Future Tense

Nicole Krauss is making a documentary about Joseph Brodsky for the BBC's Radio 3

"English wants to be monosyllabic," Joseph Brodsky was fond of saying as an explanation for his love affair with the language of his adopted country. Brodsky, a poet who settled in the United States in 1972 after being expelled from the Soviet Union, liked language with hard edges that caught in the throat, language that got to the brute point without dilly-dallying ("Grief is brief," he once announced as a way to illustrate the point). Brodsky took pleasure in the physicality of English, its dense thorniness and no-nonsense taste for palpable consonants over diaphanous vowels. Modern English is something of a mutt, and Brodsky, like his beloved W.H. Auden, favored its Anglo-Saxon lineage. No luxe and volupte for Brodsky; he preferred to "lurch in a cross town bus, clutching a couple of bucks." Just as a person born under a dictatorship can most appreciate democracy, so a foreigner can best recognize and enjoy the qualities of a new native tongue.

As a Russian, Brodsky, who in 1987 was awarded the Nobel Prize, is often compared to Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, but the measure of his genius lies also in his English-language essays and poetry. Born in Leningrad in 1940, he was arrested by the KGB in 1963, charged with "decadence and modernism" and being a "semiliterate parasite" whose "pornographic and anti-Soviet poetry" would corrupt the young. He was sentenced to five years in an Arctic labor camp, later reduced to 18 months because of internal and international protest. Exiled in 1972, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1980. When he died in 1996, he had lived nearly half his life in English.

In 1977, he wrote his first poem in English--an elegy for Robert Lowell--though the choice of language presumably had everything to do with the person whom the poem addressed (at this point Brodsky's English was not yet as strong as it would later become, and writing in the new language must have been a struggle). But in the last decade of his life, Brodsky not only translated his own poems from the Russian but at times also wrote verse directly in English. His English poems are unique in their cadence and language, something of a hybrid of a Russian high style and American slang. Their greatest single influence is the English ballad, for in that terse and rhythmic form he found an ideal expression of the language. If some of his English poems are less than great, it's partly because their lines, strung tight with meter and rhyme, occasionally condense into jingles. "Here they are for all to see, / the fruits of complacency. / Beware of love, of A.D., B.C., / and the travel agency." But the very finest of these poems are among his best, such as the beautiful northern "Tornfallet," whose verses are at once severe and graceful. "I took her in marriage / in a granite parish. / The snow lent her whiteness, / a pine was a witness." These poems are- never simple--Brodsky never wrote a simple poem--but their economy is striking, especially against the background of his verbally more complex Russian works. Compare, for example, the translated first stanza of "Lithuanian Nocturne" ("Having roughed up the waters, / wind explodes like the loud curses from fist ravaged lips / in the cold superpower's / innards, squeezing trite wobbles / of the do-re-mi from sooted trumpets that lisp") with the first stanza of "A Song" ("I wish you were here, dear, / I wish you were here. I wish you sat on the sofa / and I sat near. / The handkerchief could be yours, / the tear could be mine, chin-bound. / Though it could be, of course, / the other way around").

In Russian, Brodsky was a classical poet whose often-elevated language expressed complex images and ideas. But in his English poems (and some of the later Russian ones strongly influenced by English), he preferred pared-down language, an oral feel and, when he was not austerely serious, a kind of jokiness. So it is not entirely surprising that he eventually tried his hand at a children's poem; nor is his decision to write it in English, a language he found more apt for getting to the point (children have little patience) and perhaps, given his own associations with Russian, more lighthearted.

"Discovery" may well be his last new poem to be published. He wrote it in 1995, along with another, "The Emperor," with the intention of publishing them together. "Discovery" is accompanied by the bright, primitive illustrations of Vladimir Redunsky and is about the discovery of America. It serves as a bookend of sorts, an echo of that first poem in English, "Elegy: for Robert Lowell." The elegy begins: "In the autumnal blue / of your church-hooded New / England," then pans back to take in the church, a view of Boston, the republic itself, finally ending at sky level, on an aerial top note. "Discovery" recounts a chronological, rather than visual, sequence: America alone with its weather before the arrival of fish, birds and finally men to make "America legal." In "Elegy," Brodsky writes of "Shoals of cod and eel / that discovered this land before / Vikings or Spaniards still / beset the shore"; in "Discovery" he cuts to the chase: "America first was discovered by fish" (clarifying the confusion of children torn between loyalty to Columbus and the Indians).

