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

By | 1 August 2016

Perhaps binaries are unavoidable in the life of exiles – as Said1 pointed out ‘most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home: exiles are aware of at least two; and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal.’ Furthermore, ‘for an exile, habits of life, expression or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment. Thus both the new and the old environments are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally’2. Though Brodsky did not believe that life’s defining events, suffering and hardship had much, if any, relevance to or influence over talent34, his writing systematically – borderline obsessively – invoked binaries and hierarchies which could be associated with the states of exile. It was almost as if by structuring his experiences as tiered, dual entities, Brodsky could better understand and explain his own ‘condition’ as an exile. Despite relying on the prism of memory in writing about his self-prophesised but never eventuated homecoming, he calls memory and the process of recollection ‘atavistic’ because this process is never linear and also because ‘the more one remembers, the closer perhaps one is to dying’5. And yet, memory, he writes is a ‘substitute for love’ and ‘to memorize … is to restore intimacy’6.

The binary of freedom and the lack thereof, characterised by the ‘dissent of the spirit’7 and echoing Brodsky’s imprisonments (literal and metaphorical) crystalises in such works of his as Glass with Water where Brodsky ardently argued that ironically ‘prisons offer more options for the homeless substance than curtained freedom does’8. By ‘the homeless substance’ he might as well denote himself, while the notion of a prison signifies one of the states of exile, which indeed in such an interpretation may offer some freedom while still constraining the exiled individual with its abundance of time, which, in turn, is rendered useless when combined with the lack of space. Just like prison, Brodsky clarifies in Less Than One, exile is ‘a lack of alternatives, and the telescopic predictability of the future is what drives you crazy’9.

The recurring theme of freedom, the poet expresses by engaging with the imagery of an open space – be it a luscious landscape, the burbling sea, or the endless skies – is reinforced by his retrospective gaze, where the past is both real and imagined. His lament for the past, both things and people which are no more, gains crescendo in I Was Blamed For It All … and We Lived In The City … both excerpted below:

And if for the speed of light you don’t expect a thank-you 
then, maybe, the armor of nonexistence   
will appreciate your attempts of turning the former into a strainer
and will thank me for the holes.10


… It is strange and unpleasant
to think that even iron does not know its fate
and that life is lived for the apotheosis 
of the brand Kodak, which started to believe in prints
and threw away the negatives.
The birds of paradise sing without needing a supple branch11.

The notion of freedom may be inseparable from that of space, but Brodsky does not seem overtly interested in identifying the differences and divisions between one kind of space and another. When uprooted, sent away from one’s homeland, such divisions lose all importance: he verbalises this epiphany in Odysseus to Telemachus, ‘to a wanderer all islands resemble one another’12.

Brodsky’s apparent disinterest in categorising and typifying space is also apparent in The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn where the space of air surrounding the eponymous hawk loses all importance as the bird on its way from New England to the Gulf of Mexico becomes overpowered by the wind and strain and gives in to the freezing air current13. His reflection on the hierarchy of space and time is also be found in Less Than One, where Brodsky goes over his conflicted memories from his time in prison: ‘It is not that I think suppression is better than freedom; I just believe that the mechanism of suppression is as innate to the human psyche as the mechanism of release. (…) I have every reason to think so because in the country where I spent thirty-two years, adultery and movie-going are the only forms of free enterprise. Plus art.’14

  1. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 148
  2. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, p. 148
  3. Lev Loseff, Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life
  4. Brodsky, ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980: An Obituary’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays
  5. Brodsky, ‘Less Than One’ in <Less Than One: Selected Essays, p.30
  6. Brodsky, ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) An Obituary’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p.150
  7. Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Nobel, Dies at 55,
  8. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Glass with Water’ in Chast’ rechi, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2000; my translation
  9. Brodsky, ‘Less Than One’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 23
  10. Joseph Brodsky, ‘I was Blamed for It All…’ in Chast’ Rechi, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2000; my translation
  11. Joseph Brodsky, ‘We Lived in The City…’ in Chast’ Rechi, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2000; my translation
  12. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ in A Part of Speech; 1980, translation copyright by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
  13. John Bayley, ‘Not Afraid of Sounding Major’, New York Times Books, 1988
  14. Brodsky, ‘Less Than One’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 22
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