So this short piece in the Philadelphia News is my only chance to make amends with a belated birthday card for Joseph. I was his student at the University of Michigan, his first academic port-of-call in exile. His comment on evil is worth repeating, always: “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.”
After his 1996 death, James Billington, Russian scholar and head of the U.S. Library of Congress, said this:
“Joseph Brodsky sustained and exemplified the mysterious power of poetry both in the repressive Soviet culture from which he was exiled and in the permissive American culture to which he came. … He will be remembered as one who lived and cared for language, who won a Nobel Prize for verse written primarily in Russian, and yet became over time both a master essayist and self-translated poet in the English language.”
But the best words were always his own. Here’s his translation of one of his poems, on the city of his birth:
I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland
by zinc-gray breakers that always marched on
in twos. Hence all rhymes, hence that wan flat voice
that ripples between them like hair still moist,
if it ripples at all. Propped on a pallid elbow,
the helix picks out of them no sea rumble
but a clap of canvas, of shutters, of hands, a kettle
on the burner, boiling—lastly, the seagull’s metal
cry. What keeps the heart from falseness in this flat region
is that there is nowhere to hide and plenty of room for vision.
Only sound needs echo and dreads its lack.
A glance is accustomed to no glance back.