Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Katy Evans-Bush

CPR Classic Readings:
Joseph Brodsky

I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland”  

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          Much has been written about the violence totalitarian regimes do to language, with their jargon, their intolerance of thought, and their fear of the possibilities of words. In The Drowned and the Saved (English translation 1988) Primo Levi described how this operated in the concentration camps, but his analysis can hold true for wider usage in any oppressive regime: 

“So I realized that the German of the Lager (camp)… was only vaguely related to the precise, austere language of my chemistry books, and to the melodious, refined German of Heine’s poetry . . . it was a variant, particularly barbarized, of what a German Jewish philologist, Klemperer, had called Lingua Tertii Imperii (LTI), the language of the Third Reich…” He goes on: “It is an obvious observation that when violence is inflicted on man, it is also inflicted on language,” and illustrated this generally: “LTI differed from Goethe’s German chiefly because of certain semantic shifts, and the abuse of certain terms: for example, the adjective volkisch (‘national folk’) had become omnipresent and laden with nationalistic arrogance and the connotation of the adjective fanatisch had changed from negative to positive.” 

          This passage also hints at what the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, for example, had already done to Russian—creating ideologically forbidden ways of using words, debasing everyday thought, and in their wake an ‘underclass’ of people who were still able to parse meaning. Because meaning and understanding are what language is all about. 

          European literature since the mid-twentieth century has largely been about reclaiming language and the transformative thought processes it makes possible—not solely by writers working in their native languages, as for example Célan in Germany after the war. This has been much written about, and indeed the fractured nature of twentieth century experience has driven most serious intellectual thought. In terms of applied language, Russia’s great contribution (after writers like Andrei Bely, whose modernist novel St Petersburg predated Stalin’s Terror) was to American letters, through its émigrés. Nabokov, the brave stylist, is a prime example of someone who left an adopted language more beautiful—more nuanced—than he found it, though there have been others. One of those was Joseph Brodsky, who worked tirelessly to convey the importance of poetry as a prophylactic against totalitarianism itself. 

          I grew up with one uncle whose Menshevik father had escaped from Siberia in a barrel after the failed revolution of 1905, and another who had come, aged five, with his mother and two aunts on the last boat out of Estonia “after the Nazis and before the Communists,” as he said. His father had been due to follow on the next boat. In my family art, literature and ideas were of the utmost importance. My uncles between them seemed to know everybody and everything; even when they had no money, they still had the latest books (and I don’t just mean novels). Sometime in the late 1970s, as an impressionable teenager in love with Pound and Eliot, I came across an interview with Joseph Brodsky in which he said he had learned English by translating William Shakespeare and John Donne. At the time this impressed me almost literally as a command to spend a summer at my Russian uncle’s dining room table in upstate New York, surrounded by bilingual editions—Aleksandr Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova—and a huge red-and-white dictionary, learning rudimentary poetic Russian while my cousins were all at the pool listening to the Grateful Dead. At the time I learned the structure of a new language, and my own ways of parsing meaning. In the years that followed, when I had myself (admittedly through a kind of choice) left my country of birth and started to assemble an intellectual identity, I learned a lot more from this poet who lived out his exile so near my home.  

I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland

Joseph Brodsky


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 hearts 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.

          This poem introduces in its title, and immediately repeats, a literal statement of Brodsky’s origins: “I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland.” This statement cuts itself off at the point where Brodsky was grown; and indeed he didn’t live most of his adult life in that landscape. Note that there is no mention of St Petersburg itself—Leningrad, as it then was—the grand city built on that marshland, in which Brodsky had a vivid childhood which he has described in detail. Instead, he uses the lonely word “marshland” to define the emotional terrain. 

          Through a series of empirical observations he colors this terrain (gray) and moves up and away from it, although the heart—kept from “falseness”—remains. The poem’s “wan flat voice,” rippling moist hair and propping on elbow all recall an intimacy: love, even, but an unhappy love. The breakers, the rhymes, and even the lines in this poem support this by coming in twos, giving the final couplet its full thrust. The final line describes the exile’s downfall, which is also paradoxically the expression of his meaning, the backward glance. 

