No 2 - 1981
A PART OF SPEECH. Poems by Joseph Brodsky.
(Oxford University Press, London, 1980. £4.95.)
To encounter a copy of Brodsky’s latest published poems is like finding in a strange room a folio of intimate content and sketches (or perhaps a diary, as Czeslaw Milossz has suggested) left accidentally behind by a passing visitor; for these are the works of a man perpetually in transit, even when his circumstances might appear to be settled. Each poem in the collection is a biographical trace of a man troubled by separation, removal, and loss. Each is an atmospheric impress of a personal fate - sometimes taking the form of a lyrical cameo, at others, of a sequence of philosophical conceits.
Translations from the Russian, by several hands, including Brodsky’s own, necessarily give the English reader a blurred representation of the opus, but criticism and appreciation must advance on the shaky supposition that much of the original substance will have survived its conversion.
The most typical ‘mise-en-scene’ for a Brodsky poem is a hut in the middle of nowhere, a strip of urban wasteland, an empty street in a remote provincial town, a hotel room, or an alleyway in a city, unexpectedly drained of people. In the midst of crowds, Brodsky drifts, a solitary man. It is in the heart of abscence, in a vicinity where inhabitants are implied but not heard, or perhaps in a place quick with the memory of former association that he grows most vocal : Oh the obstinate leaving that ‘living’ masks.
In him we find the ultimate exile. There is no map-reference on the earth which can offer him a point of permanent rest. He is one who journeys from place to place in pursuit of his part, his spoken part, hauling behind him a heavy portmanteau of erudition. Yet he is, in no way, a conventional dissident, skipping from one regime to another. It is, rather, that such an unremiting individualist, such a minority man, simply will not fit, anywhere; and so a great portion of these diaristic poems roams and ranges about the issues-of not fitting, of not belonging, wherever he may happen to be. Throughout, there are faint echoes of the Russian poetic past, of Akhmatova, and of Mandelstam.
Brodsky’s disenchantment is global. Thus his move from the USSR to the USA, in 1972 (an involuntary exile) is not made a cause for celebration. It is not seen as a bolt into liberty; and the poem Lullaby of Cape Cod makes this point quite clear
Like a despotic sheik, who can be untrue
to his vast seraglio and multiple desires
only with a harem altogether new,
varied and numerous, I have switched Empires....
These four lines disclose much. Not only do they show this poet’s strong tendency to dramatise his own life-situation to the point of theatre, and to pursue the image for its own sake - a kind of incidental jesting to offset pain - but we catch sight also, here, of an important dimension in his general outlook. It becomes evident that Brodsky judges both so-called superpowers as unfree, tyrannical, and monolithic. Historically they have arrived. They will not readily change. They are not, in essence, different from ancient Egypt or Rome. On the contrary, they express a commonality with these classical models of conquest and slavery, and they spring from that tradition. They simply repeat, in our own time, the harsh features of the original. Writing, just after having arrived in the USA by plane, Brodsky notes:-
magnetic north had strengthened its deadly pull.
I beheld new heavens, I beheld the earth made new.
turning to dust, as flat things always do......
In the stroke of one line he cuts his own occasion down to size. There is a powerful vein of ironic realism in him. Further on, in Section 6 of the same poem (all of which takes the form of an interior monologue) another assertion flashes out of the mix of invention and digression at which he is so apt
I write from an Empire whose enormous flanks
extend beneath the sea. Having sampled two
oceans as well as continents, I feel I know
what the globe itself must feel: there’s nowhere to go.
Elsewhere is nothing more than a purpling strew
of stars, burning away.
Better to use a telescope to see
a snail sealed on the underside of a leaf....
Elsewhere, this kind of parallelism allows Brodsky to compare Marshal Zhukov to a Carthaginian exemplar :-
Brilliant maneuvers across Volga flatlands
set him with Hannibal. And his last days
found him like Pompey, fallen and humbled
like Belisarius banned and disgraced.
Although the final stanza pays tribute to one who somehow…..has saved our homeland, the penultimate verse sustains in its judgement the Empire concept
Zhukov’s right arm, which was once enlisted
in a just cause, will battle no more.
Sleep! Russian history holds, as is fitting
space for the exploits of those who though bold
marching triumphant through foreign cities
trembled in terror when they came home.
For Brodsky, space is a prison, time is a prison, and History is a city in which man is trapped. If he is to survive at all, the victim will have to adopt certain devices. He will be forced to concentrate on the near-at-hand, the immediate and actual, and the intrinsic. He will be persuaded to develop cunning and humour to sustain his morale; and he will find it necessary to make a conquest of the library.
Speaking of his youth in Leningrad (New York Review of Books, September 27, 1979) he says:
If we made ethical choices, they were based not so much on immediate reality as on moral standards derived from fiction. We were avid readers and we fell into a dependence on what we read. Books, perhaps because of their formal element of finality, held us in their absolute power. Dickens was more real than Stalin or Beria. More than anything else, novels affect our modes of behaviour and conversations, and 90 percent of our conversations were about novels. It tended to become a vicious circle, but we didn’t want to break it. Books became the first and only reality, whereas reality itself was regarded as a nonsense or a nuisance.....
Hence, to switch off from the ‘Empire’ one made literature itself ones first field of reference, and this heretical habit has remained with Brodsky. Implicit in his work is a special fidelity to literature, as the surviving arm of civilisation, to the Russian language itself, and to the task of making new literature within the tradition of the old literature, through the poem.
