TCS: Two Poets, One Day Apart, Six Poems

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We have to create another language,
we have to find another starting point

– Rosario Castellanos


In addition to birthdays in May a day (and 15 years apart), today’s poets share profound senses of loneliness and solitude, but they coped with this isolation very differently. In Joseph Brodsky’s work, his sense of irony often surfaces, while Rosario Castellanos’ writing exposes her sadness and vulnerability. Brodsky’s recurring theme is the relationship between the poet and society, while she chronicles the process of self-discovery.


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. 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. In 1963, his poetry was denounced by a newspaper as “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” 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.  The Soviet authorities had prevented the woman he loved from marrying him, an dhe had to leave her and their son behind when he was exiled in 1972. His poetry was banned in the U.S.S.R. Later, in a poem he described an exiled writer as one “who survives like a fish in the sand.” He came to the U.S. His Less Than One, an essay collection, won the National Book Critics Award for Criticism. In 1987, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was invited back after the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, but Brodsky never returned to his homeland. His son came to see him in New York, and they were able to develop a relationship. His poetry collections include A Part of Speech, and To Urania.  In 1991, Brodsky became Poet Laureate of the United States. He died at age 55 of a heart attack in January of 1996.



by Joseph Brodsky

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.

“Transatlantic” from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by the Estate of Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux


Part of Speech

by  Joseph Brodsky

…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.

“Part of Speech” from Selected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux

May 24, 1980

by Joseph Brodsky

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.
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.

“May 24, 1980” from Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, © 2000 by the Estate of Joseph Brodsky – Farrar Straus and Giroux


Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) Mexican poet, writer, thinker, diplomat, and feminist was born May 25, 1925, Mexico City, but was raised in the city of Comitán in the state of Chiapas. She was cared for by a Mayan woman, in whose Tzotzil prayers and legends she discovered the joy of language. Her family was wealthy, until land reform and a peasant emancipation policy stripped them of most of their land holdings. In 1948, both her parents died, her mother from cancer, and her father from a hear attack. Castellanos was 23 years old, shy and introverted, but she read extensively and began writing. She studied philosophy and literature at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and became part of a group of intellectuals, where she met poet and author Dolores Castro, who would become her friend and mentor. She was influenced by reading the works of Simone Weil, and went to work writing scripts for puppet shows for a literacy campaign of the Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas, a government agency to aid indigenous peoples. Castellanos wrote a weekly column for the newspaper Excélsior.  She married in 1958, but she suffered from depression after several miscarriages before her son was born in 1961. The marriage ended in divorce in 1971. She became an advocate for women’s rights, and a symbol of Latin American feminism. In recognition for her contribution to Mexican literature, Castellanos was appointed as ambassador to Israel the same year as her divorce. She learned to speak Hebrew, performed her ambassadorial duties capably – Prime Minister Golda Mier called her “one of the most brilliant minds I have ever met.” She also taught some university classes. On August 7, 1974, alone in her embassy apartment in Tel Aviv, in a bizarre twist of fate, she stepped out of the bathroom, and switched on a lamp, which gave off a powerful electrical surge. She was discovered unconscious by a maid, and died in the ambulance before it reached the hospital. Her history of depression and undergoing psychoanalysis led to speculation that she had committed suicide. Her long-time friend, author Elena Poniatowska, wrote,  “It strikes me as highly unlikely that Rosario would have known enough about voltage to have planned her electrocution so as to die exactly when she wished.” Castellanos had been emerging as one of Mexico’s major literary figures before her death at age 49, and her work helped opened the door for a generation of Mexican women writers.



by Rosario Castellanos

Only voice, skin, the polished
surface of things.

Enough. The ear does not want more, for its hollow
may overflow and the hand can no longer reach
very far to touch.
Absentminded, it slides, caressing,
and slowly knows the contour.
It retires satisfied
without noticing the futile howl of a heart in captivity
nor the congealing impetus of the blood
which assaults the bubbling floodgate, nor the forever blind knot of a sob.

He who leaves carries his memory,
his way of being river, of being air
of being farewell and never.

Until one day another stops him, delays him
and reduces him to voice, skin, to a surface
offered, surrendered, while inside himself
the hidden solitude waits and trembles.

“Love” from A Rosario Castellanos Reader, translations © 1988 by Maureen Ahern, Diane E. Martling and Betty Tyree Osiek – Texas Pan American series, first edition

This Land that I Step On

by Rosario Castellanos

This land that I step on
is the loving sheet of my dead.
Here, here they lived and, like me, they said:
My heart is not my heart, it
is the house of fire.
And they threw their blood like a vehement colt
to be bitten by the wind
and around a tree they danced and drank
songs like a powerful and eternal wine.

Now I am here. Let no one greet me
like a newcomer. If I walk like this, clumsily, it
is because I am feeling and I am recognizing.
I do not carry in my hands more than a brief ember
and a day to burn.
Joy! Let’s Dance!
I want to swear it here, friends: again
like spring
we will return.

“This Land that I Step On” from A Rosario Castellanos Reader, translations © 1988 by Maureen Ahern, Diane E. Martling and Betty Tyree Osiek – Texas Pan American series, first edition


by Rosario Castellanos

Woman of ideas? No, I’ve never had one.
I never repeated others (out of modesty or faulty memory).
Woman of action? No, not that either.
It’s enough to look at the shape of my feet and hands.

Woman, well, of word. No, not of word.
But, yes, of words–
many, contradictory, oh, insignificant,
pure sound, sifted empty of arabesques,
a salon game, gossip, foam, oblivion.

But if a definition is necessary
for the identification card, note
that I am a woman of good intentions,
and that I have paved
a direct and simple route to hell.

“Passport” from A Rosario Castellanos Reader, translations © 1988 by Maureen Ahern, Diane E. Martling and Betty Tyree Osiek – Texas Pan American series, first edition


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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 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.
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