Albert Frolov loved silence as a boy.
His mother was a postal clerk, whose portion
was rubber stamps. As for Albert’s old man,
he died to save the Finn’s autonomy,2
having secured timely perpetuation
of the family name, but not knowing his son.
Young Albert nursed his talents quietly.
I still recall the large bumps on his temple:
he fainted in zoology, and fell,
crashing, beneath his desk, unsinewed by
the sight of his dissected frog, example—
as he had failed to prove—of life sans soul.
The sweep of Albert’s thought took him as far
as engineering school, where he was summoned
by archangelic powers to mortal fray.
Then, like a sinning cherub, he dropped down
to earth from his high cloud, and found a trumpet
ready to hand, calling for him to play.
Silence can be prolonged in shape of sound,
like the unrolling of a narrow ribbon.
Playing a trumpet solo, he observed
with squinting eyes the bell-mouth of his horn
where fireflies glowed, ignited by the stage lights,
until applause welled up and snuffed them out.
Such were his nights. But what about his days?
By day the stars cannot be seen. Not even
from bottoms of deep wells. His wife resigned,
without washing his socks. His mother stayed
and tried to care for him. He started drinking,
then took to drugs—whatever he could find.
—No doubt from misery, or blank despair.
Unhappily, I lack firm information.
The drugs, it seems, produce a new time-span.
When playing, you can “see” ahead eight bars;
with use of certain drugs this span is doubled.
In “Palaces of Culture,” where his band
performed, the mirrors on the walls took in,
politely and yet somberly, those features
which eczema had stamped with scars and pits.
They charged him with corrupting his whole team
and, tired of trying to “re-educate” him,
they fired him. Through tight lips he muttered, “Shit!”
Then, like a fading A, having derived
no clear conclusions from his daily hassle
that would bring gleams to any idle eye—
he marched across the margin of his life,
made absolute the concept of dismissal,
and disappeared, leaving no trace behind.
On January second, late at night,
my steamer eased into the dock at Sochi.
Wanting a drink, I strolled at random through
the narrow streets that led up to the lights
of the great city from the darkened dockside,
and came upon the Cascade Restaurant.
It was the New Year holiday. Palm boughs
were festooned with resplendent fake pine needles.
A swarm of tipsy Georgians circled past
my table, singing “Tbiliso.”3 The pulse
of life throbs everywhere; in this place also.
I’d heard the solo, now I raised my face
above the bottles. The Cascade was full.
Trying to reach the stage, through a sheer bedlam
of sounds and smells, I glimpsed a stooped, thin back.
I touched a sleeve, and then I shouted “Al!”
A ghastly, monstrous mask turned slowly toward me,
covered with swollen sores and brittle scabs.
His stringy hair, untouched by scabs or sores,
his eyes—were all that now remained to witness
the schoolboy of a dozen years ago.
Was this the lad who’d thrown those furtive stares
—as I in turn had done, I must confess it—
across his desk at my poor scribbled notes?
“What brings you here in the off-season?” Skin
as dry and wrinkled as the bark of trees is.
Eyes that were like twin squirrels peeping out
of hollows. “How are things with you?” “O, I’m
a Jason hibernating here in Colchis.
My eczema calls for a warm climate.”
We went out then. The streetlights, widely-spaced,
prevented the full merging of the heavens
with avenues. The policeman was an Ossete.
My escort, even here, clutching his case4
and keeping to the shadows, pressed the question:
“Are you alone here?” “Yes, I am—I think.”
Was he a Jason? Hardly. A Job, then,
refusing to blame Heaven, simply blending
into the night—matter of life and death.
A strip of shore, the rustle of unseen
palm trees, and from the East the pungent odor
of wet seaweed—then suddenly a lurch,
and from the dock a momentary flash.
A sound began to move, threading the silence,
swimming to catch our ship’s fast-moving stern.
And I could hear the strains of his sad song:
“How high the moon, how very high the moon!”
ODYSSEUS TO TELEMACHUS
My dear Telemachus,
is over now; I don’t recall who won it.
The Greeks, no doubt, for only they would leave
so many dead so far from their own homeland.
But still, my homeward way has proved too long.
While we were killing time there, old Poseidon,
it almost seems, stretched and extended space.
I don’t know where I am or what this place
can be. It would appear some filthy island,
with bushes, buildings, and great grunting pigs.
A garden choked with weeds; some queen or other.
Grass and huge stones…Telemachus, dear boy!
To a wanderer the faces of all islands
resemble one another. The mind trips
when it counts waves; eyes, stung by sea horizons,
must weep; and flesh of water stuffs one’s ears.
I can’t remember how the war came out;
even how old you are—I can’t remember.
Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong.
Only the gods know if we’ll see each other
again. You’ve long since ceased to be that babe
before whom I reined in the pawing bullocks.
Had it not been for Palamedes’ trick
we two would still be living in one household.
But maybe he was right; away from me
you are quite safe from all Oedipal passions
and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.
From GORBUNOV AND GORCHAKOV5
Gorbunov and Gorchakov
“Well! I have given you a dressing down!
There’s bitterness in Gorchakov’s reproach!”
“But why do you regard this as a sin?
Since sin is what is punished while one lives.
And how can I be punished, when the points
of all life’s pains are focused in my breast
as in a prism? When the future seems
to loom unhindered?” “So, we two are now
attending someone’s wake?” “And so my laugh
is taken as an optimistic sign.”
“Last Judgment?” “That is just a flashing back
in memory. Like something in a film.
And what’s Apocalypse to us? No more
than five months in some wilderness. Yes, I
have squandered half my life, and now, and now
I want to dream of mushrooms from here on.
I’ll keep in mind where I must needs give way
before the Flaming Angel of the Earth….”6
“Pain shatters arrogance.” “No, not a bit.
The tree of arrogance is fed by pain.”
“Does this mean that you do not fear the dark?.”
“It has its landmarks.” “Will you swear it does?”
“My grasp of such landmarks is intimate.
You can just whistle for them, they’re so thick.”
“Resourcefulness engenders vanity.”
“Such aphorisms leave me unconvinced.
A man’s soul does not feel the lack of space.”
“You think not? What about dead organisms?”
“I think that a man’s soul, while it still lives,
takes on the features of mortality.”
April 5, 1973
This poem is one of a projected cycle of forty poems, The School Anthology. Each poem will deal with one of Brodsky’s forty classmates at school. Fifteen poems have been completed thus far, of which only four have been published (in Russian). “Albert Frolov” is the first to appear in English. ↩
An ironic reference to the official Soviet claim that the 1939-1940 invasion of Finland was an act of “liberation.” ↩
The Georgian title means “O, Tbilisi [Tiflis].” ↩
In Russian: chelovek s futlyarom (“a man with a case”)—an allusion to Chekhov’s short story “Shelovek v futlyare” (“A Man in a Case”). ↩
This excerpt is the last thirty lines of Canto II of Brodsky’s “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” a poem which is entirely in dialogue form. The first speaker is Gorchakov and the last Gorbunov. ↩
The reference is to the first of the seven angels of the Apocalypse. Cf. Rev. 16:2—”The first [angel] went, and poured out his vial [of God’s wrath] upon the earth .” ↩