Brodsky’s elegies — the bear who played the flute

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Brodsky’s elegies — the bear who played the flute

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Joseph Brodsky’s critical essays on Anna Akhmatova, W. H. Auden and Eugenio Montale explain why he was attracted to the elegy, an ancient genre of sad reflection, of mourning the past or the dead. He explains, with characteristic wit, his personal attraction to this kind of poetry at a time when death wasn’t quite real to him: “I was young then and therefore particularly keen on elegies as a genre, having nobody around dying to write one for. So I read them perhaps more avidly than anything else.” He soon realised that “the most interesting feature of the genre was the authors’ unwitting attempts at self-portrayal with which nearly every poem ‘in memoriam’ is strewn — or soiled.” He found that contemplating an author’s death made him aware of his own mortality, and that “death as a theme always produces a self-portrait.”

Brodsky had many sad and bitter events to reflect on. The Soviet authorities arrested him for “social parasitism” in 1963, sentenced him to five years of hard labor near Archangel in the Arctic Circle and exiled him in 1972. His grace under pressure during his trial greatly enhanced his reputation when the transcript was published in the West and his career flourished in America. Akhmatova ironically commented, “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend! It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.” Brodsky gained publicity and praise, but also suffered great losses: parents, friends, lovers and son as well as language and culture.

Remembering his bitter exile and fear of an early death from heart disease, Brodsky insists, “there is nothing more moving than an alienated man resorting to elegy.” But he also believes that by writing elegies poets learn to shift the focus to their subjects and avoid thinking about their own death. Like Akhmatova, he “continues to address the dead as though they were alive.” Finally, he says that poems about the dead revive them and make them as real as when they were living: “Elegy is a retrospective genre, the most common of all poetic genres. The reason for this, in part, is the natural human feeling that our life becomes truly real only after the fact, that moving a pen across a piece of paper is, strictly chronologically, also a retrospective process.” Brodsky not only mourns the dead, but the atmosphere in which they lived.

Most critics agree that Brodsky’s Russian poems are much better than the poems he wrote in English. Since Anglophones can read his best work only in translation, it is difficult for them to understand (as with Pushkin) why Brodsky’s poetry is so highly regarded. Versions of his Russian poems have been expertly translated by major poets who did not know Russian — Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Derek Walcott — as well as by competent translators who knew both languages. The Russian poems have also been translated by Brodsky himself, and by many others whose work he heavily revised and even completely transformed without consulting them.

Brodsky wrote two Russian elegies, on Georgi Zhukov and T. S. Eliot, and seven English elegies on people he knew personally: poets, parents and lovers. Brodsky’s “On the Death of Zhukov,” written soon after his death, is a tribute to the most brutal, heroic and victorious Soviet marshal of World War II. Zhukov (1896-1974) led the Russian armies through the thousand-mile battles from Moscow to Berlin, conquered that city and took Germany’s surrender in 1945. Stalin saw Zhukov as a potential threat but, since he was too popular to execute, sent him to obscure military posts. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev took power and appointed Zhukov defense minister, but the marshal fell from favour again, and in 1957 was forced to retire. Brodsky thought “many of us owe Zhukov our life… It was Zhukov and nobody else who saved Khrushchev from Beria. It was his Kantemirov Tank Division that entered Moscow in July 1953 and surrounded the Bolshoi Theater.” The powerless poet calls the fierce fighter “the last of the Russian Mohicans.”

The poem opens with the impressive military funeral as “thundering Zhukov rolls towards death’s mansion.” Brodsky compares him to great classical commanders — Hannibal, Pompey and Belisarius — and reflects on the millions of dead soldiers who were sacrificed to win the war. Alluding to the biblical Ruth amid the alien corn and to the title of Faulkner’s novel, he asks, “How much dark blood, soldier’s blood, did he spill then / on alien fields? Did he weep for his men / As he lay dying?” Zhukov maintains that the deaths were inevitable since they “were fighting to win… in a just cause.” Thinking of all the high-ranking officers murdered during the Great Purge in 1937, many generals “marching triumphant through foreign cities, / trembled in terror when they came home.” Many of them were actually executed but Zhukov, who “saved our embattled homeland,” managed to survive.

Eliot, Auden and Lowell, men of art, present a striking contrast to Zhukov, man of action. Brodsky’s “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” which echo the title of Jonathan Swift’s self-reflective “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” expresses the traditional idea that the poet defeats time and lives on in his poetry. The poet’s words are likened to the swirling sea and, like the sea, survive the death of the poet himself: “in the rhyme / of years the voice of poetry stands plain.” Alluding to the lines in Milton’s “Lycidas”, perhaps the greatest elegy in English — “Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth: / And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth” — Brodsky writes, “The young tribe of giant waves / will bear the burden of his flight.” He then contrasts the “giant waves” to “The Waste Land” — “that dry land of days where we remain.” The penultimate line in part II, the most beautiful one in the poem, combines sea and sky imagery: “And ships of cloud swim slowly heavenward.”

