dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

By What One Loves

"One is changed by what one loves." {Joseph Brodsky} There is a beautifully poignant complexity in these seven words, I think. In fact, trust me, they may end up spending strangely annoying amounts of time with you -- if you let the mask down a bit, or whenever you decide to come up for air.

Sometime in the spring, I forget when, my eyes found these words (more likely, these words found my eyes) via the ubiquitous index card placed on the refrigerator door -- in this case, by my wife Amie. Who was Joseph Brodsky? I thought. Of course, what I meant was: who was Joseph Brodsky? And what was he trying to say? What did he mean?

Sadly, several months passed before I did what I should've done in the spring: Google Joseph Brodsky.

Perhaps his last name is the not-so-subtle giveaway. According to Wikipedia, Brodsky was a Russian-American poet who was born in Leningrad in 1940 and who died in New York City in 1996. As it turns out, he died a few weeks before I was engaged to that person who wrote those seven words on a memory device, tacking it up on the fridge.

Brodsky nearly died of starvation as a child and went the way of a high school dropout at the age of 15. By 17, he was writing poetry and producing literary translations while he was learning English and Polish, taking up an abiding interest in the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz.

Skip to 1963. Brodsky is arrested. In 1964, he was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities. Journalist Frida Vigdorova made a transcript of his trial. Somehow this transcript was smuggled to the West. A famous excerpt follows:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
Judge: Did you study this?
Brodsky: What this?
Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it ... comes from God, yes God.
 

Absolutely epic behavior from a poet, huh? To be expected, for sure, but somehow it still translates as new. Refusing to yield to institutional categorization. Talking transcendence when everyone around him is confined by earth.

Brodsky was sentenced to "internal exile" in 1964 and then, after his sentence was commuted in 1965, eventually expelled from the U.S.S.R. in the year I was born -- 1972. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1977 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987.

Who was Joseph Brodsky? I'm only now beginning to know, and I want more. And perchance what did he mean to say in seven such words? Perhaps we should be desperately living to know.