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

By | 1 August 2016

Brodsky’s stance on the identity an exiled artist should develop is akin to Said’s1 framing of an exile as ‘not (as) a matter of choice’ but rather something ‘you are born into’, something that ‘happens to you.’ However, ‘provided that the exile refuses to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound, there are things to be learnt: he or she must cultivate a scrupulous (not indulgent or sulky) subjectivity.’

Brodsky’s self-deprecating attitude never really stops: the poet carries it decisively into his latter-life poetry which combines his visions of the future with his trademark mythical lyricism of Russian fairy-tales seen through the prism of Soviet realities, memories, half-dreams and contemplations. His is a multidimensional poetic landscape laced with curses and swear words and laments, bemoaning and celebrating his predicament simultaneously. He speaks of making a ‘career’ out of the legendary crossroads where a mythological warrior stands in contemplation, unsure whether he should go left and lose his horse (which likely equals death) or go right and lose his life2. The trouble is both choices are one and the same, that is not real choices at all, just like the distinction between the past and the future is an imaginary one. And as past becomes the future and future becomes the past, all boundaries blur and the poet is stuck at a crossing of his own. In the process of considering his non-choices, the poet himself becomes a crossing of sorts, no longer able to note any difference between his reflection in the mirror and the perception of him by those who do not remember him:

Having made a career out of the crossing, a warrior
Is a crossing of his own; plus, there’s a river before him,
And the difference between a mirror, into which you look,
And those who do not remember you, is not that big either3.

In hindsight, Brodsky self-prophesised his own exile and how it would affect him and his future art. His words carry a prophetic quality in a poem Instructions for the Saddened Ones (1962), written only two years before his first exile to the north of Russia. He speaks of exile as a grim, yet somehow wistful reality of being in the state of eternal transition from one place to the next, not quite reaching the final destination, alternating between the minutiae of snapshots of a traveller’s life and the metaphysical reflections on the nature of human condition, concluding with:

One should not insist on the life
Of suffering out of bitter stubbornness.
Foreign land is as connected to homeland
As a dead-end connects to the open space4.

Brodsky’s (re)imaginings of the Nietzschean-almost eternal state of non-return also populate many of his essays. For example, in Footnote to a Poem, where he analyses Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem ‘Novogodnee’ (New Year’s Eve) that she wrote as a tribute to one of her literary idols Rainer Maria Rilke, Brodsky draws on the poem’s imagery to engage with the idea of distance. He asks such questions as ‘what is the author’s own location and how does she happen to be there?’ whilst reminding us that the author is essentially estranged, ‘from reality, from a text, from the self, from thoughts about the self …’ and what perhaps ‘began as literary device became a form (nay, norm) of existence. And not only because she was physically estranged from so many things (including motherland, readership, recognition). And not because in her lifetime so many things occurred to which the only response could be distancing, things that demanded distancing.’5

Another example of Brodsky’s articulations of many complexities of distances, estrangements and separations comes from an essay Flight from Byzantium where he talks of distances in the context of the leaving/returning binary while invoking Vigil’s ‘linear model of existence’: (Virgilian) hero never returns, he always departs’6. And like mythological Greek heroes he drew on in his own poetics, Brodsky ‘has outlived the apotheosis of the linear principle’ and became a ‘man who has nowhere to go back to’7. In Flight from Byzantium, the pinnacle of this permanent state of exile occurs in the passage below, its foreboding atmosphere restless and serene at once as the poet’s meditation on life considers his past, present and future from the point of time where he finds himself alone and a foreigner in an alien city:

‘In this city, I don’t know a soul. In the evening, when I went out looking for a place to have supper, I found myself in the thick of a highly excited throng shouting something unintelligible. As far as I can make out, elections are imminent. I was shuffling along some endless main street blocked by people and vehicles, with car horns wailing in my ears, not understanding a word, and it suddenly dawned on me that this, essentially, is the afterlife – that life had ended but movement was still continuing; that this is what eternity is all about.

Forty-five years ago, my mother gave me life. She died the year before last. Last year, my father died. I, their only child, am walking along the evening streets in Athens, streets they never saw and never will. The fruit of their love, their poverty, their slavery in which they lived and died – their son walks free. Since he doesn’t bump into them I the crowd, he realizes that he is wrong, that this is not eternity.’8

  1. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 147
  2. For example, see a painting by Victor Vasntesov, Warrior at the Crossroads, which is an illustration of a common motif of Russian folk fairy tales: a hero finds himself at the crossroads where a rock bears an inscription: ‘If you ride to the left, you will lose your horse, if you ride to the right, you will lose your head,’
  3. Joseph Brodsky, ‘August’ in Chast’ Rechi, Izbrannye Stikhi 1962–1989, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literature, 1990, my translation
  4. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Instructions for the Saddened Ones’ in Stikhotvoreniia i Poemy, Washington: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1965; my translation/
  5. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Footnote to a poem’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 290
  6. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Flight from Byzantium’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 402
  7. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Flight from Byzantium’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 403
  8. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Flight from Byzantium’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 412
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