Friday, January 28, 2011

`Someone Laughing Through Clenched Teeth'

“It is strange to think of surviving, but that’s what happened.”

Among our obligations is remembering the worthy dead, and the truest homage to a dead writer is reading his work. The line above is from Anthony Hecht’s translation of “Cape Cod Lullaby” by Joseph Brodsky, who died on this date fifteen years ago at age fifty-five. I remember hearing the news on the radio and thinking, “How unfair,” as though fairness had anything to do with it. The Soviets had hounded him from his homeland in 1972 after bestowing on him their most prestigious encomium: “social parasite.” Brodsky said of himself: “I am Jewish – a Russian poet and an English essayist.”

By all accounts, Brodsky was a charming, deeply civilized man. He quickly befriended W.H. Auden and some of the best American poets, including Hecht, who included translations of two Brodsky poems in The Venetian Vespers (1979). Twice in “Cape Cod Lullaby,” Hecht tells us in a note, he echoes a line from a poem Osip Mandelstam dedicated to Anna Akhmatova: “Keep my words forever for their aftertaste of misfortune and smoke” (translation by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin). Of course, they fit Brodsky today.

In Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), Hecht dedicated “Exile” to Brodsky. The poem blurs the Russian with his biblical namesake, and generously welcomes him to his adopted land. Here are the final lines:

“You will recognize the rank smell of a stable
And the soft patience in a donkey’s eyes,
Telling you you are welcome and at home.”

The final poem in Hecht’s Flight Among the Tombs (1996), an elegy for Brodsky, “A Death in Winter,” echoes Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” Here is last of its ten stanzas:

“Reader, dwell with his poems. Underneath
Their gaiety and music, note the chilled strain
Of irony, of felt and mastered pain,
The sound of someone laughing through clenched teeth.”


Cynthia Haven said...

Thanks for this, Patrick. I would have forgotten the date. Continuing the conversation on my site:

Cynthia Haven said...

And thanks for throwing a spotlight on Hecht's poem, "Exile," which I don't remember reading before, though Hecht's Collected has been in my library for years.