Brodsky: great poetry in Russian or English

As in the past, this year's Nobel Prize in Literature is a curious blend of politics and literature. A well-known Russian poet living in exile since 1972, Joseph Brodsky probably got it because he's stood like a promontory in the changing seas of glasnost. However briefly, the prize should turn attention to Brodsky's poems, only a handful of which have appeared in the Soviet Union. The prize may force the authorities to publish him in an ``authorized'' edition.

Drawing on Russian, classical, and Anglo-American traditions, Brodsky is a truly international poet. He has as much to teach the so-called open societies of the West as the closed society of the Soviet Union. His poetry is the perfect antidote to TV consciousness, which makes the illusion of glasnost possible. In TV consciousness, all reality is of the moment and as you see it: There's no history.

Not so in Brodsky's poetry. Critics badger Brodsky for not being modern enough. He writes in traditional forms. Are Brodsky's forms just references to a stable, academic, and artificial ``tradition''? I don't think so. Brodsky uses traditional forms - meters and rhyme - because they embody norms of perception that supply him with an independent means to judge what's happening around him.

``Ex Voto'' is a short, recent poem, and a powerfully prophetic one. It begins in nightmare, moves through urban surrealism, pathos, and sentiment, and ends in a kind of dreadful sarcasm.

The title refers to a vow, and could mean that the poem is a thank offering to the muse. The poem's blocklike look on the page may make you think of an inscription. The lines rhyme in sets of four, ABAB. There are four sets of four - two lines longer than a sonnet; a melted sonnet, perhaps.

``Ex Voto'' starts easily, almost journalistically, referring, I think, to the fabled innocence of the Hungarian freedom fighters. It darkens quickly. Each line seems delicately but firmly tied to some inner logic, but the lines keep shifting planes.

What looks like a throwaway couplet (``A posthumous vista...'') is followed up by a surrealistic angel. Which segues to a marvelously compact and desolate line: ``And a stone marks the ground where a sparrow sat.''

And after that? Something to puzzle over! ``His flat future'' may refer to the insect flattened against the glass he tried to fly through to get to the palms (symbol of achievement and fulfillment of purpose) reflected in the window and alluding perhaps to the palmy days of Europe before the wars. But things have changed. ``A posthumous vista'' indeed...

Just when we didn't think we could go any further: A concatenation of images and idioms, the last couplet is one of the most remarkable in Brodsky's poetry. From the Hungarian field we've reached the Arctic waste. The mosquito has become an aimless iceberg - a self-conscious one, a sterile mass of illusion that ``hates bad press''!

Gloss that glasnost! The poem is just such bad press, and the iceberg ``suffers a meltdown'' of public shame, thus adding to the primal waters out of which, the evolutionists tell us, came the human brain, the material image of consciousness, if not conscience.

``Ex Voto'' ends on an ambiguous, multidirectional laugh, a sense of liberation in the face of the worst. As an English original, not a translation, it suggests that Brodsky is not only a great Russian poet, but a great English poet, too.

Ex Voto To Jonathan Aaron Something like a field in Hungary, but without its innocence. Something like a long river, short of its bridges. Above, an unutterable umlaut of eyes straining the view with hurt. A posthumous vista where words belong to their echo much more than to what one says. An angel resembles in the clouds a blond gone in an Auschwitz of sidewalk sales. And a stone marks the ground where a sparrow sat. In shop-windows, the palms of the quai foretell to a mosquito challenging the fa,cade of a villa or, better yet, hotel - his flat future. The farther one goes, the less one is interested in the terrain. An aimless iceberg resents bad press: it suffers a meltdown, and forms a brain.

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