‘The birds of paradise sing without a needing a supple branch’: Joseph Brodsky and the Poetics of Exile

By | 1 August 2016

Understanding exile

In the interpretation of Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar who theorised exile, particularly that of writers, exile is something ‘strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’ as it is ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home’, its by-product ‘essential sadness’ never to be surmounted1. The paradox of exile, Said elaborates, is that while it is ‘a condition of terminal loss’, in the modern culture the notion of exile has acquired a status of a ‘potent … enriching’ experience, even an ‘achievement’ of sorts. In this latter sense, the idea of exile appears as both romantic as it is triumphant: the exiled one then comes off a survivor who rises above the unsurmountable odds and overcomes that ‘essential sadness’ of exile and other challenges inherent of separation and estrangement2. However, what is the cost of this achievement? Said explains that while indeed ‘there are triumphs in the exile’s life… these ‘triumphs’ are always undermined by the pain of being estranged from one’s native place’3.

The definition of an exile is broad (‘anyone who is prevented from returning home’4), and lived experiences of political exiles like Brodsky would not be the same as experiences of refugees or economic and professional migrants. The former are displaced from their homes by wars and conflicts; and the latter retain their option of coming back to their country of origin (‘home’ in the sense of nation-state) either as a visitor or as a citizen returning for good. For political exiles, on another hand, home is a provisional concept to begin with, as it can as easily become a prison. This is something exiles like Brodsky know well: in the years leading up to his first exile in the North of Russia and then to his exile abroad, his life was a borderline-Kafkaesque string of arrests, confinements, interrogations and denial of literary exposure5.

Importantly, as Said points out, unlike with refugees and migrants, the connotation attached to the word ‘exile’ is undoubtedly political and ‘carries with it (…) a touch of solitude and spirituality’6, a quiet dignity of sorts, perhaps a degree of aristocracy even. Such semi-romanticised ideas of exile can in fact be traced to the modernism movement’s striving for ‘utopia’ and to the modernist thinkers who as Stephen Bronner explains in his account of political aesthetics of modernism, ‘believed that their world stood in need of utopian redemption’7. As such, the idea that an exile – a reject who belongs nowhere – can be at home everywhere draws on ‘the old Enlightenment ideal of the Citizen of the World’8, even elevating the exile to the position of a virtue, privilege and a ‘vehicle for individuality, freedom, and resistance.’ Regardless of the circumstances of departure, though, the process of forceful relocation changes the perception and the very meaning of ‘home’ of those deprived of home, elevating (or subjugating?) them to the status of alterity, a position of the perpetually misunderstood Other – the rejected and the undesirable.

Brodsky’s exile was a means of control exercised by the State. Among purposes of such State-sanctioned exile is to punish the ‘undesirable’ individuals for their actions perceived as transgressions against the authority and to distance them from the political centre, hence limiting any influence they might have – be it real or imaginary – over the policies and workings of the State. Among the means of justifying exile is pathologising of the transgressors who are to be exiled. Such framing of dissent as a ‘disease of the mind’ is another known tool of societal control9 where anyone perceived as challenging the State can be suppressed by labelling the culprit insane. This label then can be reinforced through a confinement of the transgressor to the isolation of a State institution (mental ward or a prison) or exiling them into other marginal spaces where they are deemed not able to exert their ‘corrupting’ influence over the State and its mechanisms10. As was the case with Joseph Brodsky, his defiance of the State (exemplified most obviously by his openly anti-Soviet poetry) was pathologised by attacking his art, by labelling him mentally unwell, repeatedly institutionalising him and so on up until his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

The practice of using political exile (or banishment) as punishment is not new and its examples can be found historically across cultures and state-lines. Aside from the means of control, the purpose of punishment by exile, as Said infers, is to ensure the exile lives ‘an anomalous and miserable life, with the stigma of being an outsider’11. But what exactly does it mean to be stigmatised by exile? Did this stigma of exile affect Brodsky the way it was intended or did it achieve the exact opposite of that by propelling the poet to international stardom? After all, it was only after he was ejected from the Soviet Union for good did Brodsky achieve literary fame and was awarded the Nobel Prize. Instead of being marginalised by his exile, Brodsky has assumed the status of ‘cultural martyr’ and transformed from ‘a poet of the resistance’ into the ‘poet of the establishment’12. Of course, at the same time his work remained unpublished and, as a result, virtually unknown in his native Russia, a situation which has persisted until close to his death in 1996. Perhaps, this obscurity in his native land was what the punishment by exile aimed to achieve in the first place. To understand the true extend of this punishment it is important to remember Brodsky’s statement that he belongs to the Russian language13 and also to consider Russian philosophical ideas in regards to the relationship between artist and homeland. Traditionally, ‘transcendental homelessness (is seen as) a part of Russian national identity’, after all, ‘metaphorical exile (usually away from the transient, everyday existence) is a prerequisite for the wanderings of the ‘Russian soul’’, while at the same time ‘actual exile from Mother Russia is viewed as unprecedented cultural betrayal’, even heresy14. Especially so, for a writer whose very existence is perceived as linked to the Russian language: ‘exile is a cultural transgression that threatens a writer’s very survival, both physical and spiritual’15. Drawing on the experience of his fellow exile and poet Osip Mandestam, Brodsky speaks of exile as being in the state of creating and inhabiting a different world, where one ‘becomes a foreign body against which all laws are aimed: gravity, compression, rejection, annihilation’16.

