of the English noun. The somnolence that is underlined by the insect’s industry, the buzz contained in the sounds “busy” and “its,” the distorted echo of “hymn” from “pendulums,” the effort required from the very beginning of the line to extend “the” into “month,” all of which, magisterially, and in an adopted language, establish torpor. Even the throat of the carafe contains a dusty echo, that of the dry throat of the reader within which the sound of the insect’s buzz is stirring. And now one wonders if the original Russian is as rich in its consonantal sibilance as Brodsky’s English, and not the other way around.
This is not only admirable but astonishing.
For a poet to translate himself involves not only a change of language but what translation literally means, a crossing to another place, an accommodation of temperament, a shadowing of sensibility as the original poem pauses at the frontier where every proffered credential must be carefully, even cruelly, examined, and not by a friendly or inimical authority, but by the author himself. This is an ordinary experience, if one thinks of the original verse as being merely an equivalent rendered by interlinears, then heightened, touched up, like a fake pass-port photo. What is extraordinary, in fact phenomenal in its effort, is the determination to render, almost to deliver, the poem from its original language into the poetry of the new country. To give the one work, simultaneously, two mother tongues.
The prodigious labor involved in this new collection of Brodsky’s would be impessive enough, since Brodsky is a complex and demanding poet, if these poems were merely responsibly, even beautifully, translated, but they are not so much translated as re-created, by Brodsky himself, an achievement that makes him an even greater poet than we shruggingly acknowledge him to be. A great modern Russian poet, an heir of Mandelstam, is plenty for one man to be in his lifetime, but to have re-created from the original Russian a poem as spacious, as botanically precise, as delightful in its rhymes as his “Eclogue V: Summer,” and then to think of Edmund Spenser’s ghost rustling behind its pages, to recall Keats and Clare in their own language, is more than a technical feat of adaptation. There is, for one reader, no yearning for the original Russian, no sense of vacancy, of something lost or not rendered. It is the industry of magic.
Summer twilight’s fluttering window laces!
Cold cellars packed with milk jugs and lettuce,
a Stalin or a Khrushchev on the latest
news, jammed by cicadas’ incessant rattle;
homemade bilberry jelly jars bat the rafters;
lime socks round apple orchards’ ankles
look the whiter the darker it gets, like joggers
running beyond what the distance offers;
and farther still loom the real ogres
of full-size elms in the evening’s bluing.
(“Eclogue V: Summer,” translated by George L. Kline and the poet)
What is even more admirable is Brodsky’s determination to continue, to hallow by his reverence, the history of his craft, its sacred, tested shapes in various languages, through Virgil as well as Spenser, in ode as well as eclogue, and also in the solid, elaborate architecture of his stanzas. George L. Kline is the co-translator of “Eclogue V: Summer,” but anyone who has worked with Brodsky translating Brodsky knows that what the original goes through is a chaos of transformation. So the labor proceeds in three stages with which the fellow translator must keep pace: the first is the interlinear translation, the second a transformation, and the third, with luck and with Brodsky’s tireless discipline, transfiguration.
How is the genius of another language induced? It is induced through admiration, by that benign envy which all poets have for the great poets of a different language, and this admiration may be perpetuated through memory, through recitation, through translation, and by having models which it can use for its own development in both tongues. Brodsky is a poet in exile, not a novelist or scientist. He, like Pasternak, translated several modern American and English poets, as well as John Donne, and yet when he chooses to write a poem in English like his elegy for Robert Lowell, there is nothing that one could point to as being derivative of or indebted to other writers, including Auden.
In the autumnal blue
of your church-hooded New
England, the porcupine
sharpens its golden needles
against Bostonian bricks
to a point of needless
Whenever Brodsky sounds like Auden it is not in imitation but in homage, and the homage is openly confessed. What his English writing does, rather, is to pay its tribute to a language which he loves as much as his own Russian, and it is the love of that language which has expanded his spiritual biography, not with the hesitancy of an émigré, but with a startling exuberance. This is the happiness which he has earned from exile.
Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, whatever Russia has done to them, remain in Russia, in the language of their native land. Brodsky’s case is different. The body language of a dancer does not need translation, nor do the formulas of a scientist; the power of a novel is comprehended through plot and character, but the grafting of the poetic instinct onto a politically disembodied, disenfranchised trunk, of a mind with no luggage but memory, requires an energy which must first astonish itself.
