I’ve always liked this poem, and as I’m turning forty this month, lately I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot. Born in Leningrad, as it was then known, Joseph Brodsky had a hard life, in part because of his poetry; he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for “parasitism” and then sent into exile at the age of thirty-two. But poetry also gave Brodsky the ability to take suffering and make something from it. He liked to quote his friend W. H. Auden, “Believe your pain;” when you’re hurting, at least you know what’s happening is real. Brodsky’s account of his travails in this poem is somewhat tongue-in-cheek—but that last line is deadly serious. “Only gratitude:” I can’t think of a better philosophy, particularly for those of us with nothing more to lament than the passing of time.
May 24, 1980
I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country that bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.
Joseph Brodsky (1940-96) came to the United States in 1972, an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992.
Paul Murray was born in 1975. He studied English literature at Trinity College in Dublin and creative writing at the University of East Anglia. His first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was short-listed for the Whitbread Prize in 2003 and was nominated for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. Skippy Dies, his second novel, was long-listed for the Booker prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His new novel, The Mark and the Void, will be published this fall.