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Nativity Poems by Joseph Brodsky

Nativity Poems (1992)

by Joseph Brodsky

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Winter solstice happens
once again, and once again
we search for words
within the silence.

Winds are frigid,
days are gray,
and Night
dreaded more
than ever before,
for it is closer and longer ,
alien and inevitable,
less likely to brighten
with a shooting star.

We need lights
against the dark,
evergreens and red berries
in the snow,
chimes to cheer us,
wassail to warm,

and still
is in the air
and something wearisome:
what we fear
is more than we can bear.
And so, once again,
we search ourselves for words:

Immanuel, oh come,
oh, Infinite One,
of Man the Son,
oh come, oh come.

Every year some of us feel compelled, by the holiday season, to write once again.

Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet and English prose writer, Nobel Prize winner and, once, Poet Laureate of the United States, says that “from the time he first took to writing poems seriously,” he tried every year to write a new one to celebrate the Nativity. Why, he was asked. “The fact that what we’re dealing with here is the calculation of life — or at the very least, existence — in the consciousness of an individual, a specific individual.” Continuing, he said that “he liked that concentration of everything in one place — which is what you have in the cave scene.” From 1962, when he was twenty-two, until his untimely death in January, 1996, each year, with few exceptions, sometime during the Christmas season, he wrote another poem —always in Russian, though a few he translated into English himself. Others have been translated by such well known poets (and friends of Brodsky) as Anthony Hecht, Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, and Richard Wilbur. The sequence has been published as Nativity Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

Not all of them address the topic directly, but capture seasonal moods candidly. In the very first one, from 1962, for example, each of the first stanzas begins with a brooding sense of desolation:

There floats in an abiding gloom,
among immensities of brick,
a little boat of night . . . .

There floats in an abiding gloom
a drone of bees: men, drunk, asleep.
In the dark capital a lone
tourist takes another snap.

There floats in an abiding gloom
a poet in sorrow . . . .

There floats in outer Moscow one
who swims at random to his loss,
and Jewish accents wander down
a dismal yellow flight of stairs.
[translated by Glyn Maxwell]

The next year the poem is written on — and titled — January 1, 1965. It begins,

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards’ nagging roar.
[translated by the author]

A very personal poem of forty cantos, called “Speech over Spilled Milk,” is, likewise, despondent, turning fairly bitter as it progresses. Here are excerpts from #5 and # :

I see my single self in a mirror.
I can make no sense of this simple data:
that I made it to Holy Christmas number
nineteen hundred and sixty-seven.
Twenty-six years of continuous hassle . . . .

. . . we get the bastards first. (Good health!)
It’s not exactly Christian, this,
I grant you, brothers Orthodox.
I don’t know why you’re looking shocked.
We all make good Iscariots
when we decide we need the space.
[translated by Glyn Maxwell]

An involuntary exile from his homeland in 1972, eventually he became a college teacher and prominent poet in the United States, and a US citizen in 1980, but he has been recognized and rewarded world-wide. His Nativity poems acknowledge the popular celebration of Christmas by the masses; for example, “December 24, 1971”:

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
[translated by Alan Myers with the author]

But, during the last decade or so of his life (he married in 1990, and he and his wife had a daughter), each year the poem once again reimagined the Nativity, that scene in the cave. “Star of Nativity” (December 24, 1987) is one he translated into English himself. It begins,

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

From then on, each year, he seemed determined once again to recapture the experience of Bethlehem: of the holy family, Mary and Joseph and the baby, maybe of shepherds and magi, maybe of the star.

My favorite of all is one of the simplest, “Nativity” (December 25, 1999), once again translated by the author himself:

No matter what went on around them; no matter
what message the snowstorm was straining to utter;
or how crowded they thought that wood affair;
or that there was nothing for them anywhere;

first, they were together. And — most of all — second,
they now were a threesome.

It concludes with a last peaceful, and somewhat visionary, stanza:

The campfire flared on its very last ember,
They all were asleep now. The star would resemble
no other, because of its knack, at its nadir,
for taking an alien for its neighbor.

His very last Nativity poem, from December 1995, before his death by a heart attack in January 1996, has been translated by Seamus Heaney. It is called “Flight into Egypt (2),” but once again he reimagines the scene in the cave and the holy family safely sheltered there. The poem concludes,

That night as three, they were at peace.
Smoke like a retiring guest
slipped out the door. There was one far-off
heavy sigh from the mule. Or the ox.

The star looked in across the threshold.
The only one of them who could
know the meaning of that look
was the infant. But He did not speak.

For over thirty years, we can watch a poet striving to communicate his experience of the Yuletide season. We see him grow — if not in faith — at least in visionary possibility:

. . . . For miracles, gravitating
to earth, know just where people will be waiting,
and eagerly will find the right address
and tenant, even in a wilderness. (“25.XII.1993”
[translated by Richard Wilbur]

I have been attempting at least one poem for Christmas each year for exactly thirty years now. As you can probably tell from the draft with which I opened this review, my faith may have faltered, my joy been tempered, but what is still there, though meek and unassuming, is hope.

Here is the one I’m sharing with family and friends this year:

The Last of the Magi

“What we once
imagined would be
straight lines

stretching skyward
saluting the sun,

a Doric column,
the classic arc
of a shooting star,
the stately One,

instead grew craggy and
tangled, sundered but


This volume of Brodsky’s Nativity poems somehow bolsters my hope and fortifies my vision. The book itself is a work of art. The Russian and the English versions are printed attractively on facing pages. An earlier edition was first published in Russia in 1992. In a sort of appendix, an interview with Brodsky is included. Born Jewish, a self-professed polytheist, definitely not a church-goer, but a Calvinist (he insists), he speaks quite candidly of his religious growth: “I’m not firmly convinced of anything. Of his Calvinism and sense of Judgment, he concludes, “. . . man answers to himself for everything. That is he is his own Judgement Day. . . . When I was younger, I tried to figure this all out for myself. But at some point I realized that I am the sum of all my actions, my acts, and not the sum of my intentions.”

From time to time, throughout this volume, there are rather grim black-and-white photographs, most of them of urban scenes in the winter. They are attributed to Mikhail Lemkhin, and I suspect that most, if not all, of them were taken on Moscow city streets. The design of the book is notable, including the book jacked in subdued tones of blue, with one silver star embossed between the poet’s name and the title. The book fits right into the palm of your hand and rewards reading and rereading. ( )
1 vote bfrank | Nov 24, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374528578, Paperback)

Christmas poems by the Nobel Laureate

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother's breast, the
steam out
of the ox's nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, the team
of Magi, the presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.
--from "Star of the Nativity"

Joseph Brodsky, who jokingly referred to himself as "a Christian by correspondence," endeavored from the time he "first took to writing poems seriously," to write a poem for every Christmas. He said in an interview: "What is remarkable about Christmas? The fact that what we're dealing with here is the calculation of life--or, at the very least, existence--in the consciousness of an individual, a specific individual." He continued, "I liked that concentration of everything in one place--which is what you have in that cave scene." There resulted a remarkable sequence of poems about time, eternity, and love, spanning a lifetime of metaphysical reflection and formal invention.

In Nativity Poems six superb poets in English have come together to translate the ten as yet untranslated poems from this sequence, and the poems are presented in English in their entirety in a beautiful, pocket-sized edition illustrated with Mikhail Lemkhin's photographs of winter-time St. Petersburg.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:43 -0400)

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