This Be the Verse

I saw Joseph Brodsky for the last time at Victoria Schweitzer’s place. He had just gone through a second operation on his heart. He had been expressly forbidden to smoke, but he bummed cigarettes from me and said he could not work without smokes. Joseph read us his new poem “Predstavlenie” [“A Vaudeville”; 1988?] which he had dedicated to Mikhail Nikolayev [Schweitzer’s husband, who had died in 1987]. He read in his usual manner, a drawling tone that emphasized the musical and rhythmic flow of the stanzas and thus made it hard to understand their content. (Once, at Oxford, when Brodsky was reading his poems to a large audience, a female English Slavist had asked me, “Is this like liturgy?”) When I read “Predstavlenie” on the page, it struck me it was Brodsky’s dying verse, although he would go on living for several more years. The past and present, as they emerged in the poem, were illuminated by a transcendent rather than an earthly light. I consider the poem one of his masterpieces.

—Igor Golomstock, A Job for an Old Policeman: A Pessimist’s Memoirs (Moscow, 2015), p. 288

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[…]

Enter a Cop shouting, “Basta!” The prosecutor squares his jaw.
The door to the regular guy’s cave opens sans Ali Baba’s code.
Great-grandson or great-grandfather rolls a cart in the shaft’s dark maw,
Weeping crystal tears reflecting the color of the motherlode.
And on Death’s moonlit plain, beyond the pale the living never cross,
Studded with gold incisors, a jawbone sparkles with permafrost.

There long will be veins enough
Of those who’ve bitten the dust.

“I have a pad, but getting there’s a chore.”
“I’m a crane driver, not a whore.”
“Life arose like an addiction
Before the egg or the chicken.”

We have filled the entire stage. All that’s left is to climb the walls,
Soar like a hawk under the big top, shrink into a roundworm.
Or everyone, foaming at the mouth, puppets and all,
Should suddenly copulate in unison to breed a new life form.
For, economizing space, what other shape can the multitude assume,
If not the cemetery’s ranks, if not the checkout’s black queue?

We demand the steppe’s expanses
Without a chain reaction!

“We demand a sentence without relief!”
“Who is hollering ‘Stop, thief!’?”
“In her notebook she drew his penis.”
“Let me go, for the love of Jesus.”

Enter an Evening in the Present, a house in the boondocks.
The tablecloth is arguing interior design with the drapes.
Ruling out palpitations (nonsense I’d put in brackets),
One gets the sense Lobachevsky has been subtracted from space.
Grumbling leaves the color of money. A mosquito’s steady buzzer.
The eye is too frail to magnify the two-by-threes of those gone forever,

Who have sprouted as thick grass.
But they won’t be the last.

“From lovemaking, children are born.
Now you are alone in the world.
Remember the song I’d sometimes hum
Softly when twilight would come?

“This is the mouse, this is the cat.
This is the watch tower, this is the camp.
And this is Time that, on the sly,
Sentences Mom and Dad to die.”

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