Grammar is a form of history, and Brodsky the self-translator knows that. Because he is a poet, not a novelist, he is not concerned with the action in a sentence, the history that is released by grammar, but with what action grows from the approaching syllable, regardless of the gender of a Russian month, or moth. If some critic of Brodsky’s work says “this isn’t English,” the critic is right in the wrong way. He is right in the historical, the grammatical sense, by which I do not mean grammatical errors, but a given grammatical tone. This is not “plain American, which dogs and cats can read,” the barbarous, chauvinistic boast of the poet as mass thinker, as monosyllabic despot; but the same critic, in earlier epochs, might have said the same thing about Donne, Milton, Browning, Hopkins.
There is a sound to Brodsky’s English that is peculiarly his, and this sound is often one of difficulty. I should have written “the most honest kind of difficulty,” because there are varieties of honesty in poets, variations that can become, as Auden ravaged his own style to excise them, lies.
The other easy dismissal is to call difficulty “metaphysical,” as well as, of course, to ascribe obscurity to a fault of translation. But Donne is a poet who also translates himself, who shows us, as he lays siege to meaning, the progress of that siege. Brodsky does the same:
Thus, prey to speeds
of light, heat, cold, or darkness
a sphere in space without markers
spins and spins.
(“Seven Strophes,” translated by Paul Graves)
Petulant is the soul begging mercy from
an invisible or dilated frame.
Still, if it comes to the point where the blue acrylic
dappled with cirrus suggests the Lord,
say, “Give me strength to sustain the hurt,”
and learn it by heart like a decent lyric.
Brodsky’s models, Ovid, the Virgil of the Georgics, Propertius, even Pindar in his large ode “Lithuanian Nocturne,” are defiantly archaic; a modern poet might argue that they are even presumptuously, perversely, so. In an age which, still nauseous from the backwash of modernism, from the upheavals of Pound, Eliot, and Williams, confuses the classic with the antique, which juxtaposes the normal or abnormal life next to an ideal but inert past, Brodsky resists the elegiac seductions of ruins. Instead he coarsens their atmosphere with the belligerence of a barbarian from the steppes or forests or wooden towns of an earlier Russia. He chews and swallows the past audibly. He compares his ruined teeth to the Parthenon; his statues are stripped of their fig leaves, they have crotches; but of course this vulgarity is an act. Better this, though, than wishing the past would go away, or that, as Eliot and Pound in their Byronic romanticism did, it could come back. Brodsky’s thrushes sing in the hairdo of a cypress. Besides, his landscape is not a row of broken columns against a blue sea, it is not a tribal, ancestral desert. It is the width of rural Russia in the dusk.
Every poet has a particular twilight in his soul, and for Brodsky it is not a wine-darkening sea, over which he grieves for the setting sun of a classical empire, but for that moment from which elegies are sprung by the tuning fork of sky and horizon; what one hears in his pages is the rough sound of a coniferous forest as the pennons of its triangular trees become silhouettes and enter night.
Evening in the Empire,
in a destitute province. A conifer force
wades the Neman and, bristling with darkening lances,
takes old three-storied Kaunas….
Or the landscape may whiten in obliterating snow, as the thick forest grays from its thicket of Cyrillics into the whiteness of the page itself, in which the voice of the poet hoarsens to a whisper.
That’s the birth of an eclogue. Instead of the shepherd’s signal,
a lamp’s flaring up. Cyrillic, while running witless
on the pad as though to escape the captor,
knows more of the future than the famous sibyl:
of how to darken against the white- ness,
as long as the whiteness lasts. And after.
(“Eclogue IV: Winter”)
Democracies are tyrannical about their art. The safest art ensures the perpetuity of the republic, the surveillance of, or the rewarding of, high mediocrity and for Brodsky, who has written under two self-idealizing democracies. America and Soviet Russia, the role of the émigré can only continue to darken, not simply because he glorifies neither, but because he seems to be inhabiting his own country, muttering a complicated monologue which does not simplify its references, and whose spirit seems not to lament but to cherish disinheritance. His wanderings have neither a Holy nor an Agnostic Land, in other words, an Ego. He would be a lesser poet if he capitalized on his biography—a Russian Jew, an American Russian, a classical modernist—and that ego, openly, infuriatingly does not do the easy thing of saying “Non serviam.” because “Non serviam” is the ego’s melodrama. Instead it rejects anger. It does not flatter the torturer or the system with blame, nor has it rushed into the lowered arms of the Statue of Liberty because it may be afraid of being burnt by her torch. And a final irony is that Brodsky’s ego is anonymous: this is what makes it classical. Not nobly so, because the voice whines and bitches, defines its owner often as a balding grumbler, an irascible guest.