Though Eliot is “not recalled by stone” memorials, he will become part of nature and return to earth: the soft and cloudy “puffball drift will make [him] known.” The elegy ends strongly with an allusion to Shakespeare’s “rosy lips and cheeks”:

You have gone where others are.
We, in envy of your star,
call that vast and hidden room,
thoughtlessly, “the realm of gloom.”

Wood and field will not forget.
All that lives will know you yet—
as the body holds in mind
lost caress of lips and arms.

The “star” recalls the one that guided the three Magi. The “hidden room” stands behind the chained door of death in the first stanza. “Realm of gloom” echoes Keats’s “realms of gold” in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. In the fine last simile, Brodsky compares the memory of the dead poet to the memory of a lost lover.

Brodsky first read modern English poetry in the anthology edited by the excellent scholar Prince D. S. Mirsky. It was published in 1937 during the Great Purge Trials when, to show that poetry was taken seriously, the editor and translators were arrested and executed. When Brodsky came to live in America he bid farewell to Russian and decided to write poems in English. It was considerable achievement to learn the language as an adult, and his ambition to take his place among the best native-speaking poets was extraordinary and bold. He first collaborated with his translators and then flew out on his own, but like a falling trapeze artist he let go of one secure hold before he could firmly grasp the next. Critics, troubled by the rough passages in his work, thought crude rhymes like “Paris/car is” might sound better when pronounced with a Russian accent. The bilingual expert John Bayley, in a memorable phrase, compared Brodsky’s English poems to a “bear playing the flute.”

Brodsky wrote elegies on two great modern poets who were friends, Auden and Robert Lowell. He paid tribute to Auden in an autobiographical essay, “To Please a Shadow” (1983) by recalling that he read him in his Arctic exile, “sitting there in the small wooden shack, peering through the square porthole-size window at the wet, muddy, dirt road.” He found the poetry only half comprehensible in those days, but it had the considerable advantage of “instantly obliterating the local reality” and transporting him to another world. He was particularly struck by Auden’s belief that “time worships language,” noting that “we are here to learn not just what time does to man but what language does to time.” Auden’s poetry gave Brodsky a way of mastering the passage of time in that remote and inhuman place, and soothing the anguish of being cut off from the world.

The three references to evanescent butterflies in the loosely structured “York: In Memoriam W. H. Auden” recall Brodsky’s tender early poem “The Butterfly”: “You’re better than No-thing. / That is, you’re nearer, / more reachable, and clearer.” He includes Auden’s familiar images and themes — factories, limestone, gurgling water, and the triumph of time — and mentions the death of his lover Chester Kallman, two years after Auden, in 1975. He quotes Auden’s disturbing statement, “I have known three great poets. Each / one a prize son of a bitch,” without identifying Yeats, Frost and Brecht. He also quotes part of Karl Marx’s famous phrase from the Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts in the air,” which suggests the extinction of the old world to make way for the new, though Auden represents the old order that Marx wanted to destroy. Brodsky lapses into dead diction: “losing my grip,” “for that matter,” “After Wednesday / comes Thursday, and so on.” But he creates some striking similes: “Like beads on a dusty abacus, / sparrows sit solemnly on wires,” “The white butterflies’ dance is like a storm-tossed ship.” He also suggests his own favorite themes: time, perspective, reflection and emptiness: “you’re not here. And vacuum gradually / fills the landscape.” In his strong last line on the poet, Auden, once “the source of love, turns into the object of love.”

Brodsky first met Robert Lowell at the 1972 International Poetry Festival in London, just after he was exiled from Russia. He said that Lowell “volunteered to read my poems in English, which was an extraordinarily noble gesture on his part. Then he invited me to visit him in Kent, where he was vacationing [i.e., living with Caroline Blackwood] that summer. A certain intuitive understanding arose between us instantaneously… Whenever I think about Lowell, I remember his enormous attention. The expression on his face was extremely good-natured… You were face to face with a man who was listening.”

Brodsky’s “Elegy: For Robert Lowell” (1977), written in superbly rhymed three-to-seven-line stanzas, celebrates the man and his art. Like Auden’s elegy for Yeats, the different sections have different verse forms and Brodsky transforms Auden’s “he became his admirers” into “Now you become a part / of the inanimate” world. The first and longest section uses religious imagery ironically, like the pun on grammar and heaven in “future perfect” — since Brodsky was Jewish and Lowell no longer religious. He evokes Lowell through the altar and choir, the Cross, Salvation and the Almighty Lord, and cunningly compares the white pointed steeples of New England churches to spooky hoods. Despite the promises of eternal life, the poet dies and his friends must contemplate the emptiness he’s left behind.

