Word Cloud: EXILE

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was born as Iosif Alexandrochich Brodsky, in Leningrad, on May 24, 1940. He left school at the age of fifteen, taking jobs in a morgue, a mill, a ship’s boiler room, and on a geological expedition. During this time Brodsky taught himself English and Polish, and began writing poetry.

According to Brodsky, literature turned his life around. “I was a normal Soviet boy,” he said. “I could have become a man of the system. But something turned me upside down:  Notes from the Underground. I realized what I am. That I am bad.” Notes from the Underground was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

His poetry was full of ironic wit and independent thinking, which got him into trouble with the Soviet authorities. Brodsky was also persecuted because his family was Jewish. He was tried in 1964 for “parasitism,” condemned to a Soviet mental institution, and later sentenced to five years at Arkhangelsk, an Arctic labor camp. He served 18 months of that sentence, before an international outcry over his imprisonment helped secure his early release, but his poetry was then banned in the U.S.S.R.

_______________________________

1 January 1965

 The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same—
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts this melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death—
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear that you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
— But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

_______________________________

_______________________________

December 24, 1971

For V.S.

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a star.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

_______________________________

Brodsky studied with the beloved Russian poet Anna Akhmatova before he was finally exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972.

He moved to America, where, according to fellow poet Seamus Heaney, he lived “frugally, industriously, and in a certain amount of solitude.” His first book of poetry in English translation appeared in 1973.

_______________________________

May 24, 1980

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 the 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.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

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In this poem, Brodsky imagines what Odysseus might write to his son, Telemachus, on his way home after the Trojan War. There are many myths about events before and after the war, and Brodsky chooses this tale for his poem:

After Paris takes Helen to Troy, Palamedes, son of Nauplius and Clymene, is sent by Agamemnon to Ithaca to retrieve Odysseus, who had promised to defend the marriage of Helen and Menelaus. Odysseus doesn’t want to honor his oath, so he pretends to be insane and plows his fields with salt. Palamedes guesses the truth, and puts Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, in front of the plow. Odysseus stops the plow, revealing his sanity.

Another legend, this one about Nauplius, calls him “Nauplius the Wrecker” because he shipwrecks many vessels of the Greek fleet returning home from Troy by setting false beacon fires on the rocky shoreline during a storm, in revenge for the killing of his son. Palamedes had been executed, after Odysseus maliciously plants evidence that he is a traitor, in retaliation for Palamedes’ trickery during the plowing incident.   


Odysseus to Telemachus

My dear Telemachus,
The Trojan War
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 wasting 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, my son!
To a wanderer the faces of all islands
resemble one another. And the mind
trips, numbering waves; eyes, sore from sea horizons,
run; and the flesh of water stuffs the 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 plowing 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 Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

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Another legendary figure is the subject of this poem. Daedalus, imprisoned by King Minos of Crete, is the creator of the famous Labyrinth, in which the Minotaur (part man, part bull) is kept, and also the inventor of wings made from wax and feathers which cause his son’s death when Icarus forgets his father’s warning, and flies too close to the sun, melting the wax. Daedalus escapes from King Minos to Sicily after the death of Icarus.

Daedalus In Sicily

All his life he was building something, inventing something.
Now, for a Cretan queen, an artificial heifer,
so as to cuckold the king. Then a labyrinth, the time for
the king himself, to hide from bewildered glances
an unbearable offspring. Or a flying contraption, when
the king figured himself so busy with new commissions.
The son of that journey perished falling into the sea,
like Phaeton, who, they say, also spurned his father’s
orders. Here, in Sicily, stiff on its scorching sand,
sits a very old man, capable of transporting
himself through the air, if robbed of other means of passage.
All his life he was building something, inventing something.
All his life from those clever constructions, from those inventions,
he had to flee. As though inventions
and constructions are anxious to rid themselves of their blueprints
like children ashamed of their parents. Presumably, that’s the fear
of replication. Waves are running onto the sand;
behind, shine the tusks of the local mountains.
Yet he had already invented, when he was young, the seesaw,
using the strong resemblance between motion and stasis.
The old man bends down, ties to his brittle ankle
(so as not to get lost) a lengthy thread,
straightens up with a grunt, and heads out for Hades.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