These days evening sun still blinds the tenements’ domino.
But those who have loved me more than themselves are no
longer alive. The bloodhounds, having lost their quarry,
with vengeance devour the leftovers—herein their very
strong resemblance to memory, to the fate of all things. The sun
sets. Faraway voices, exclamations like “Scum!
Leave me alone!”—in a foreign tongue, but it stands to reason.
And the world’s best lagoon with its golden pigeon
coop gleams sharply enough to make the pupil run.
At the point where one can’t be loved any longer, one,
resentful of swimming against the current and too perceptive
of its strength, hides himself in perspective.
Something of a sour Byron, smart enough to predict the tricks of bureaucratic power, wanders through the cities of To Urania. The impression, for a while, is reinforced by the meter, the long lines with feminine endings and with an echo of the triple rhymes of their original Russian, which do not have the narrative rush of Don Juan, but are more relaxed, like the Clough of “Amours de Voyage.” Yet the whiff of sourness fades. There is no wine on the breath, no sense of getting drunk on the deliverance of exile. The translated Russian risks, in its usually hexametrical rhyming design, a meter which English associates with the comic, the parodic, or the ironic. There is no modern English or American poet who will take such risks—being utterly serious with feminine endings, of attempting to reach the sublime and noble without the pseudo-humility of the dying fall, the retractable conceit. Double rhymes and long lines threaten contemporary poets in English with the bespectacled shade of Ogden Nash, not to mention the garrulous precision of Byron. Wit has therefore gone the way of rhyme. Metaphysical wit, as per Eliot’s essay on Donne, is something every modern poet has attempted, but in most of this verse there is no history of poetry, no sense of epigrammatic parenthesis, in fact the parenthesis becomes the subject of the modern poem.
Most contemporary verse is a poetry of asides, most modern poems could be in parentheses. The intellectual vigor of Brodsky’s poetry is too alarming even for his poet-readers, because it contains the history of the craft, because it openly reveres its inheritance, but, and here comes the payoff, this wit is founded on what poets used to advance the craft by—intelligence, argument, an awareness of contemporary science, and not so much a sense of the past as a certainty that the past is always parsed in the present tense. This is why he has made himself such an ample poet; one feels that he has written these many poems, most of them very long, because they serve as a bulwark, a fortress against the modern. Such an intelligence needs bulk as much as it needs particulars. It is a system of accumulating asides, of progressive observations, and not only through metaphor, but through the consequences of metaphor, the contradictions which metaphor can create. It can never be beautiful in the expected sense, in the same way that Donne’s poems can be ugly.
This is the murderous example that Brodsky has set for the vocation. He shows us what casual, and therefore vain, intellects we are. He returns discipline to what it should be, creative agony. And he would have done this without the props of autobiography, without the international drama of his banishment.
The drama of exile passes: it has been, for Brodsky, exploitative on either side, the country that banishes and the country that takes the banished in. The drama passes, and there is the pain, not the theatricality of it. Parents die, grief shatters, the tyrant is faceless, the new evil is the clerk who passes on the request to another clerk—no guilt, facelessness, the zeros of faces that contain no personal responsibility, or original sin. What country is left them? The mother tongue. The mother landscape, seen beyond tears as simply herself in the very way in which the exile, rising, eating, writing, reflects her.
The thought of you is receding like a chambermaid given notice.
No! like a railway platform, with block-lettered DVINSK or TATRAS.
But odd faces loom in, shivering and enormous,
thus filling up the vacuum. None of us was well suited
for the status of statues. Probably our blood vessels
lacked in hardening lime. “Our family” you’d have put it,
“gave the world no generals, or—count our blessings—
great philosophers.” Just as well, though: the Neva’s surface
can’t afford yet another reflection, brimming with “mediogres.”
What can remain of a mother with all her saucepans
in the perspective daily extended by her son’s progress?