Commenting, in the same article, on the consequences of his walkout from school at the age of fifteen, Brodsky records:-
Reason had very little to do with it. I know that, because I’ve been walking out ever since with increasing frequency. And not necessarily on account of boredom or of a feeling of a trap gaping; I’ve been walking out of perfect setups no less often than of dreadful ones. However modest the place you happen to occupy, if it has the slightest mark of decency you can be sure that some day somebody will walk in and claim it for himself, or, what is worse, suggest that you share it. Then you either have to fight for the place or leave it. I prefer the latter. Not at all because I couldn’t fight but rather out of sheer disgust with myself; managing to pick something that attracts others denotes a certain vulgarity in your choice.
Such an extreme attitude will have consequences for ones perception of the world. It leads to a fanatical pursuit of the unique and the intrinsic. It leads to a revulsion from anything multiple or mass. Tomorrow is just less attractive than yesterday. Prom some reason the past doesn’t radiate such immense monotony as the future does. Because of its plenitude, the future is propaganda. So is grass.
Thus, for Brodsky, emotion is very tightly connected to specifics. Passion is directed toward one absent individual, and no other; and this is closely linked to an attention toward the near-at-hand, toward objects which do not act as symbols but which contribute to the atmosphere of abscence, and of frustration, by which Brodsky so often proceeds. And yet, curiously, the atmosphere is often built through a series of blunt, joking, semi-philosophic statements:
A list of some observations. In a corner, it’s warm.
A glance leaves an imprint on anything it’s dwelt on.
Water is glass’s most public form.
Man is more frightening than his skeleton.
A nowhere winter evening with wine. A black
porch resists an osier’s stiff assaults.
Fixed on an elbow, the body bulk’s
like a glacier’s debris, a moraine of sorts.
A millenium hence, they’ll no doubt expose
a fossil bivalve propped behind the gauze
cloth, with the print of lips under the print of fringe
mumbling “Goodnight” to a window hinge.
(A Part of Speech Section 4)
This poem is one of if teen twelve-lined episodes related to each other as much by theme or form as by mood, or by its opposite, contrast of mood. In this they resemble brief musical pieces that augment each other by their juxtaposition. The fifteenth and final piece suddenly releases a definition of freedom, which, in its inventiveness and negation, could only come from one hand
is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name
and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie,
and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram
nothing drops from your pale blue eye.
The quotability of this quote almost assures its future as a cliche. Yet it is a beautiful definition for one who is a professional fugitive, and for someone who finds, as the early part of the poem asserts, even the existence of the seasons with their determining force upon our actions, tyrannical.
In general, the irony Brodsky employs is so sombre that his considerable sense of humour only operates in a muted kind of way. An exception to this rule which releases it to the full occurs in one of the poems from the In England group, called North Kensington. The setting of the poem is one of those derelict patches in which inner London still remains well supplied. The poem begins
The rustle of an Irish Times harried by the wind along
railway tracks to a depot long abandoned....
After further description, Brodsky comes out in favour of the virtues of the unintended and the intrinsic
How I love these sounds - the sounds of aimless
but continuing life, which for long enough
have been sufficient, aside from the crunch of
my own weighty tread on the ground. And I fling a bolt skyward....
The next line quietly prepares the hilarious ending that is to come, some eight lines later :-
Only a mouse comprehends the delights of waste ground.
These delights are extolled; and then with a kind of sudden impatience, an element of scathing realism sets in :-
You can only asphalt it over or blast
it clean off the face of the earth, used by now
to grimacing concrete stadia and their bawling crowds....
At this point the poem takes one of those projective leaps which only occur outside poetry in the heads of imaginative children, who compose, and build on composition, out loud, as they speak. Directly after “crowds” we have :-
Then the mouse will come. Slowly, no rush
out into the middle of the field, tiny as the soul
is in relation to the flesh, and raising its
little snout, aghast, will shriek, “What is this place?”
We are, here, just one step short of identification with the mouse as symbol, but it seems obvious that the indignant astonishment of the mouse at finding his casual crumbling territory converted into the vast mathematical space of a stadium, accurately embodies the poet’s own powerful sense of dismay on entering as a child a social order given over to the values of bread and circuses. Sanity remains on the side of the fugitive mouse who lives in the wainscot of the mass society.
Yet it is when Brodsky is really able to forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name that he writes at his best. On those occasions his palette will lighten and simplify, and his great gift for establishing atmosphere through the exercise of the acute eye of the traveller fully establishes itself. The last poem in the collection, San Pietro (1978) proves the point. Here, his tendency to excessive digression, in the wanton manner of the late Auden, to invent for inventions s sake, and to pursue awkward philosophic points, is kept to a minimum. Instead, the particular feel of a Venice, enveloped in weeks of mist is skilfully evoked. A sense of timeless antiquity and emptiness accumulates. Past and present fluctuate. Ambiguity rules, and antiquity persists in the calendar of the modern :-
Tightly swaddled in tattered gauze
the hands of the town clock
lag behind the scattered daylight
fading in the distance.
A lodger out for some cigarettes
ten minutes later returns to his room
via the tunnel his own body has
burrowed through the fog....
our time, bounces off the rusty brick
of the old basilica with a thump, as if
a white leather ball had been slammed against it
by schoolboys after school.
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