_______________________________

Part of Speech

…and when “the future” is uttered, swarms of mice
rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece
of ripened memory which is twice
as hole-ridden as real cheese.
After all these years it hardly matters who
or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “doh”,
only their rustle. Life, that no one dares
to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,
bares its teeth in a grin at each
encounter. What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

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Transatlantic

The last twenty years were good for practically everybody
save the dead. But maybe for them as well.
Maybe the Almighty Himself has turned a bit bourgeois
and uses a credit card. For otherwise time’s passage
makes no sense. Hence memories, recollections,
values, deportment. One hopes one hasn’t
spent one’s mother or father or both, or a handful of friends entirely
as they cease to hound one’s dreams. One’s dreams,
unlike the city, become less populous
the older one gets. That’s why the eternal rest
cancels analysis. The last twenty years were good
for practically everybody and constituted
the afterlife for the dead. Its quality could be questioned
but not its duration. The dead, one assumes, would not
mind attaining a homeless status, and sleep in archways
or watch pregnant submarines returning
to their native pen after a worldwide journey
without destroying life on earth, without
even a proper flag to hoist.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

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Celebrated in the West as the greatest Russian poet of his generation, Brodsky published nine volumes of poetry, as well as several collections of essays, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. In addition to teaching positions at Columbia University and Mount Holyoke College, where he taught for fifteen years, Brodsky served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991 to 1992.
_______________________________

I Threw My Arms About Those Shoulders

M.B.

I threw my arms about those shoulders, glancing
at what emerged behind that back,
and saw a chair pushed slightly forward,
merging now with the lighted wall.
The lamp glared too bright to show
the shabby furniture to some advantage,
and that is why sofa of brown leather
shone a sort of yellow in a corner.
The table looked bare, the parquet glossy,
the stove quite dark, and in a dusty frame
a landscape did not stir. Only the sideboard
seemed to me to have some animation.
But a moth flitted round the room,
causing my arrested glance to shift;
and if at any time a ghost had lived here,
he now was gone, abandoning this house.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

_______________________________

Love

Twice I awoke this night, and went
to the window. The streetlamps were
a fragment of a sentence spoken in sleep,
leading to nothing, like omission points,
affording me no comfort and no cheer.
I dreamt of you, with child, and now,
having lived so many years apart from you,
experienced my guilt, and my hands,
joyfully stroking your belly,
found they were fumbling at my trousers
and the light-switch. Shuffling to the window,
I realized I had left you there alone,
in the dark, in the dream, where patiently
you waited and did not blame me,
when I returned, for the unnatural
interruption. For in the dark
that which in the light has broken off, lasts;
there we are married, wedded, we play
the two-backed beast; and children
justify our nakedness.
On some future night you will again
come to me, tired, thin now,
and I shall see a son or daughter,
as yet unnamed – this time I’ll
not hurry to the light-switch, nor
will I remove my hand; because I’ve not the right
to leave you in that realm of silent
shadows, before the fence of days,
falling into dependence from a reality
containing me – unattainable.


from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

________________________________

In 1993, he joined author and historian Andrew Carroll in founding the American Poetry and Literacy Project, a not-for-profit organization devoted to making poetry a more central part of American culture, “as ubiquitous,” in Brodsky’s words, “as the nature that surrounds us, and from which poetry derives many of its similes; or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves.”

Joseph Brodsky died on January 28, 1996, of a heart attack in his Brooklyn apartment.

If poetry ever does become ubiquitous in America, it will owe a debt to Iosif Alexandrochich Brodsky of Leningrad, who made himself over as Joseph Brosky, Nobel Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate.

________________________________

Selected Bibliography

POETRY

A Part of Speech (1980)
Collected Poems in English (2000)
Elegy for John Donne and Other Poems (1967)
Selected Poems (1992)
So Forth (1996)
To Urania (1988)

PROSE

Less Than One (1986)
On Grief and Reason (1995)
Watermark (1992)

DRAMA

Marbles (1989)


Visuals

  • candle
  • Christmas gift-givers
  • old prison cell
  • stormy waves on rocks
  • footprints on sand
  • mouse in cheese
  • bulbous submarine
  • moth on badly painted wall
  • woman’s face in the dark

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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