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Joseph Brodsky.

In an eloquent tribute to Joseph Brodsky, published almost exactly a month after his premature and widely lamented death, Tatyana Tolstaya, in the New York Review of Books, quotes some lines from the poet's early work:

In the dark I won't find your deep blue facade I'll fall on the asphalt between the crossed lines

She goes on to conjecture: "I think that the reason he didn't want to return to Russia even for a day was so that this incautious prophecy would not come to be. A student of - among others - Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva (he knew their poetic superstitiousness), he knew the conversation they had during their one and only meeting. 'How could you write that.... Don't you know that a poet's words always come true?' one of them reproached. 'And how could you write that ...?' the other was amazed. And what they foretold did indeed come to pass."

Without any desire to sound mystical, I do think something prophetic can be claimed for Brodsky's poetry, or at least for two details, one of them small, the other large and visionary. The first is from a poem actually titled "A Prophecy," addressed to an unnamed beloved, and containing these lines:

- And if we make a child, we'll call the boy Andrei, Anna the girl, so that our Russian speech, imprinted on its wrinkled little face, shall never be forgot.

Joseph (as everyone who ever knew him was allowed affectionately to call him) was the father of two children, a boy born in Russia, still there, from whom he was separated by involuntary exile, and a daughter, born in America to his Russian-Italian wife, Maria. The children are named Andrei and Anna.

The larger, more spacious and important prophecy is embodied in a major poem, "The Hawk's Cry in Autumn" (printed here in full), of which Tolstaya remarks in the same tribute: "He has a poem about a hawk ... in the hills of Massachusetts who flies so high that the rush of rising air won't let him descend back to earth, and the hawk perishes there, at those heights where there are neither birds nor people, nor any air to breathe."

To this brief comment I would like to add some of my own. The wind with which the poem begins is the wind of the spirit (John 3:8) as well as of inspiration, the necessary (and destructive) element in which the poet tries to dwell. The bird, at the pinnacle of his flight, guesses the truth of it: it's the end. The Erinyes (Furies) themselves are invoked, as though the aspiration to great heights must necessarily entail retributive punishment, as exemplified in Greek tragedy. And, echoing another ancient tradition, the agony and sacrifice of the bird/poet precipitates a thing of beauty, the first snowflakes of winter, the poems of a soul that has sustained the punishing climate of Archangelic Russia. The brilliance that delights earthbound children has been purchased at the price of unendurable suffering and death. Whether Brodsky's wind owes anything to Percy Bysshe Shelley's annihilating "West wind," whether the Russian poet's hawk is any kin to Gerard Manley Hopkins's falcon, Thomas Hardy's darkling thrush or his blinded bird, each reader must determine for himself. And can it be that this assertion of Rainer Maria Rilke's played some part in Brodsky's thought?: "Whoever does not consecrate himself wholly to art with all his wishes and values can never reach the highest goal."

In his collection of essays, Less than One, Brodsky has written so movingly about his early life that I will present here only the most meager biographical details. He was born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad, the only child of adoring and adored parents so straitened of circumstances that the boy quit school after ninth grade to help support the family. He held more than a dozen jobs, including milling-machine operator, helper in a morgue (he once thought he might wish to become a doctor), photographer (his father's work at one time), and participant in geological expeditions. Despite his limited formal schooling, his love of poetry led him to learn Polish, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French, as well as Latin, in a determination to acquaint himself with all the world's great poetry. He began writing his own poems in his teens, and earned money by translating Serbo-Croatian and Spanish poetry into Russian. He also translated the poems of John Donne and other Metaphysical poets, and two plays, The Quare Fellow and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In 1964 he was forced into a "psychiatric hospital" and then arraigned at a show trial, charged with "parasitism" and with writing "anti-Soviet poetry that would corrupt the young." What this actually meant was absolute state disapproval of a poetic credo Brodsky expressed in his Nobel Lecture: "A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete-a-tete, entering with him into direct - free of any go-betweens - relations." What Brodsky means, of course, is not only the necessary absence of censors but also the need for a literature disburdened of ulterior (which is to say, political) motives. He was sentenced to five years of degrading hard labor, but after the sentence provoked unambiguously condemnatory outcries from all over the world as well as within Soviet intellectual circles, it was "commuted" to exile. He left behind everything he loved: parents, language, son, home, and, with the help of W. H. Auden and the Academy of American Poets, made his way to his first teaching job in America, at the University of Michigan, under the watchful care of Carl and Ellendea Proffer.

The condition of exile is rarely easy, but Brodsky, fortified by a temperament both cheerful and mordantly sardonic, taking now as his domain the global landscape, the cold galactic emptinesses, the whole range of human history, set about his poetic task with fierce and undiscourageable industry. In the course of only a few years, he acquired an international audience of admiring readers, among them the members of the Swedish Academy. This recognition was accompanied by a blissful marriage to a beautiful woman, half-Russian, half-Italian, and the birth of a daughter, named Anna, probably in homage to Brodsky's "discoverer" and poetic heroine, Akhmatova, and in fulfillment of a pledge. But these blessings were of the briefest duration, cut short by his death at the age of 55.

His poems are not easy; nor are they difficult in the familiar manner of, say, John Donne or William Empson. In their original Russian, they observe demanding formal patterns combined at times with an informality of diction that can be witty and irreverent, and are usually filled with unexpected, almost balletic leaps of the imagination. The Russian also evokes a playfulness that no English version can quite as gracefully convey. So richly furnished are the rueful and the comedic aspects of his work, his irony and bravado, that a willing reader will find enormous delights, enviable gifts, large spans of imaginative life that have not been lost in translation. In the time allotted to him, cut short by addictive smoking that endangered a heart already badly damaged by penal servitude (and for which he had undergone two bypass operations and was scheduled for a third), he managed somehow to acquaint himself as an intimate with the greatest poets of all periods, to feel at home (if, as an exile, nowhere else) at least in their demanding company, and able to sustain companionship with their best work in what must be thought of as a widely comprehensive multilingual anthology that he was apt to have almost exactly by heart.
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Author:Hecht, Anthony
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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