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

By | 1 August 2016

An example of this binary of yearning to return and not being able (or refusing) to return comes from his 1962 Stanzas, where Brodsky describes his (imaginary) future homecoming to Leningrad, with a self-prophetic quality to his writing:

I don’t want to decide on
the churchyard, the state.
On Vasilevsky Island
I will come for my death.
I won’t find your dark-
blue façade after all,
in-between faded marks,
on the asphalt, I’ll fall.
…
Past the river, two lives
will come into sight 
cheek to cheek they will stand 
homeland close by their side
like two sisters from years unlived far away
dashing out on the island
to send a boy on his way.1

Perhaps Brodsky’s refusal to return to Russia was due to a worry that his self-prophecies would not come true, that he would not find any sign of the country of his memories and imaginings in the Post-Soviet Russia. Brodsky invokes this self-prophesising imagery revolving around the gift or a curse of (never) returning by engaging in an imaginary dialogue with the other2 – a stranger, be it his ex-lover, a child of his who does not remember him, or a fellow wanderer who has also mastered the ‘craft of separation’ as much as he did. Brodsky imbues this figure of the other with multiple dimensions, invoking the past, the present and the future, his emotions and assertions of feelings (or the absence thereof) creating in the process a palimpsest-like text3, where in speaking to/about an ex-lover, his words might as well be about his ex-homeland:

Do not misunderstand me. With your voice, body and name
Nothing connects me anymore; nobody destroyed you
But to forget one life – a man needs at least one more life 
And I have lived that long4.

The discussed earlier Odyssean themes of yearning to return home can also be found in Ithaca (1993): ‘to come back here in twenty years, / to find in the sand your footprint. And (your) mutt will raise its moor-long bark / without admitting happiness, or growing wild’5. In Ithaca the poet articulates, and then reiterates his anxieties associated with the post-exile back-to-normal life in imagining an anticlimactic encounter with his imaginary child following a forced separation that lasted too long. The child is all grown up now, became a sailor just like his dad and ‘looks at you like you are garbage’. Among Brodsky’s qualms of (never) returning is also the experience of hearing his native tongue and not recognising it (‘the language you hear all around you is indecipherable’). He concludes Ithaca with, ‘perhaps this is a wrong island’. And, yet, he knows instinctively that the island is indeed the right one but it is he himself who has changed beyond recognition:

But still, my homeward way has proved too long.
While we were wasting time there, old Poseidon,
it almost seems, stretched and extended space.

Brodsky once more paints a picture of the imaginary homeland of his return, the homeland which he may not recognise and which, in turn, may not recognise him, hence engaging with the idea of the uncanny: a phenomenon of experiencing something that is familiar and yet strange and fear-inducing, creating a cognitive dissonance6. Perhaps in an attempt to overcome the trauma brought on by the forced separation and enduring distance, by writing of these phenomena the poet comes to perform the role of a proverbial hero, the only difference being that he does not actually experience his coveted home-coming in real life but re-enacts it in his writing over and over again, in perpetuum.

In his conference speech A Condition We Call Exile, Brodsky suggests that in their nature all exiled writers are ‘retrospective and retroactive being(s)’ who have their heads ‘forever turned backward’ gazing with longing over the past7. Grounded in nostalgia for one’s no longer attainable past, this backward-gazing ‘affliction’ can be all-consuming, overwhelming. Still though, despite having ‘tasted extremely bitter bread’, Brodsky ‘never played the victim’8. More so, according to a fellow Nobel laureate and writer Derek Walcott9, Brodsky detested those who did play the victim, especially if they wrote from the position of one, insisting that creative talent did not need to rely on suffering to grow10 and to sustain itself, and that language and poetry were the ultimate goals of existence.

In a way contradicting his dedication to the linear principle, in his seminar essay Less Than One the poet argues that ‘looking backward is more rewarding than its opposite’, after all, ‘tomorrow is just less attractive than yesterday’ and as he elaborates, ‘for some reason, the past doesn’t radiate such immense monotony as the future does. Because of its plenitude, the future is propaganda.’ But then, darkly sarcastic, he adds, ‘so is grass’11. This humorous self-deprecation filled with bittersweet understanding of one’s state of always yearning for never-attainable home reaches apotheosis in Brodsky defining once and for all a ‘genre’ all exiled writers subscribe to, whether they know it or not: tragicomedy12. Or perhaps his sceptical view on future as propaganda can be explained by his disinterest in acknowledging any power his former homeland held over him: despite the clout of legend formed around him with the help of the Western media, he refused to be defined in any way as a dissident or a rebel. Carl and Ellendea Proffer who were among Brodsky’s friends and supporters who helped him settle in the United States recalled from their conversations with the poet that he ‘refuse(d) to be defined in any way by opposition to the Soviet government; he prefer(ed) to act if the Soviet regime (did) not exist’13.

  1. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Stanzas…’ in Chast’ Rechi: Izbrannye Stikhi 1962–1989, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literature, 1990; my translation.
  2. David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1996
  3. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Darling, I left the house in the late evening…’ in Chast’ Rechi: Izbrannye Stikhi 1962–1989, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literature, 1990; my translation
  4. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Darling, I left the house in the late evening…’ in Chast’ Rechi: Izbrannye Stikhi 1962–1989, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literature, 1990; my translation
  5. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Ithaca’ in Chast’ Rechi: Izbrannye Stikhi 1962–1989, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literature, 1990; my translation
  6. See Sigmund Freud’s Das Unheimliche (1919)
  7. Joseph Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, 1991, p. 3
  8. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Joseph Brodsky’, Words Without Borders, 2015
  9. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Joseph Brodsky’, Words Without Borders, 2015
  10. Brodsky, ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980: An Obituary’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 153
  11. Brodsky, ‘Less Than One’ in <Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 7
  12. Brodsky, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’, p. 2
  13. Haven, ‘Joseph Brodsky, Darker and brighter: A spellbinding new biography rescues the poet from sentimentality and kitsch’ The Nation
This entry was posted in SCHOLARLY and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: