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...
(The entire section is 1715 words.)