But "Discovery" is not a children's natural history of America, as Redunsky's interpretation of the poem makes clear. The book opens to a white page on whose bottom a thin ledge of blue water props up a steamship on the horizon, the sort of boat that would carry a load of immigrants, and the title page features a childlike rendition of the Statue of Liberty. Right away we know "discovery" refers not only to original arrivals (of cod or sea gulls, American Indians or Europeans) but also to every subsequent migration. The poem is modeled on Genesis: "In the beginning there were just waves," it opens, and in seven pages it describes seven stages of settlement, until at the end America "has all its maps and charts," enough to "fill up your barn or cupboard." If an American poet wrote this sort of Thanksgiving-style poem for all ages, he would run the risk of sentimentality or cliche because patriotic holiday jingles are most popular in elementary school classrooms. But Brodsky's biography throws a sober iron light on these lines, lines that threaten to turn the corner and enter the vast country of loneliness. In the '60s and early '70s, while in the Soviet Union, Brodsky wrote children's poems for magazines. While he didn't have access to these poems when he wrote "Discovery," he must have been thinking about one called "Thirteen Points on the Discovery of America"; how fascinating it would be to compare the two, to see how Brodsky's imagined America held up to the real.

*

There is a passage in the essay, "On Grief and Reason," that Brodsky wrote about Robert Frost, whom he calls a "quintessential American poet," explaining that "it is up to us, however, to find out what . . . the term 'American' means as applied to poetry and, perhaps, in general." What "American" means is something Brodsky had to give more thought to than other exiles because the experiences of his youth were a stark contrast to his experiences in America and because he had to learn how to live among Americans. He was named this country's poet laureate in 1991, and in his inaugural address he swiftly sized up the condition of poetry in America: "The standard number of copies of a first or second collection by any poet in this country is something between 2,000 and 10,000 (and I speak of the commercial houses only). The latest census I've seen gives the population of the United States as approximately 250 million. This means that a standard commercial publishing house, printing this or that author's first or second volume, aims at only .001 of the entire population. To me, this is absurd." Judging poetry to be vastly under-published, he offered a deft plan for remedying the problem. He suggested that cheap books of poetry be made available in vast numbers, sold in supermarkets and put in every motel room next to the Bible. "American poetry is this country's greatest patrimony," he argued. "It takes a stranger to see some things clearly."

Brodsky wore his laurels at a rakish angle. "I'm interested in time's effects on man and in my own autonomy," he said in a BBC interview in 1985, summing up the major themes of his poetry. And in his essay on Frost, he describes how the poet "stands outside, denied reentry, perhaps not coveting it at all," then adds, "this particular posture, this utter autonomy, strikes me as particularly American." It is easy to imagine him, therefore, even as he stood at the podium of the Library of Congress in Washington, no doubt under the broad shadow of an American flag, insisting on his own autonomy, on his status as a stranger. In the words of Auden, he saw the world "as the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman." From that position, suspended somewhere in the stratosphere, he felt most comfortable despite his solitude.

So even if Brodsky considered himself a stranger, he also thought of himself as an American, which was not so much a mark of affiliation as it was one of independence. Having told the tale of America's discovery, Brodsky, who often had something up his sleeve for the end of a poem, poses a final question:

But do you believe in your heart of hearts

that America was discovered?

Don't you think that this land still has a few

secrets? That, huge and silent,

it waits for their being discovered by you,

since Nature is out on assignment?

Striking an ominous tone in this conclusion, Brodsky is quick to remind us that with discovery come dark secrets and the possibility that something terrifying might lurk behind any simple vision of America. The notion of terror, as Brodsky pointed out in his essay on Frost, has to do with anticipation, with what may happen (whereas tragedy is a fait accompli). By introducing terror into the poem, Brodsky joins ranks with other children's writers such as the Brothers Grimm, whose tales lead into the glades of the selva oscura. For though the note of terror is faint, it is clear, and what it rings in is the future: what all of Brodsky's poems strain toward. Perhaps this is what made him different from other writers in exile, for whom retrospection played an excessive role. But it is also what made him, ultimately, most American. For Brodsky, there was never any choice but to hurtle, with full force and a clear eye, into the huge and silent future.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°