Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715
From the time when the Soviet authorities forced Joseph Brodsky into exile on June 4, 1977, the theme of exile dominated his poetry. Brodsky had tasted the bitterness of exile, however, even prior to his expulsion from his native land. Described by poet Anna Akhmatova as “the most gifted poet of his generation,” Brodsky was charged with the crime of being a “social parasite” and was arrested in January of 1964. After a quick trial, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in internal exile, but, thanks to pressures on the Soviet government at home and abroad, he was released in November, 1965.
After his release from the labor camp, Brodsky returned to his native city of Leningrad. Already one could see the development of the theme of exile in his poetry, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, along three distinct lines: an effort to convey a sense of what is sacred through images of things borrowed from everyday life, an attempt to convey in words a realm of silence that underlies all poetry, and an affirmation of a home that is forever approached but forever lies in a realm that is elsewhere. The poems in his collection To Urania, most of which he translated from Russian to English himself, exemplify these aspects of Brodsky’s art.
To Urania is a collection of forty-six poems, including the well-known long poem Gorbunov and Gorchakov (1968). The title poem is the twenty-fourth poem in the collection; it uses the metaphor of the body to express the exile of the spirit, particularly in these lines:
And what is space anyway if not thebody’s absence at every givenpoint? That’s why Urania’s older than sister Clio!
Urania is the muse of the heavens, while Clio is the muse of history. Urania is older because it is the longing for the heavens, which are the abode of the gods, that gives rise to history. Brodsky views history as the tale of the human effort to reach the heavens, since the heavens are the realm of the Great Elsewhere that reveals to humanity its condition of exile.
If Urania is the muse who gives rise to the poetry of exile, she does so from the beginning of Brodsky’s work. The collection’s first poem, “May 24, 1980,” commemorates Brodsky’s fortieth birthday, and in it he insists that, even though he has “munched the bread of exile,” only gratitude will come “gushing from” his throat. While exile is a condition that may invite despair, the poet struggles to overcome that despair by writing poetry.
The next six poems—“To a Friend: In Memoriam,” “October Tune,” “A Polar Explorer,” “Lithuanian Nocturne,” “Twenty Sonnets to Mary, Queen of Scots,” and “North Baltic”—examine exile in terms of the separation of one human being from another. Home consists not only of familiar places but also of familiar faces, and in these poems Brodsky explores the pain of separation from loved ones. The return home that brings exile to an end is, above all, a return to loving human relationships.
Because the poems in this collection deal with exile, many of them are set in places all around the world. Examples include “The Berlin Wall Tune,” “Dutch Mistress,” “Allenby Road” (a famous road in Israel), “Polonaise: A Variation,” “Cafe Trieste: San Francisco,” “Near Alexandria,” “Roman Elegies,” “Belfast Tune,” and “In Italy.” Especially noteworthy among these poems about other places is a passage from “Venetian Stanzas II,” a poem about the poet’s being out of place.
I am writing these lines sitting outdoors, in winter,on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves . . .and the coffee grows cold. And the blinding lagoon is lappingat the shore as the dim pupil’s bright penaltyfor its wish to arrest a landscape quite happyhere without me.
The poet’s distance from a dwelling place is here proclaimed in images of disjuncture: shirtsleeves in winter, cold coffee, and a landscape there without him. Like the eye that would arrest the landscape, the words in the poem try to capture some meaning, but both rush ahead to leave the speaker behind, outdoors in winter.
Just as some of the poems in To Urania are about places that are elsewhere, so others are about a time out of joint. These include “The Fifth Anniversary,” “The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn,” “Eclogue IV: Winter,” “Eclogue V: Summer,” “Letter to an Archaeologist,” and “Afterword.” Brodsky once described words as “almost palpable vessels of time,” and these poems that deal with time often deal also with poetry itself and the words that go into it. At the end of “Eclogue IV: Winter,” for example, he writes:
That’s the birth of an eclogue. Instead of the shepherd’s signal,a lamp’s flaring up. Cyrillic, while running witlesson the pad as though to escape the captor,knows more of the future than the famous sybil.
