Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Poet in exile

Joseph Brodsky was a poet in exile far away from his mental space and homeland. He herded his soul through untold suffering just to write what he had to. The stalinist Russia hounded him all his life, branded a social parasite and sentenced to many years in labour prison. Even after he fled the country, the propagandist maze and treachery continued when they never let his parents to leave Leningrad. These excruciating experiences were like million merciless rays cutting through his soul to introspect and inhale the rarified air beyond the mortal realms of suffering.

From March 1964 until November 1965, Brodsky lived in exile in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia. On June 4, 1972, Joseph Brodsky became an involuntary exile from his native country. After brief stays in Vienna and London, he came to the United States. His contemplations on the adopted language again shows the literary persona built around the concept of exile, loss and freedom.

On the essays about his parents in Less Than One (1986), he said - "I write this in English because I want to grant them a margin of freedom: the margin whose width depends on the number of those who may be willing to read this. I want Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky (poet) to acquire reality under a foreign code of conscience, I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won't resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than the Russian." He was reinventing a language to breathe in the spirit of creative freedom and insisted that language needed poetry not because it can outlive the poet, but it can mutate unlike the rigid and unkind human monoliths that attempted to judge, filter, manipulate and smother dissenting and differing voices.

Reading Brodsky is a personal experience, even when his poetry stays within the traditional and classical perimeters. He recounts the reflection on history, religion and personal life with an intimacy that gives you the reader a unique opportunity to view the dynamics of an artist's mind. The words laid out are so palpable, that you can fell the warmth and depth of his creative genius.

Reading Brodsky is deliberating on the concept of time and the language as a tool to sculpt on it. According to him, Time is the enemy of man and everything man has created and holds dear: "Ruins are the triumph of oxygen and time. Time clings to man, who grows older, dies and turns into "dust" – "time's flesh", as Brodsky calls it. One of his books of poetry is called A Part of Speech. Man – in particular, a poet – is a part of a language that is older than he and will live on after time has settled the account with language's servant.

*Man is attacked both by the past and the future. What we experience as unpleasant and negative in life is, as a matter of fact, a cry from the future, which is trying to break ground in the present. The only thing that prevents the future and the past from merging is the short period constituted by the present, symbolised by man and his body in "Eclogue IV: Winter" (1977):

… What sets them apart is onlya warm body.
Mule-like, stubborn creature,
it stands firmly between them,
ratherlike a border guard: stiffened, sternly
preventing the wandering of the future
into the past. …

I read him in 1992, before he died in his Brooklyn Apartment. I could read only a few of his works: Urania(1987), Watermark(1992) and Selected Poems (1973). But they left some indelible impression on me and a belief in the transcendence of poetry, after all that I mistrusted. Here is a poem from Urania where Brodsky mulled over death as space created by the absence of body, but still limited by memories and images that carry them. Notice the wide sweep of imagery and private but empathetic tone.

To Urania:
Everything has its limit, including sorrow.
A windowpane stalls a stare. Nor does a grill abandon
a leaf. One may rattle the keys, gurgle down a swallow.
Loneless cubes a man at random.
A camel sniffs at the rail with a resentful nostril;
a perspective cuts emptiness deep and even.
And what is space anyway if not the
body's absence at every given
point? That's why Urania's older sister Clio!
in daylight or with the soot-rich lantern,
you see the globe's pate free of any bio,
you see she hides nothing, unlike the latter.
There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
rivers where the folk with bare hands catch sturgeon
or the towns in whose soggy phone books
you are starring no longer; father eastward surge on
brown mountain ranges; wild mares carousing
in tall sedge; the cheeckbones get yellower
as they turn numerous. And still farther east, steam dreadnoughts
or cruisers,
and the expanse grows blue like lace underwear.

Brodsky was a person who you would hug before you bid adieu in silence to feel the warmth in the air around.


Sashi said...

A nice post on Brodsky - I might have taken notes on him sometime, and perhaps put them someplace on Buoy. Also since you like Brodsky's work you might also look up Adam Zagajewski's poetry as well his brilliant essay on exile and imagination titled "Two Cities" (in a book titled the same) - ha! one more (and surely much better than my )addition to Calvino's Invisible Cities!

The Box said...

It is always an impressive thing - and by impressive, I include scary, humbling, moving - to see someone's love affair with any subject matter. And it is what I witnessed here today.

Rajesh said...

Sashi, thanks for dropping by. The recco is noted.

Box, that was one hell of a comment. You can accuse me of having a biased stand on what I write :)

A delight to find like minded folks around. Please stop by whenever you guys can.

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