And the agony sharpens when one knows that the mother is both the poet’s natural mother and his native Russia. The son’s progress is also Russia’s.
In “Lithuanian Nocturne” Brodsky writes to another exile. He claims the Russian earth as a dimension beyond regimes, beyond the sorrow he shares with his exile friend Thomas Venclova.
There are places in which
things don’t change. These are a substitute
for one’s memory. These are the acid
triumphs of fixative. There each mile
puts striped bars into focus….
A silent, open-mouthed evening sky breathes over the furrows of the stanza.
Evening in the Empire,
in a destitute province. A conifer force
wades the Neman and, bristling with darkening lances,
takes old three-storied Kaunas; a blush of remorse
sweeps the stucco as darkness advances,
and the cobblestones glisten like bream in a net.
The poem advances darkly, muttering like a river, and it concludes without a seraphic burst of cornets from the clouds, without the pantheistic sentimentality into which it could have declined by its tone; ascending, instead, it has the steady drone of truth, which tempts the hearer to learn it by heart.
In the sky
far above the Lithuanian hills
something sounding like a prayer
for the whole of mankind, droning cheerlessly, drifts
toward Kurshskaya Point. This is St. Casimir’s
and St. Nicholas’s mumbling in their unattainable lair
where, minding the passage of darkness, they sift
hours. Muse! from the heights where you
dwell, beyond any creed’s strato- sphere, from your rarefied ether,
look, I pray you, together
with those two,
after these pacified sunken plains’ sullen bard.
Do not let handmade darkness envelop his rafter.
Post your sentinels in his back yard.
Look, Urania, after
both his home and his heart.
The first poem in To Urania, “May 24, 1980,” has gone out of the range of such fury as it might arouse from the center of the Empire. The nomadic Jew is out there alone on his desert, and what infuriates both the professional Jew and the professional Jewbaiter is that the expelled should enjoy the desert. “May 24, 1980” is a birthday poem. It is a jeremiad with jokes. The exile recoils from the collective moan of the race.
I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country that bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
(“May 24, 1980”)
“Those who forgot me would make a city.” Leaving Russia with a bottle of vodka and no visible future, and watching from the plane, as in a phrase from an earlier poem, “cities went dark as caviar,” the poem ends with the exile retching, of having “brown clay…crammed down my larnyx.” Irreverence such as this is an irritation to any state or race.
Brodsky would have been banished from Augustan Rome, not merely from Soviet Russia, and one feels that, in his heart, he now prefers exile. The furthest exile is death.
Brodsky’s poems are seamed with a sense of mortality. Time frays the flesh, unstitches veins, but no soul steps out of the body’s crumpled, abandoned garment, trembling with lightness and transparency like a butterfly. Unlike his mentor, Donne, he remains in the one dimension that he knows, however much he may be baffled by it, that of experience, of a futureless present tense, one without resurrection, without prophecy. Sonnet and sennet trumpet belief, from the overtures of Donne’s opening lines, like a passage past a magnificent tapestry:
Since I am comming to that Holy roome,
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull…
At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells…
Centuries later the rational dialectic of our modern empires, those of the West and the Eastern one, has made such faith merely literature, made poetry as archaic as tapestries, magnificent but not the truth. But neither poetry nor the Past is a decoration hung on a wall, not only in Brodsky’s view, but in his body. Illness overshadows his page, and yet the verse shows no panic. In fact the solid architecture of his stanzaic designs, the intricate triple rhymes, are solid, concrete, without a single heart-flutter of doubt about their vocation.
Yet, without longing, these poems also contain angels, seraphs, not with the idealization of Rilke’s beings, but as factual presences, as skaters in white battle uniforms, as rustles behind draperies, or as just statues. Brodsky’s mind enters the statues without any prayer to transfigure them. Seraphs and kettles become commonplace in the house of the mind, and in the weather outside,
As though the mercury’s under its tongue, it won’t
talk. As though with the mercury in its sphincter,
immobile, by a leaf-coated pond
a statue stands white like a blight of winter.
After such snow, there is nothing indeed: the ins
and outs of centuries, pestered heather.
That’s what coming full circle means—
when your countenance starts to resemble weather,
when Pygmalion’s vanished. And you are free
to cloud your folds, to bare the navel.
Future at last! That is, bleached debris
of a glacier amid the five-lettered “never.”