The vengeful Soviet authorities did not allow Brodsky’s beloved parents to travel abroad to visit the famous exile; he refused to return to Russia after he became famous in the West and never saw them again. “In Memoriam” (1985), published two years after his mother’s death, is surprisingly cool and constrained. Written in a deliberately unsentimental style, it excludes the conventional expressions of filial love. In rather humble similes, he thinks of his mother “receding like a chambermaid giving notice” or “like a railway platform, with block-lettered DVINSK,” a city where his mother (trilingual in Latvian, Russian and German) was born. He mentions bloodless marble statues covered with melting snow; their modest family background with no generals or philosophers who might become Stalin’s victims; and the Neva River in his native Leningrad brimming with his neologistic pun “mediogres”(mediocre ogres). After noting his mother’s humble saucepans and powdered cheeks, he shifts into high gear with the mournful cry, “She has died, she has died,” which echo “An Anatomy of the World” by his favorite poet, John Donne: “She, she is dead; she’s dead.”

Brodsky’s father, who died a year after his wife, was a naval officer who could not, with a Jewish background, rise above the rank of commander and retired from the service to become a professional photographer. “In Memory of My Father: Australia,” employs a kind of metaphysical conceit. It describes Brodsky’s desire for reunion with his father, impossible in Russia and transposed to a distant continent that neither of them had ever visited. He dreams that his father, who’s moved to Australia, contacts him by echoing telephone and hears the familiar Leningrad complaints about lost slippers, swollen ankles, disappointing flat, no elevator, poor location, dirty conditions and hot climate. Only snatches of his father’s voice crackle through the poor connection. But some sign of life is better than his father’s reduction to powder in a Leningrad crematorium and to the smoke above its chimney, images that suggest the holocaust that exterminated most of the Jews in Europe.

The next two anguished elegies are laments rather than memorials for the dead. Lev Loseff explained the background: “Upon his release from the [prison] hospital on January 2, 1964, Brodsky learned that his lover Marina Basmanova and his onetime best friend Dmitriy Bobyshev were having an affair, and he dashed back to Leningrad to confront them. A week later he slit his wrists… The on-again, off-again relationship with Basmanova continued for another [four] years. They sometimes lived together, they sometimes lived apart. In the fall of 1967 they had a son, whom they named Andrei. But soon after, early in 1968, six years after Brodsky and Basmanova first met, they made a final break.”

Brodsky sustained his anger for more than two decades and nursed the suppurating wounds that continued to inspire his art. Both elegies satirise Basmanova and repay her for his youthful disappointment in love. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “One Art”: “The art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” In Brodsky’s “Elegy” (1985), the memories of painful love merge into disturbing images of birds’ wings that unfold like a surprised eyebrow or open like a razor blade, or that have the menacing shade of blood. A year has passed since her betrayal and the end of the affair, and a fresh supply of admirers has replaced him. Dying laughter and deep bruises mark her high treason, and a caustic line suggests dirty sheets, forlorn erections, departing lovers — and an ironic allusion to the resurrection of Christ: “laundered banners with the imprints of the many who have since risen.” Her new lovers have failed to win her pitch-black heart and are smashed like blind colliding eggs. But he’s comforted by the thought that she’s now as miserable as he is.

The tortured grammar and forced rhymes of Brodsky’s second “Elegy” on Basmanova (1992) are less effective than in the previous poem, and express more strongly his tormenting anger and bitterness. He is glad that Basmanova — now aged fifty-four — has lost her looks. He ironically calls her “Sweetheart” and repeatedly tells her to take her ruined face away and retreat to a remote village where her wretched appearance doesn’t matter. Her lipstick, in its bullet-like case, is useless in the hinterland. She will now grow old, alone and lonely, when she looks in the mirror and realizes that she’s no longer desirable, that youth, beauty, breasts and semen mean “absolutely nothing.” Still madly attracted to her, he threatens to join her for a debased form of love in her sexual “sinkhole or crater.” But he suddenly changes his mind and admits that she no longer cares for him.

Brodsky addresses another bitter “Elegy” (1995), to a woman who betrayed him in America. The first line alludes to the title of Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific,” and recalls that the poet can’t swim: “Whether you fished me bravely out of the Pacific” or during sex “I pried your shell wide open by the Atlantic” / now matters little.” The ocean that now “insinuates itself / into your hairdo” suggests the birth of Venus on a different kind of half-shell. He exalts the mesmerising beauty of his goddess by paraphrasing Keats’ “Grecian Urn,” “All breathing human passion far above.” But he also degrades her to the human level (with low diction) as a vain and selfish woman who breaks “new hearts and balls across this continent.” His “rented abode in a snowbound village / somewhere up north” alludes glancingly to his exile’s hut near Archangel. She stares into her flimsy mirror, which evokes her fading memory of him, and proves (as in the previous poem) that he “makes indeed no difference” to her.

Brodsky’s bitter and angry elegies on women are indeed self-portraits, and belong to the great poetic tradition of disappointed love: Ovid’s “Amores”, Juvenal’s satires, Wyatt’s “They flee from me,” Shakespeare’s sonnets on his friend’s betrayal, Yeats’s longing for Maud Gonne, Hardy’s verse on his miserable first marriage. They all portray treacherous emotions, searing frustration and overwhelming pessimism. Brodsky’s elegies on living women are more poignant than those on dead heroes and friends.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 88%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 87%
16 ratings - view all

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