IN THE EARLY YEARS OF modernism James Joyce commended silence, exile and cunning as the foundations of a career in literature. Now modernism is the orthodoxy of every English department, its battles won, its founders canozized, even its epigoni mostly dead or moribund, and of Joyce's triad of virtues only exile continues to be central to the modernist creed. (Writers are never to be believed when the recommend silence, and cunning too uncomfortably resembles careerism for it to be openly celebrated in academia.) Having appointed himself conscience of his race, poet's most certain path to glory is public outrage, ridicule and interdiction. In a word, exile.
But literal exile has become almost impossible to achieve -- for American poets, at least. The public has learned to look elsewhere for the pleasure of being scandalized. Modernist writing, whether prose or poetry, only befuddels and bores them. To be unread is disheartening but doesn't amount to exile.
Russians, however, are exiled, quite regularly, though usually for writings more actionable than a modernist poet might be guilty of. Expose, denunciation and broad satire are more likely to earn publication in, and a ticket to, the West. To write opaque, hermetic poetry in a country that honors plain speaking both in its tame poets (Yevtushenko) and in its proscribed novelists (Solzhenitsyn) is to court martyrdom and obsurity. Such, however, has been the chosen course of Joseph Brodsky, who now, in his eight year of exile from Russia, bids fair to inherit the position lately vacated by Robert Lowell as sovereign pontiff or "serious" (i.e., avant-garde, modernist) poetry. From the point of view of the small college of cardinals empowered to elect a pope, Brodsky is the heaven-sent: he is just such a poet as each of them would choose to be -- dense, allusive, unremittingly morose -- and, as well, a bonafide exile from the fabled hemishphere hidden behind the Iron Curtain. What an endorsement for modernism that Brodsky should adopt it as his esthetic creed and that Russia should authenticate that choice by banishment! Just when it seemed the pope was dead, we can shout Viva il Papa!
Brodsky's celebrity as a refugee from the Gulag Archipelago was one precondition for his present reclame, but talent was necessarily another. His poetry, modernist or not, is the real thing. Brodsky writes long lyric lines, often gnomic in meaning and gnarly in syntax, but smooth on the tongue as sour cream. Some of the credit for this must belong to his translators (among whom are numbered such worthies as Richard Wilbur, Howard Moss and Anthony Hecht), just as some of trhe blame for certain screeching half-rhymes (halter/footballer, take them/suffocation may be laid at their door. But Brodsky, defying and transcending that pain of exile keenest to a poet, the pain of divorce form his native tongue, has collaborated in many of these translations and in a few instances, most notably the long title poem of A Part of Speech, has undertakin the work of translation himself. A single voice seems to sound from all the poems, and the resulting collection has an authority and fianlity uncommon among translations. r
His subject matter is -- what else could it be? -- exile. Even before leaving Russia, he begins a long poem, "When you recall me in that land . . . and when you duly sigh . . . pondering ther blinding number of seas and fields flung out between us . . ." When he strays from the subject of exile it is to meditate on death and the decline of civilizations, dark themes as darkly rendered.
Sometimes, in a narrative poem or travel chronicle, he will so far descend from the highest seriousness as to allow himself flashes of mordant wit, as when, moving through Mexico, we descry his native, Russian nightmares looming behind a scrim of Aztec civillization: Little gods of clay who let themselves be copied with extraordinary ease, permitting heterocoxy. . . .
What would they say if they could speak once more? Nothing at all. At best, talk of triumphs snatched over some adjoining tribe of men, smashed skulls. Or how pouring blood into bowls sacred to the Sun God strenghtens the latter's bowels; how sacrifice of eight young and strong men before dark guarantees a sunrise more surely than the lark. Better syphilis after all, better the oriffice of Cortes' unicorns, than sacrifice like this. If fate assigns your carcass to the vultures' rage let the murderer be a murderer, not a sage. Anyway, how would they ever, had it not been for the Spaniards, have learned of what really happened.
Better (the paraphrase is irresistible) America, for all its vulgarity and brutality, than the systematic human sacrefice of the gulags. (The one puzzler in those lines -- What are Cortes' unicorns? -- is glossed in a footnote at the back of the book: They're a kind of cannon.)
Not all Brodsky's poems yield up their sense so readily. At his most abstruse and metaphysical, as in "A Song to No Music," he can tease a metaphor beyond all reckoning and give even John Donne lessons in plane geometry. He can brood over the vasty abyss for, it would seem, weeks at a stretch, and never in all that while speak of anything more concrete than Space and Time: "Time is far greater than space. Space is a thing. Whereas time is, in essence, the thought, the conscious dream of a thing. And life itself is a variety of time . . ."
Sometimes, in mood of exemplary modernist futility, Brodsky produces a poem the effect of which is of a Samuel Beckett monologue chopped into quatrains: What then shall I talk about? Shall I talk about nothingness? Shall I talk about days, or nights? Or people? No, only things, since people will surely die. All of them. As I shall. All talk is a barren trade. A writing on the wind's wall.
Happily, such moods don't often get the better of him, and the proportion of portentous nonsense to live poetry is respectably low. Even Rilke nods, after all. My own preference is for a poetry more secured to quotidian experience, more willing to indulge a mood of mere ebulience, less given to complainings of suffocation, but for those readers who read poetry as a kind of secular Sabbath, Brodsky provides a month of Sundays in the best tradition of Puritan New England.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger would also like to be a poet of exile, but being native to West Germany he has had to settle for spells of expatriation. The Sinking of the Titanic, a book-lenght poem in 33 cantos with sundry interpolations, was begun in 1969, when the author was self-exiled to Castro's Cuba, having previously sojourned in the United States and Norway. The translation is the author's own and flavorful enough at its best moments to have persuaded me that its longeurs derive from the original. The English title does fail to capture the Spenglerian resonance of Der Untergang der Titanic, but the text leaves us in no doubt that nothing less than the entirety of Western civilization is being figured forth in the Titanic's demise.
Given such a dire theme, and no plot to speak of, one might expect this to be though sledding indeed, but Enzensbergher addresses his readers as an audience to be entertained, rather than (as Brodsky) the ineffable twin of his own stricken intelligence, and his book is as accessible and ingratiating as a good thriller. The ship's inexorable doom is played off against this or that unsuspecting vanity, rather in the manner of those German woodcuts illustrating the Dance of Death. Finally Enzensberger has little more to say about the fatal demise of absolutely all of us than that we are still waiting for it to happen and meanwhile nothing much can be done, icebergs being so little responsive to reason. The 27th Canto opens: "In actual fact nothing has happened." There was no such a thing as the sinking of the Titanic. It was just a movie, an omen, a hallucination.
Scenes of carnage and rescue are imagined, erased, reimagined, like vaudeville turns a macabre night club. Sometimes the poet's self-importance disguises itself as iron, as in this swatch from a long bolt of Dantesque equations: This is a man who believes he is Dante. This is a man everybody, except Dante, believes to be Dante. This is a man everybody believes to be Dante, only he himself does not fall fall for it. This is a man nobody believes to be Dante, except Dante. This is Dante.
In fact, that was not Dante, but Hans Magnus Enzensberger searching in vain for an editor. Usually his ironies are less clanging, his wit brisker, his language better corseted.
Comparisons are both odious and irrelevant. The music is better at Brodsky's church services than in Enzensberger's cabaret, but jokes are undeniably funnier, the atmosphere more relaxed, and everyone has more fun chez Enzensbergber. As for which of them would win a Dante lookalike contest, the photos on the back covers leave no doubt at all -- Brodsky gets the laurel crown.