Eighteen Christmas poems by the late Joseph Brodsky, Russian émigré, American citizen, Nobel laureate and our laureate as well. Eighteen poems collected and translated from the Russian by some of the best poets writing in English, including Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Paul Muldoon and Brodsky himself. It’s a welcome gift, coming as it does during this particular Christmas season, and all the more welcome because one would not have expected these poems from the elusive, protean, worldly, brilliant Joseph Brodsky.
He was born in 1940 and dead in the new year 1996 at age 55. His first 32 years were spent in his native Russia, including 18 months in a Soviet gulag, having been convicted by the state of the crime of parasitism because he spent too much time writing poetry. After his release, Brodsky came to the United States in 1972, became a U.S. citizen in 1977 and spent the rest of his life here, much of it in New York City and at Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts, where he taught, and where I met him on several occasions and watched him teach in his brilliant, quizzical, sometimes impassioned, sometimes aloof manner.
Among his English-speaking masters, whom he made his American students learn by heart, were Yeats, Frost and especially Auden, another émigré to the United States, whoshortly before his own death in 1973helped Brodsky make the transition from Russia to America via Vienna. Masters of formal verse all, for that was Brodsky’s own heritage; in all his years in the states he never found a kind word for our brand of free verse.
Ever since I took to writing poems seriously, he told one interviewer, ...I’ve tried to write a poem for every Christmasas a sort of birthday greeting. Several times I’ve missed the opportunity, let it slip by. One or another circumstance blocked the road. One can only imagine what some of those blockages were. The poems began in 1962, when Brodsky was 22. There is a long (320 lines), mordant one that sounds like a mix of Byron and Pushkin, called Speech Over Spilled Milk, written for the 1966-67 Christmas season, which reads like an indictment of the Soviet system. Then others for ’71, ’72 and ’73, this last (Lagoon) written in Venice, a magical place for this Russian who loved St. Petersburg (Leningrad), that Venice of the north. Call itVenicehis heavenly city, surrounded as it was by the lapping waters of eternity. Then a gap of a dozen years while Brodsky made his adjustments to a New World. And then, picking up again between 1985 and 1995 (his last Christmas): an unbroken chain of Nativity poems.
There’s a big difference between the earlier poems, which Brodsky wrote in his 20’s and early 30’s, and the last group, written between his 46th and 56th years. The earlier ones, with their Russian backdrop, read like occasional piecespoems written at Christmas, more concerned with surviving the dark turning of the year than about Christ’s coming among us. They’re brash, angry poems, and you feel Brodsky is simply trying to stay alive in a world where that takes some doing.
But the later poems are in fact Christmas poems. The focus has changed. Brodsky seems to have slowed down, he seems to have more breathing room, and he can begin to ask what Christmas may be all about. I arrive at Christmas without a kopeck, the 26-year-old opens his Speech Over Spilled Milk:
The publisher’s dragging on with
The Moscow calendar’s going Islamic.
I’m not going anywhere.
Not to the bawling kids of my buddy,
The family bosom, or a certain lady-
friend I know. They all cost money.
I shake with ill will in my chair.
O, the damnable craft of the poet.
The phone doesn’t ring, and the
future? A diet.
I could scrounge at the union
branchyou try it:
May as well scrounge from the
Lost independence is worse by far
than lost innocence. To dream of a
hubby is awfully nice, I’m sure.
How jolly, the jingle of
This is Horace, Horace in Moscow, or Ovid on the frigid Pontus in exile. The poet out in subzero weather looking through the steaming plate glass of a four-star restaurant where others, inside, drink tea around the samovar and laugh. What exacerbates the situation for the poet is that it should fall at a time of general rejoicing and festivities, whether we call it Saturnalia or Christmas.
Except that it is Christmas, and Christmas seems to have proven a conundrum of sorts for him. What is remarkable about Christmas? he asked himself toward the end of his life, fascinated by the question even as he kept his characteristic chariness toward the metaphysical resonances of God’s arrival among us. The fact that what we’re dealing with here is the calculation of lifeor, at the very least, existencein the consciousness of an individual, of a specific individual. But which consciousness? His...or Christ’s?
And that, it turns out, was the rub. After all, there was a great mystery at stake here, and he found it in monumental bad taste that someone should try to impose his own personal drama on Biblical, in particular Gospel subjects. This was the grossest sort of narcissism, the attempt on the part of the lesser (us) to interpret the greater (the Incarnation). Yes, he could understand a poet doing something like this, but still, wasn’t there something swinish about doing it?
Beginnings matter. And for Brodsky, these Nativity poems begancompellingly enoughwith an image, an icon. I wrote the first, I think, in Komarovo, he remembered. I was living at a dacha...and there I cut a picture out of a Polish magazine. I think it was Przekrój. The picture was Adoration of the Magi’ ....I stuck it on the ceramic stove and often looked at it in the evenings. It burned later on, the painting, and the stove, and the dacha itself. But at the same time I kept on looking and decided to write a poem on the same subject. That is, it all began not from religious feelings, or from [Boris] Pasternak or [T. S.] Eliot, but from a painting. Still, the Magi do not appear in the poem itself, except perhaps as they are transformed into the lonely light drifting through Alexander Park. Loneliness, and an overwhelming sadness, and a sense that the forces of Marxist history are too overwhelming for any one individual to change them:
Now drifting on a dark-blue wave
across the city’s gloomy sea,
there floating by, your New Year’s
as if life could restart, could be
a thing of light with each day lived
successfully, and food to eat
as if, life having rolled to left,
it could roll right.
And yet, and yet. Even that dark chapter in history changed, Brodskyif these poems are any indicationchanging with them. The lone light against the dark didsomehowhold. No, he insisted, waveringly, he wasn’t religious. Well, perhaps sometimes. And he was certainly not a churchgoer. Nor was he Russian Orthodox or even Catholic. Perhaps a Calvinist, though he didn’t much care for Protestantism. But he liked the notion that we were each our own Judgment Day. What mattered was what we did, he figured, not what we meant to do, and on that he would be judged.
But Brodsky is maddeningly difficult to pin down (no wonder he admired Ovid, that master of metamorphoses, so much). But then there is the evidence of those last Nativity poems, which strike one as closer to the world of serious meditation one associates with the world of sacred icons. As in these linesbare, egoless, concentrated, without fanfarefrom his final Christmas poem, Flight into Egypt (2), rendered here by his friend Seamus Heaney:
Mary prays: the fire soughs;
Joseph frowns into the blaze.
Too small to be fit to do a thing
But sleep, the infant is just sleeping.
Another day behind them now,
Its worries past. And the ho ho ho!
Of Herod who had sent his troops.
And the centuries a day closer too.
That night, as three, they were at peace.
Smoke like a retiring guest
Slipped out the door. There was
Heavy sigh from the mule. Or the ox.
The star looked in across the threshold.
The only one of them who could
Know the meaning of that
Was the infant. But he did not speak.
The silence of the great mystery of the Word’s coming among us. Against which all the rest is silence.