“I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles….”
So begins May 24, 1980, the first poem in Joseph Brodsky’s collection of poetry, To Urania. Brodsky was born in St.Petersburg near the outbreak of the Second World War, became a poet, was accused of “social parasitism” by Soviet authorities, then sentenced to hard labor but subsequently pardoned. Exiled in 1972, he became a U.S. citizen in 1977, taught in various schools and became American poet-laureate in 1991. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and died in 1996. So runs a summary of his presumably colorful, tortured life.
The evidence is in the poetry he left behind – a poetry of solitude, exile, memory, love and philosophical thinking that never gives in to despair. It is remarkable that he himself or with other collaborators translated many of the poems he wrote in Russian. His English and translated-to-English poetry is one of the finest achievements of poetry in the 20th century for me.
While one would expect from such a free spirit an airy, Rimbaud-like free verse, Brodsky hews poems in a classical mould, more like sculptures from which music emanates but remain solid by adhering, in many instances, to rhyme and meter. There are quite a few references to vernacular details and characters and the notes at the end of the book are a great help. One also feels that Brodsky, in his poems, is in communion with the ancient past while referencing the present, not in the way of Ezra Pound whose poetry is mainly for the initiated nor of T.S. Eliot whose references leave you distanced (which is probably what is intended), but inevitably because his thought has no way to go but back in time.
Urania, in Greek mythology, is one of the nine Muses and had as attributes the globe and compass.
“Everything has its limit, including sorrow.
And what is space anyway if not the
body’s absence at every given
point? That’s why Urania’s older than sister Clio!
you see she hides nothing….
There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
rivers where the folk with bare hands catch sturgeon….”
And so the short poem To Urania, from which the title of the collection is taken goes -a poetry of memory and longing, anchored in a body that registers every impact of time and place like a scar. The collection is a poetry of places and people – Lithuania, Russia, vast lands, cities and people in Europe and America.
In The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn, one of my favorite poems, an aging, spiralling hawk, forcing himself to fly higher in the face of nature and winter, finally yields to the cry of children, “Winter’s here.” It seems emblematic of Brodsky’s credo if he ever had one.
It is, finally, a poetry of love and affirmation, refusing to yield.
“…Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.”
So ends the first poem in the collection.