          Zinc-grey breakers and the seagull’s “metal cry” offer no quarter: there is no doubt we are behind the Iron Curtain. Even the pillow one might expect to be propped on, with hair rippling “if it ripples at all” is not a pillow at all, but a “pallid elbow.” With the word “helix” Brodsky shows us that the imperative is more than emotional—it is biological, the pull of what we are. By “helix,” the code of our biology, it is possible Brodsky meant also the code of written language itself, which represents thought, or the effort of coming to terms with the world. And rather than wanting to be read in different ways, these textured layers of meaning instruct us to read them in one big way: with “plenty of room for vision.” 

          Brodsky’s helix “picks” out of the rhymes—the landscape—not the “sea rumble” (which calls to mind the “deep sea swell” and the “profit and loss” of T. S. Eliot’s dead Phlebus the Phoenician), but clatters of human activity moving closer and closer in to the home, the heart, until he reaches the heart itself. The helix picks out three claps: canvas, as of boat sails; shutters, as of a house being made tight against the weather, or possibly banging loose against the house; hands, in applause or as in chasing something away. Here, at any rate, we have a person. Next the helix picks out a kettle, boiling, and finally the seagull’s “metal” cry. There is no actual comfort here despite the prospect of tea, but the sudden opening out of the heart—kept, after all, from falseness because this poem is about the facing of hard truth—brings us to “room for vision.” Nature, the world, cannot be denied. The huge, relentless nature of the “breakers” and of the Baltic itself (with its history, stories, legacies) cannot be fooled away. The poem is about people, and Brodsky never lets us go far from them: the “wan flat voice” and the hair, that does or doesn’t ripple and which is or is not like the wan voice, are features both of the landscape itself and of a person (as well as a persona, and a personification) who—from the final couplet—isn’t there, can never be there. 

          Linguistically, this poem is so tightly constructed that every word, every sound, serves a purpose. In the first half words come in pairs: “marshland” and “marched,” “pallid” and “elbow,” “ripples” and “ripples,” “helix” and “picks.” Visually, there are lots of double consonants—especially those l’s that muffle sound as effectively as a huge expanse of sea air. Look at the lines “if it ripples at all./ Propped on a pallid elbow,/ the helix picks out of them no sea rumble…” They not only mark the center of the poem, they are the point at which the rhyme almost completely breaks down—with the rhyme pair “elbow” and “rumble”—and contain its most satisfying internal word pairs. Love, or more properly belonging, is almost within reach. This is the moment when wistfulness is almost allowed to get a look-in, before we get back to the business at hand with the sharp “but a clap of canvas, of shutters, of hands, a kettle”—which even so lulls the reader with its “of…of…of” repetition, and finishes on an unemphatic, feminine ending. 

          From “plenty” of “room for vision,” Brodsky reins us right in, ending with an admission of the need for love, for the other. These lines are wrought so that they ironically refute their own literal meaning:

Only sounds needs echo and dreads its lack.

A glance is accustomed to no glance back. 

          Sound, in these lines, gets its echo. This is the first full rhyme in a poem whose tones fall along a spectrum, shifting like seaside light, in each rhyme pair. So through the construct of his poem, Brodsky allows the echo, which is language itself, to come through at last. Only the glance, which is apparently “accustomed” to its harsh treatment, gets no glance back; it is alone. But we are not accustomed to it. This is the horror of Lot’s wife, of Orpheus, of the empty mirror, and it is the image Brodsky leaves us on, with a big CRACK. 

          Ten years after Brodsky’s death, poets are again debating the need for a specifically political poetry to reflect modern experience. This poem reminds us that common truths can only be approached through personal ones. Brodsky takes a politically-generated event—his exile from his homeland—and addresses it through the pan-human experience of longing, for which many languages have a word that transcends the English “nostalgia” or “homesickness.” One war, as has been said, is much like another; as the Bosnian poet Goran Simic has said, the wars succeed each other so quickly now that we’re in danger of forgetting them as new ones come along. Alienation isn’t new. Now would be a good time for us to remember that.         


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