December 25, 2010

Joseph Brodsky's Christmas Poem

I first encountered the poet Joseph Brodsky in the pages of The New York Review of Books, it would have been something to do with St. Petersburg, the city where he was born and raised and which in many ways defined him -- the city where, as he used to say, everything can change (including its name, twice) except its weather and its light.

Even after serving 18 months at hard labour for the crime of "social parasitism" (ie being a poet), and when that didn't deter him from writing poetry, seeing himself diagnosed as schizophrenic by a medical expert of the regime, clearly a menacing development, and despite repeated invitations to emigrate to Israel, Brodsky didn't want to leave St. Petersburg. They had to break into his apartment and get him and put him on a plane; he didn't even know where it was going.

It went to Vienna, and after that he went on to America, became an American citizen and, like his city, changed his name. Fifteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I happened to visit New York that year, and that was where I encountered him again, in the Strand Bookstore, under the guise of his book of essays, Less than one, which I bought and still treasure. And then, just a few years ago, I found his grave in the beautiful cemetery of San Martino in Venice, near those of Ezra Pound and Diaghilev.

Brodksy ended Less than one with a piece which is a tender eulogy to St Petersburg and a brave one to the memory of his parents. He called it In a room and a half, that being the size of the apartment his family was allotted by the communist officials. And now, the director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy has made a film with this name, based on Brodsky's life and poetry.

I haven't been able to see the movie yet but I found the theatrical trailer on youtube and it looks wonderful. It opens magnificently with the old slave spiritual Go down Moses as the soundtrack, an impeccable choice given how Brodsky described his parents' greatest failure: they weren't able to raise their son to be a slave.

Joseph Brodsky, who would have turned 70 this year, used to write a poem every Christmas. Here is one of them I particularly like, written during his time at hard labour in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia. It surprised me to realise, as I was writing this, that he was only 24 when he composed it. My first thought was that the tone is that of a much older man, which would have been more than understandable, but then I re-read it and thought, well, no, actually. For my money, that's defiance there in the last line.

January 1, 1965

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards' nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you'd snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.
A little tune that never stops.
One knows by heart its downs and ups.
May it be played on par
with things to come, with one's eclipse,
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for what occasionally keeps
them trained on something far.

And staring up where no cloud drifts
because your sock's devoid of gifts
you'll understand this thrift: it fits
your age; it's not a slight.
It is too late for some breakthrough,
for miracles, for Santa's crew.
And suddenly you'll realize that you
yourself are a gift outright.

-- translated by the author

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


  1. Very touching poem! I'd love to include this to my favorite short Christmas poems list. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Love this poem. So meaningful and heartwarming. Reading poems is one of my hobbies. Lately, I've been reading Christmas poems and sorta collecting them for later reads. Cheers!

    1. I'm a big collector of poems too. Poems grow on you every reading, so it's good to hold on to the ones that speak to you. Thanks for your comment as it gave me the chance to reread this one!


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