Hence the routine of a goddess, née
alabaster, that lets roving pupils gorge on
the heart of the color and tempera- ture of the knee.
That’s what it looks like inside a virgin.
(“Galatea Encore,” written in English)
A butterfly alights on the cannon of a tank and its trembling vanes may seem more fragile, but only in one proportion, because butterflies can survive rainstorms by their pliancy of adaptation, by the surrender of their nature to natural force, whereas tanks can be mired in their own weight. This is the strength of modern Russian poetry, that its poets have the contradiction of butterflies alighting on cannons, that their fragility, confronting the armament of the Soviet machine, is not elusive or fanciful, but the natural utterance of its immense meadows, its serrated forests. A butterfly on barbed wire is Mandelstam’s poetry, Akhmatova’s is one that flutters at the base of the prison wall where she visits her son; one can add even the closed wings of Tsvetayeva who hanged herself, and by that miserable act released her soul. Through them Russia remains provincial, and provinciality is the natural truth of every poetry.
There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
rivers where the folk with bare hands catch sturgeon
or the towns in whose soggy phone books
you are starring no longer; farther eastward surge on
brown mountain ranges; wild mares carousing
in tall sedge; the cheekbones get yellower
as they turn numerous. And still farther east, steam dreadnoughts or cruisers,
and the expanse grows blue like lace underwear.
The warships are like tanks whose tracks are their wake, and a distant, incurious heartland, its wheeling horses and blueberry bushes, ignore them. Russia is too wide to accommodate the limits of any regime, and butterflies, anyway, are closer to the earth.
Touch me—and you’ll touch dry burdock stems,
the dampness intrinsic to evenings in late Marchember,
the stone quarry of cities, the width of steppes,
those who are not alive but whom I remember.
(“Afterword,” translated by Jamey Gambrell and the poet)
This is the butterfly that alights on the tank turret in Afghanistan, but that is also borne along by the tank which is the weight, the slough, the steady heave and lumbering movement in Brodsky’s hugely designed poems. The wide tracks laid behind their passage are not smooth. Their weight sometimes stalls, groans, grinding gears, pushing through brambles of semicolons. We heave, rest, and push with the lines, but they always emerge clear. They have chosen their difficult terrain.
It is this weight, width, determinedness of direction that poets in various languages admire in Brodsky, an example on a heroic scale, his self-conscription, his daily soldiering with no army behind him except the phantoms of the race’s greatest poets, from any epoch which calls out to him. His country cannot abandon him any more than Augustan poetry could exile Ovid. He has his unchangeable Russia, and it is from her, from the tenderness of her children, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, the emaciation of Mandelstam, that his lyrics touch us with their strength, their fragility, and comradeship.
One more Christmas ends
soaking stripes and stars.
All my Polish friends
are behind steel bars,
locked like zeroes in
some graph sheet of wrath:
as a discipline
slavery beats math….
Deeper than the depth
of your thoughts or mine
is the sleep of death
in the Vujek mine;
higher than your rent
is that hand whose craft
keeps the others bent—
as though photographed.
Powerless is speech.
Still, it bests a tear
in attempts to reach,
crossing the frontier,
for the heavy hearts
of my Polish friends.
One more trial starts.
One more Christmas ends.
(“A Martial Law Carol,” written in English)
Not all of the poems in To Urania have been translated by Brodsky. Because he is such a demanding and expansive poet we are grateful for the considerable labor, and in many cases the loving precision and anonymity of Harry Thomas’s “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” a forty-page poem rerendered in stanzaic rhyme, as well as for the work of Jamey Gambrell, Jane Ann Miller, George L. Kline, Alan Myers, and Peter France. His translators have blended into the temperament of the volume without adding idiosyncrasies of their own, and the fact that To Urania has such a unified hum testifies to their transparency. Granted that there is no poem here with that miracle of adaptation which Richard Wilbur achieved with “Six Years Later” in Brodsky’s preceding volume, A Part of Speech, yet that collection had the not necessarily desirable variety of an anthology of Brodsky seen through the eyes of contemporary American poets. To Urania is more of a whole, and it is this that enriches not only its native literature but that of the country in which a demonstrably great poet, an almost sublime intelligence, moves us and moves among us in the guise of another citizen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations in this review are by Brodsky.↩
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations in this review are by Brodsky.↩