What is perhaps most striking about these lines is the idea that the Cyrillic alphabet (the alphabet used in the Russian language) has a certain life of its own. According to Brodsky, language is not just a tool used by a speaker; rather, language itself speaks. In the voice of language, the voice of the muse can be heard. The task of the poet is to attend to that voice in an effort to join words to the meaning that tries to escape them. For the poet, the exile of the human being from home is the exile of meaning from words.
Another poem worth noting from among these poems about time and poetry is “The Fifth Anniversary.” Its title designates the fifth anniversary of Brodsky’s exile from his homeland on June 4, 1977. In it he declares that he does not know “what earth will nurse my carcass,” but he ends by saying, “Scratch on, my pen: let’s mark the white the way it marks us.” Brodsky often uses the phrase “the white” to designate the opposite of home. Just as one who travels through a wilderness may “mark” that landscape by building a home, so does the poet mark the white, the blank page, by constructing words. For the poet in exile, words take the place of a dwelling place. Yet marking the white with words is just what makes the white visible, making all the more visible the poet’s condition of exile. The greater the sense of exile, the greater the need to write, and the more the poet writes, the more deeply he is entrenched in exile.
If the blank space designated by the white represents a condition of homelessness, it also represents a condition of silence. Here Brodsky understands the task of the poet to include the transformation of silence as emptiness into silence as eloquence. Silence, he maintains, is a kind of other language, and, as a poet, he endeavors to translate silence into words. The struggle between life and death, between exile and homeland, is a struggle between words and silence. Therefore the poet, who is the bearer of signs and images in his poetry, becomes a messenger who bears more than his message can contain. He becomes the messenger of silence.
In Brodsky’s poetry, the theme of silence is connected to the theme of time in that silence represents a realm of the future, which is the realm of becoming. As the poet in exile becomes the poet of exile, he is faced, if he is ever to set out for home, with the task of becoming other than who he is. Among the poems in To Urania that address this issue are “Minefield Revisited,” “The Bust of Tiberius,” “Seaward,” “Ex Voto,” and “At Karel Weilink’s Exhibition.” In this last poem, Brodsky declares that the sign of true self-mastery lies in the ability to “not take fright at the procedure of nonbeing.” With this insight, the poet discovers that not only is he in exile but also he is exile; not only is his home elsewhere but also he is elsewhere. Therefore, if the poet is to move homeward to that other place, then he must become other than who he is—and that other being the poet must become resides in silence.
In To Urania, the poem that most thoroughly explores the topic of silence is the final one, Gorbunov and Gorchakov, an extended dialogue between two patients in a psychiatric hospital outside Leningrad. One patient says to the other:
Silence is the future of all daysthat roll toward speech . . .Indeed, the future of our words is silence . . .And silence is the present fate of those whohave lived before us; it’s a matchmakerthat manages to bring all men togetherinto the speaking presence of today.Life is but talk hurled in the face of silence.
Because Brodsky’s poetry entails an examination of poetry itself, silence is often its subject matter. Like the exile that accentuates the homeland, silence calls forth the spoken part of the human being to draw him or her into a relation to another human being. Human presence is a speaking presence that harbors a nonspeaking, and the human task in life is to become present as a human being before another human being. In this task, the poet is the teacher.
Poetry is the most ancient of the verbal arts. It is the medium in which humanity first seeks its voice and the place where dwelling in the world first unfolds. It continues to unfold in the poetry of Joseph Brodsky. A poet for whom language is sacred, Brodsky is attuned to the capacity of language to open up a place where a trace of the sacred may show itself. As the poems in To Urania indicate, however, the sacred manifests itself as something at a distance. The notion of the sacred, then, includes the idea of drawing nigh. The poet engages in an effort to join word and meaning not in the midst of the sacred, which lies in the homeland, but in a movement toward it. The poet is the one who, in his homelessness, reveals a certain homelessness within the human condition itself. This revelation is the most significant feature of To Urania, for it is the most significant to the life of the human soul.
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