It appears that home acquires new (true(r)?) meaning once one is displaced from it, and home can really be understood through exile and the process/state of being exiled from it. And if the exiled ones may never know their ‘old home’ again they construct a new one – writers do it through writing. Edward Said spoke of his writers-friends in exile: ‘To see a poet in exile – as opposed to reading the poetry of exile – is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity’. These antinomies, Said writes, are to do with the ‘sense of constant estrangement’ he observed in poets in exile who while finding solace and acceptance in the foreign lands are still forced to seek home, while never quite feeling ‘at home’ due to mismatch of their ‘language, poetic convention, of life-history’17. A renowned literary scholar Svetlana Boym’s analysis of Brodsky’s estrangement also points out this paradox of exiled poets, actualised through their use of language while in exile: ‘the exiles might be bilingual, but rarely they can get rid of an accent. A few misplaced prepositions, a few missing articles, definite or indefinite, betray the syntax of the mother tongue.’

These antinomies of exile emerge from Brodsky’s work through his use of binaries of not-returning / yearning to return, space / time and freedom / imprisonment, explored next.

Brodsky’s states of exile

Once exiled from Russia, Brodsky has never returned to his homeland, not even post-1991 when the regime that rejected and ejected him was no longer there to prevent him from coming back. The way he writes about the various states of exile is reflective of Brodsky’s stated preference for linear motion: we are meant to move forward not backward18. His narrative poem Xolmy (Hills)19 exemplifies this always-forward movement where the eponymous hills are always moving up and away from the ground and its imposed limitations. Written in 1962, a short while before his first exilic experience in the North of Russia, the final three concluding stanzas of Hills explain that the difference between elevations and flatlands are like that between life and death:

Hills – are our youth,
that we chase off, unrecognised.
Hills – are hundreds of streets,
hills – are a swarm of ditches.
Hills – are pain and pride.
Hills – are the edge of the world.
The higher you ascend,
The more you see up ahead.

Hills – are our sufferings.
Hills – are our love.
Hills – are a scream, weeping,
they leave, they return.
Light and the immensity of hurt,
our yearning and fear,
our dreams and sorrow…

Hills – are above us.
Their peaks are always seen,
always seen in the total darkness.
Always, yesterday, now
We move along the slope.
Death is only flatlands.
Life is – hills, hills.

These forward-moving hills represent everything that life is and as we ascend the hills, climbing higher and higher, we move away from the flatlands, leaving death behind. Of course, estrangement has been compared to death before: Said20 likened exile to death, the only difference between the two being that exile-death did not have ‘death’s ultimate mercy’ because it cut off the exiled ones from the ‘nourishment of tradition, family, and geography’. Yet, Brodsky found some solace in the space between never-retuning and yearning to return. Like Odysseus, who haunts Brodsky’s poetic imagery of roaming the high seas, being stranded on faraway islands and yearning to return home after a too-long absence, the land he yearns to return to would not be the same he had left behind – it would change, perhaps beyond recognition. Perhaps to ease the pain of estrangement from his homeland, Brodsky wrote about this limbo state of yearning to return and not returning in Odysseus to Telemachus (1972)21:

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.
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.

Brodsky chose to maintain his status of an exile even after the political change in Russia, which could potentially see him come back – but that would mean he would have to apply for a visa, to return as a visitor, a tourist, not a citizen. He refused to come back like this, choosing instead of maintain status quo, to yearn for his homeland through his poetry, to write about Leningrad from memory and dreams. When posed with a question why not go back when he could, he argued that Russia had his poetry already and that was the best part of him that he could ever give it anyway22. To some it may appear as a stubborn stance of man too set in his way to set pride aside and come back, even if for a brief stay to revisit the city of his youth that inspired so much of his writing. Perhaps, a degree of stubbornness as a way of explanation does make sense: in her recent memoir Brodsky Among Us23, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, describes Brodsky as a man who operated in terms of absolutes. His ‘his code of behavior (was) based on his experience under totalitarian rule’ and hence he refused to be defined as a dissident as it would immediately link him to the government he opposed and which ejected him out of Russia. Teasley explains: ‘If you had face, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost’. So perhaps by refusing to come back even when he could do so, Brodsky wanted to drive the point home and show Russia that it had lost him, not the other way around.

