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

By | 1 August 2016


A culmination of sorts of Brodsky’s complex, long and uneasy history with exile was a speech he delivered at the conference held by the Wheatland Foundation in Vienna, in December 1988. The conference was dedicated to multi-dimensional nature of the state of exile. Fittingly, Brodsky’s speech was entitled The Condition We Call Exile1. He began it by saying it was not easy for him to speak of plight of exiled writers, such as himself, when there were other kinds of exiles whose experiences were not known to the world, their voices majorly unheard: Turkish gastarbeiters, refugees, ‘boatpeople’ and migrants. Their fates were associated with perilous journeys, with fragile new beginnings of rebuilding their shattered uprooted lives. He recognised that their hardships were different from his and yet he wanted to speak of them, for them, for the uncountable masses because ‘literature, like poverty, is known for taking care of its own kind’2. And, even more so, because of the ‘ancient and perhaps as yet unfounded belief that should the masters of this world be better read, the mismanagement and grief that make millions take to the road could be somewhat reduced’3.

Edward Said advises to look beyond the exile as ‘a contemporary political punishment’4 applied to writers, artists and political dissidents and to think instead of all ‘refugee-peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a ration card and an agency number’ as for them ‘exile is sometimes better than staying behind or not getting out.’ ​Comparing his exile to the way exile was experienced in the past, that is in terms of moving from a perceived better place to a lesser place (‘leaving civilized Rome for savage Sarmatia’), Brodsky did acknowledge that by moving to the United States, he in fact ‘transition(ed) from a political and economic backwater to an industrially advanced society’. That way, going into exile felt a lot like coming home: getting closer to those political, societal and moral: ideals that inspired him all along’5.

Brodsky’s speech at the Vienna conference is full of personal and raw insights into his life and literary career, but perhaps the most revealing of those is the endless sadness behind realisation that ‘if there is anything good about exile, it is that it teaches humility.’ Would this mean that – subconsciously or not – Brodsky felt that before his exile he had more pride, more self-significance? Clarification comes from him: ‘the reality of (an exiled writer) consists of (…) constantly fighting and conspiring to restore his significance, his poignant role, his authority’6, be it among his fellow writers left at home or the community of émigrés in the country where the exile has ended up. And so, exile is both the shadow cast over an author’s identity and a driver behind words the author produces.

Perhaps the true denouement of Brodsky’s complicated relationship with exile is found in his essay Catastrophes in the Air, where Brodsky likens exile to paradise7. Though this likeness is not in the way we might think. Like in his urban description of afterlife – where ‘life had ended but movement was still continuing’, this ‘paradise’ of exile is like the post-mortem state of the ultimate end, because ‘there is nothing else, nothing else happens’. The state of exile then here is not uncanny, not even heroic but rather is a dead end, ‘the last vision of space, the end of things, the summit of the mountain, the peak from which there is nowhere to step’. Nowhere that is, except, into time. But then, isn’t hell the exactly same thing? After all, in Brodsky’s mind, hell and paradise ‘have a lot in common’8.

  1. Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, BISLA online
  2. Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, BISLA online
  3. Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, BISLA online
  4. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, pp. 139; 141
  5. Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, BISLA online
  6. Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, BISLA online
  7. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Catastrophes in the Air’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays
  8. Brodsky, ‘Catastrophes in the Air’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 286
This entry was posted in ESSAYS, SCHOLARLY and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: