Joseph Brodsky was a poet and a writer, born in Leningrad in 1940, and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972. With the help of a friend, he settled in the United States, where he taught at Queens College and Mount Holyoke College among others, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was named national poet laureate. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he never returned to Russia.
He dropped out of school at fifteen and worked odd jobs for several years while writing poems with only underground circulation, until he was arrested for "social parasitism" in 1963 under the accusation that his transient work record was not enough of a contribution to society. Only members of the Soviet Writers' Union could be recognized as real poets, and he was not a member. The Kafkaesque transcript of his trial was smuggled out to the West, where it made him a hero of artistic integrity.
Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Translator and poet.
Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?
He was sentenced to five years of exile and labor in Arkhangelsk, but was allowed to return at the protests of many Soviet and Western figures after only eighteen months. After his return to Leningrad he continued to write for seven more years, most of his work being published abroad, until in 1972, after refusing to emigrate to Israel, he was put on a plane to Vienna and never came back.1
Brodsky published several books of poetry and book of heartrending English essays entitled Less Than One, and his writing is remarkable not for any overt political subversiveness, but for his quiet attention to themes of freedom and dignity. I was very pleased to discover that he also wrote three poems about Kaliningrad. The first, an unfinished fragment ("Отрывок"), from a visit that he presumably made to Baltiysk, the top-secret naval base on the peninsula a few kilometers to the west of Kaliningrad, as a photojournalist for the magazine Костер in 1963. The second and longest poem, "Einem alten architekten in Rom," he wrote in his northern exile, and the third, "Открытка из города К." a few years later, after a second trip to Kaliningrad while visiting his Lithuanian friend and fellow poet Thomas Venclova.2
These three poems are not among Brodsky's most famous, and the only English translation I have found is George L. Kline's version of "Einem alten...".3 Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and my Russian is mediocre at best, but I suppose an overcast Kaliningrad weekend afternoon is an appropriate time to put laziness aside and try to render at least Brodsky's general meaning in English, if not his eloquence. I hope the state of my Russian hasn't mangled it too badly. The Castle's ruins no longer stand by the river, but having shuffled through my own piles of fallen leaves and broken bricks, the image is still real enough.
Открытка из города К.
Развалины есть праздник кислорода
и времени. Новейший Архимед
прибавить мог бы к старому закону,
что тело, помещенное в пространство,
дробит в зерцале пасмурном руины
Дворца Курфюрста; и, небось, теперь
пророчествам реки он больше внемлет,
чем в те самоуверенные дни,
когда курфюрст его отгрохал.
среди развалин бродит, вороша
листву запрошлогоднюю. То – ветер,
как блудный сын, вернулся в отчий дом
и сразу получил все письма.
Postcard from the City K.
The wreckage celebrates the oxygen
and time. A modern Archimedes
could add to his old law
that a body, placed into space,
is by itself displaced.
in its murky mirror, refracts the ruins
of the Castle; and I suppose now
it pays more heed to the river’s prophecies
than in those heady days
when it was newly built.
wanders among the rubble, stirs up
last year’s leaves. That is the wind,
like the prodigal son, returning to his ancestral home
and a pile of unread letters.
1. Robert D. McFadden, "Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55," New York Times January 29, 1996.
3. George L. Kline, trans., Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974.