His poetic legacy may provide another explanation of his refusal to come back: he wanted to preserve the homeland of his memories and so chose not to return not to face his former home, now changed beyond recognition. His longing for homeland and for Leningrad is visceral in the way he wrote about his home city – meticulously reconstructing it from memory – in essays and poems. Perhaps this very affection for the city of his youth and a desire to preserve it in the poet’s memory was among the reasons Brodsky did not go back when he could. Besides, his parents were dead, having never been allowed out of the Soviet Union to be with him. As a foreigner, Brodsky needed an official ‘invitation’ in order to apply for a visa and that proved problematic24. And, lastly, not returning to his hometown after the end of the Soviet period was perhaps not as much a political or a social statement on his part, but rather the expression of the very same linear conviction he held that past should stay in the past: ‘A man moves only in one direction. And only from. From a place, from a thought that has entered his mind, from himself … that is, constantly away from what has been experienced …’25

  1. Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000, p. 137
  2. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 137
  3. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 137
  4. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 145
  5. Lev Loseff, Joseph Brodsky: A literary life, translated by Jane Ann Miller, Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 2011, pp. 67-117
  6. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 145
  7. Stephen Bronner, Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia, New York, Columbia University Press, p. xiii
  8. Seamus Deane, quoted in Michael Gluzman, ‘Modernism and Exile: A view from the margins’ in, (Eds.) David Biale, Michael Galchinsky and Susannah Heschel, Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, University of California Press, Berkley, 1998, p. 231
  9. In History of Madness (first published in 1961), Michel Foucault gives various examples of pathologising used as a means of societal control and punishment. For example, in post-revolutionary France, political prisoners were placed into mental asylums by the Revolution where they coexisted alongside ‘traditional’ asylum patients (p.467). Foucault also illuminates how the ceremonial expulsion of the ‘insane’ from the city was historically practiced: ‘On occasions, the insane were publicly whipped, and in sort of simulated hunt were chased out of town while being beaten with sticks. All of which indicates that the departure of the mad belonged with other rituals of exile’ (p.10) – see Michel Foucault, History of Madness (2006), (ed.) Jean Khalfa, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2000. Furthermore, discussing the power-effects of psychiatry as a political function of medicine, Foucault names ‘psychiatric internment, the mental normalisation of individuals, and penal institutions’ as ‘undoubtedly essential to the general functioning of the wheels of power’ – in Michel Foucault, Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 , (ed.) Colin Gordon, translated by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, & Kate Soper, Pantheon Books: New York, NY, 1980, p.110
  10. Carrie Arnold, ‘In Praise of Defiance’, Aeon
  11. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 145
  12. Svetlana Boym, ‘Estrangement as a Lifestyle: Shklovsky and Brodsky’, in Poetics Today ,Vol 17. No. 4, Creativity and Exile: European/American Perspectives II (Winter, 1996), p. 522
  13. Joseph Brodsky in conversation with David Remnick of the Washington Post, poetryfoundation.org
  14. Boym, ‘Estrangement as a Lifestyle: Shklovsky and Brodsky’, p. 514
  15. Boym, ‘Estrangement as a Lifestyle: Shklovsky and Brodsky’ p. 514
  16. Brodsky, ‘Child of the Civilization’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 134
  17. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 138
  18. Brodsky, ‘Flight from Byzantium’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 403
  19. My translation; a poem in Russian is available from World Art
  20. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 138
  21. Joseph Brodsky ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’, in A Part of Speech, translation copyright © 1980 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
  22. ‘Joseph Brodsky: A Virgilian Hero, Doomed Never to Return Home’, Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014
  23. Cynthia Haven, ‘Joseph Brodsky, Darker and brighter: A spellbinding new biography rescues the poet from sentimentality and kitsch’ The Nation, March 24, 2016
  24. Tom Birchenough, ‘A Room and a half: Evocative mood piece celebrating the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky; 6 May 2010, The Art Desk
  25. Joseph Brodsky quoted in ‘Joseph Brodsky: A Virgilian Hero, Doomed Never to Return Home’
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