Joseph Brodsky (1940 – 1996) was born into a Jewish family in Leningrad, but later settled in the United States after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 (prior to this, his work had been confiscated on many an occasion, he was interrogated, arrested, institutionalised and regularly accused of being ‘anti-Soviet’). His poetry, implicitly and explicitly, often referred to or employed religious themes, although his actual religious affiliation or identity remains uncertain. What we can be reasonably sure of is that Brodsky identified very strongly with Christian morality and its particular view of human existence – our place in the universe and the way in which we relate to God. Thus, when he uses specifically Christian imagery in his poetry, it is not just as a vehicle for exploring some vague existential questioning – the images and language are taken seriously for what they are.
This is not to say that he was by any means clear with respect to what he believed about God, only that he strongly identified with Western ethics, thought and culture, and recognised the central imaginative role Christianity has played in shaping those things. It seems strange to me personally how one can keep the two apart, but he, as many poets before and after him have done, seemed to be able to recognise the power of certain symbols and motifs, particularly in terms of how they provide us with an effective means of speaking about ultimate reality, without actually committing himself to the metaphysics or system of beliefs that is built into that kind of language. At any rate, the important thing to note is that he took Christian narrative and language seriously, and did not just use them as convenient metaphors due to the lack of any available secular grammar to say what he wanted to say.
In essence, one could say that Brodsky was, whilst perhaps not a man committed to any particular religion, someone deeply captivated by the ‘religious sense’ and that he found in Christianity a range of imaginative resources that resonated with what he felt about the world more than any other religion. It was (amongst other things) the recurrence of religious language in his poetry that led him to be accused of ‘anti-Soviet’ thinking, and so it is hard to find any sympathy with those who view him as an entirely secular thinker and/or poet (one can even read testimony to his being committed to more than just Christian language and imagery here). Most pertinent for this post though is the fact that from 1961 until his death, he regularly wrote poems about Christmas – the Nativity was something that seemed to have a great hold on him.
One of those poems, simply titled Nativity Poem (the version I have copied here is one translated by Seamus Heaney) is a wonderful exercise in imaginative engagement with the Mystery of Christmas. Comparable to the way in which the Ignatian school of spirituality recommends that we try and imagine ourselves actually being an actor in one of the episodes from the Gospels (e.g.; either as a bystander, or as one being addressed by Our Lord), Brodsky here asks us to imagine (and he uses that word a total of seven times throughout the poem, giving it a real sense of thrust and urgency) the night of the Birth of Christ, drawing our attention to small details in background and foreground. He calls us to consider things like farming tools in the corner of the manger, the cold of the night and ‘the blankness of hunger’, giving a vivid sense of the Nativity as present reality.
Another insightful touch is Brodsky’s comparison of the Three Magi as ‘three beams’ following the Star and closing in on the Infant Christ, like three rays of light narrowing as they hone back in to their source – the wisdom of the world returning to the fount from which all wisdom comes, and a precursor of the Gentiles flocking to the Lord of all Nations. Most perceptive (and touching) of all though are the closing lines of the poem, where Brodsky draws a parallel between the homelessness of the Holy Family and the homelessness of the Son of God, who divested Himself of the honour and power that is natural to Him as God, and limited Himself in the weak vessel of our humanity. Lowly and poor is how He comes to us, stripped not just of earthly privileges, but of those which are due to Him as the very source of Life:
Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:
Imagine crockery, try to make use of its glaze
To feel cold cracks in the floor, the blankness of
Imagine the desert – but the desert is everywhere.
Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,
The fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools
And imagine, as you towel your face in enveloping
Mary, Joseph, and the Infant in swaddling clothes.
Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession
As they make for the cave, or, rather, three beams
And in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink
of a cowbell;
(No thronging of Heaven as yet, no peal of the bell
That will ring in the end for the Infant once he has
Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness,
Immensely in distance, recognising Himself in
Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a