Tuesday, July 16, 2013
The Fattest Armor
Skinny poets last forever, but fat poets last only as long as the world - just ask Joseph Brodsky. With his blue eyes and impeccable deadpan (which sounds in Russian like nothing else but in English like John Shade) he did not invent, but almost certainly did extend the role of the poet as tourist.
Poets have always been tourists, of course, but Brodsky made the pose cool or rather interesting: productive, at least of poetry. His best poems are basically just him walking around looking at stuff, and his best lines a combination of super-retweetable aphorisms and typically Russian mini-conversations with things that most people would assume to be voiceless - things like salt-shakers, picnic tables, beaches. Here, for example, from Lullaby of Cape Cod:
"A giant clock on a brick tower
rattles its scissors. The face is drenched with sweat.
The streetlamps glisten in the stifling weather,
like white shirt buttons open to the waist."
(translation by Anthony Hecht and probably Brodsky himself too - see Daniel Weissbort's whiny but illuminating journal of a translator, From Russia with Love)
Now maybe it's the summer, which is after all a great season for walking around and looking at things, and then kind of transforming those things into other things or just picking them up and putting them in your pocket, but I love this kind of stuff. It's the Euro of poetry: a terminally uncool super-currency that lacks in specifics but nonetheless opens everything up, at least for a little while. Its ethics are pragmatic, which is boring but at least honest: what it promises is that everything can be interesting, the same way that the American Dream promises that everyone can be rich. I have a sense that it is doomed, not just because its various CEOs (some of my favorites: Derek Walcott, Les Murray, Seamus Heaney) have strip-mined their sources, but because there is a point where plentitude itself becomes a ponzi scheme and we have to blow the whole thing up. Why do we have to blow the whole thing up? I don't know. Maybe because you can only offer band-aids for so long until people start wanting a Rimbaud to come in and reinvent the universe. Maybe because we just have to.
As a Petersburger, meaning as a native of a city that was created, Brodsky had an intuitive grasp of apocalype. Things had a beginning, and we can remember that beginning therefore they would have an end, and we will see it. Here he is talking to Solomon Volkov:
"Once Susan Sontag said that a person's first reaction in the face of a catastrophe is basically to ask, 'Where did the mistake occur here? What should have been done to take this situation in hand? So that it doesn't happen again?' But there is another, alternate behavior, she says: to let the tragedy steamroll you, to let it crush you. As the Poles say, 'to lie down under it.' If you ever do manage to get back on your feet after that, then you rise up a different person. The phoenix principle, if you like." (Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, p. 45)
Brodsky's calm in the face of disaster helps explain his fatness, I think - explain and excuse it, since there's a subtle but important difference between Nero fiddling and the Wandering Jew. Both men know they're going down, both are slightly detached from the disaster going on around/within them; but the WJ has his eyes open. He understands himself as a witness, and the particular end really just one more version of a thing that has been happening over and over again, as it should. Recently I was arguing with a couple of Russian friends about this. I said that the same thing happened in the US, and that if you squinted you could still see the blue and grey uniforms on TV commentators and supreme court justices - but Svetlana stuck a finger down into the air between us as it were a gigantic cauldron she was stirring. History for Americans moves around, but up too, she said. A spiral. But in Russia it is only round and round.
One good thing about being strapped to a wheel of course is that it allows you to shake hands with your predecessors - in Brodsky's case, with the great amor fatist Alexander Pushkin. For me, Pushkin is the key to Brodsky - not to understanding him (Brodsky is not the kind of poet you have to "understand"), but to liking him. Read on its own, Lullaby of Cape Cod is good, but read as a sequel or fourth season to Eugene Onegin or the Journey to Arzrum it starts to feel like necromancy. It's like, Brodsky's saying "Watch me be Pushkin for a few minutes, meaning watch me try and reconcile myself to the brevity/limitedness of life by throwing language at everything. Because I'm honest, and because I'm a poet, it will not stick everywhere - it will not even stick in the places it did before, and this will be why watching me is worth your while, since by doing so you'll get some tips on which parts of the world are still poetic and thrilling and which parts have been exhausted for now."
The "for now" is an important part of it. In his brilliant biopic of Brodsky, the animator of genius Andrei Khrzhanovsky reminds us of the advantages a city dweller has when it comes to remembering: namely, that with a city, you can see the same relatively small space change, age, disappear, be reborn, in a way that, ok, may be possible for someone who grows up on a farm but is not really possible for someone who grows up all over the place. I have literally not seen the continents, let alone countries, I lived on between the ages of six and fourteen since I left them. So Brodsky's preference for time over space possesses a certain... fascination for me. Actually, it makes me jealous and a little suspicious of his "exile" - for is it really possible to be an exile when you consider the entire earth to be a single huge ship sailing through time? Or is it only possible then?
To put this another way: Oh America! Oh Olson, with his "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America" - as if spelling it in Poundian caps makes ANY DIFFERENCE! I can hear Brodsky chuckling at our insistence that time needs to be dealt with only in its congealed form (like believing in air conditioners but not electricity). Maybe that's why we're so lonely, and so communal - for lacking any handshake with ancestors we cuddle in the boat, anxious for the brown-eyed handsome man to come and make experience not important any more, and the skinny man therefore king.