Thursday, February 4, 2010
Same Time Next Year
I’ve never understood poetry, but now that I’m almost forty I prefer poetry to prose. I don’t have enough time left on this earth to waste my time on prose. Artistic statements should be fit neatly into a haiku or limerick. With my new found appreciation of poetry, I naturally found my way right into the epicenter of Russian soul, Joseph Brodsky.
My only widely circulated aphorism is this one: It’s better to write poetry than to read it. But if a second of my aphorisms gains currency some day, let it be this: If you have to read poetry, let it be Russian poetry. And if somehow another one of my aphorisms gets popular as a result of some freak YouTube video, let it be this: If you have to read Russian poetry, let it be Joseph Brodsky’s poetry.
Why do I say that? Because he wrote in Russian and English, like Nabokov, and became a national American institution, like foreign policy czar, Brzezinski. Because he was prosecuted in Russia, and exiled internally, for being a “social parasite.” Because he somehow taught himself English and became America’s poet laureate. Because he won the Nobel prize for literature. Moreover, his poetry is both profound and straightforward, a rare combination.
Brodsky’s Nativity Poems are a case in point. They’re artful, and they are (wait for it) Christian, notwithstanding the author’s claims to be a polytheist. Brodsky wrote a poem each Christmas. And something about the fact that he wrote them at the same time each year helps to create the impression of a deep meditation on the nature of time. Moreover, by focusing on the nativity scene (Christmas and Nativity are the same word in Russian), Brodsky seems to be making a deliberate effort to make contact with sacred time, that is, time unrelated to the passing of years. Brodsky's special interest is picturing himself at Jesus' birth, at a time when Jesus was more or less like all other human beings.
Brodsky's Nativity poems are filled with the only worthwhile subjects in poetry: existential dread, religiosity, the passage of time, and death. And of course Brodsky isn’t shy of politics. These poems touch upon Marxism, capitalism, and Soviet politics. Brodsky gives you lines such as these: “KGB, stop jerking off!” “Take out your saints. Take out the GenSec’s portrait!” And: “…in that nation where among the forests of hands the tyrant of the State is voted in, its only candidate, and spit goes ice-cold on the tongue.”
I like Brodsky’s poems in their original Russian, although I don’t understand a word of Russian and can’t decipher a single Cyrillic letter. I like the mystery. One sees the date—that translates into English—and nothing else.
Below are some favorite lines from mostly Brodsky's non-Nativity poems:
“All talk is a barren trade. A writing on the wind’s wall.”
“People are not my thing. I hate the look of them. Grafted to life’s great tree, each face is firmly stuck and cannot be torn free."
“Scythe, skull, and skeleton—an absurd pack of lies. Rather, ‘Death, when it comes, will have your own two eyes.’
“My life has dragged on. In the recitative of a blizzard a keen ear picks up the tune of the Ice Age. Every ‘Down in the Valley’ is, for sure, a chilled boogie-woogie. A bitter, brittle cold represents, as it were, a message to the body of its final temperature.“
“if you dream of a door, you tend to slam it.”
“My life has dragged on. The signs are plenty. They’d make yet another life, just as dragging.”
“..stiffened, sternly preventing the wandering of the future into the past.”
“In space, the deepest inhaling hardly ensures an exhaling, nor does the departure a return.”
“Labor is no commodity. To say it is insults the workers. It’s the goal and form of being. Money’s, well, it’s base. It’s more than just a meal, but let’s try making sense of this. Things are more than their worth in cash.: