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Brodsky on Time and Gender

By Alexandra Shlosman

Joseph Brodsky, born May 24, 1940 in Leningrad in the midst of a hectic time for the Soviet Union, grew to be a world-renowned Russian poet earning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987. As a Jewish man in St. Petersburg, Brodsky had grown up with high self-intellect and an admiration for his Father who was in the navy. He wanted to follow in his Father’s footsteps, but was rejected from the navy academy because he was Jewish. Eventually, he formed an interest in poetry and began to make public appearances at competitions where he wrote about his detachment from the surrounding Soviet society among the rest of the world. He was later exiled and immigrated to the United States in 1972 where he began to continue and develop his poetic career. He wrote multiple poems on the theme of Nativity, the birth of Christ, where he spoke of the role of time and gender as extensive components to his poetry. Through two nativity poems, “Lullaby” and “Star of Nativity”, Brodsky introduces themes of time and gender, and he focuses on the idea of individuality due to the circumstances created by time and gender.

Brodsky constructs time through length and width of “Lullaby,” making the theme visual yet relating them back to the ideas presented within. By doing so, it becomes evident that “the structural play between horizontal finiteness and vertical infinity is a compelling example of how a formal attribute can enhance thematic meaning” (Lavers). With the structure of short horizontal lines and endless vertical stanzas, it can be inferred that Brodsky purposely used these ideas to relate to several symbols of time within his poem “Lullaby”. The vertical infinity, vastness, and continuity of the desert is referenced in the stanza:

Paths one sees here are not really
Human paths
But the centuries’, which freely
Through it pass. (Brodsky 33-36)
Christ is evidently the master behind the finite sense because the poem emphasizes that life is man-made and not endless. The vertical infinity is representative of the symbol of the desert, which engenders infinite time because of the ability for time to pass, as it is intended to, with or without humans. “Desert” is rhymed with several times in the poem Lullaby. The symbol of the desert represents the vertical infinite time because centuries pass “freely” with or without the existence of humans. The ideas of vertical infinity that Brodsky evokes with the use of several rhyme words are no accident according to Jones, who says, “When a poet uses the same rhyme word several times in the same poem it is no accident” (Jones). Based on this, Brodsky emphasizes through the rhyme scheme, so it becomes apparent that the desert, just like the poem’s structure is endless.

Throughout the nativity poems, Brodsky focuses on gender as an aspect that separates the speaker from himself. This is especially evident in “Lullaby” where it is said to be the “only nativity poem written in the voice of one of the nativity characters, namely Mary” (Lavers). Since the poem is written in a feminine voice, ideals about gender are presented within the poem where Mary speaks of her motherhood state of nurturing for Christ:

Keep this secret, child, for later.
That, I guess,
May just help you in a greater
Emptiness. (Brodsky 41-44)
Due to the protective tone of Mary, femininity is displayed when she attempts to accustom her son to the surroundings. Mary is the speaker and her extensive monologue was influenced by Brodsky’s belief that women depicted in the Bible were minorities. An unexpected turn strikes a reader when they first read “Lullaby” because of the female voice. Brodsky uses the technique of lyric poetry to present this and begins “. with the birth of a consciousness, the coming-into-being of that poem’s speaker, its lyric ‘I’” (Lavers). First word of the Lullaby poem is “Birth”, which evidently creates a feminine form throughout the poem. Going along with the feminine voice, Mary asserts her motherhood and individuality from Christ, a male, by giving herself a feminine quality of birth. This individuality is especially prevalent in the opposing feminine and masculine rhymes where Brodsky uses the phrases “breast” and “human absence”, which is juxtaposed because the breast of a new mother clearly indicates intimate human relationships. As Brodsky was a creative individual, Lavers found that the technique of interchanging masculine and feminine rhymes to portray themes “owes a debt to its Russian predecessor, the Pushkin stanza of Eugene Onegin, which interlocked couplets of masculine and feminine rhyme” (Lavers). In Russian, the feminine rhymes are more apparent, but Brodsky tried his best to translate the poems into English and preserve his idea yet maintain the feminine rhymes. The prevalence of the gender theme is portrayed through methods of rhyming.

Brodsky’s nativity poems had creative, conceptual meanings behind every rhyme, which was a new idea presented to the world of poetry. Brodsky displays the importance of rhymes in his poem, “Star of the Nativity”, where he writes: “To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam Out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior-- the team” (Brodsky 5-6). The rhymes are seen in “team” and “steam”. These unrelated entities are rhymed with each other because they conceptually relate to Christ’s perception of ideas that are large for him, including the steam from Ox’s nostrils and the Magi of Bethlehem, who are a team of wise men. Deeper thinking behind rhymes is necessary to achieve conceptual relationships between disconnected objects. Brodsky typically steers away from the usage of simple rhymes because “rhyme uncovers the dependencies within language. It brings together those things heretofore unconnected... enables one to sense the proximity between seemingly disparate entities” (Jones). Disparate entities convey that feminine rhymes within the “Lullaby” of the “omnipresent hazard” become the “incandescent treasure” with time. The rhymes of desert with these four words are seemingly unlikely, however, they enhance the connected relationship between time’s effects on the growth of the desert. In addition to rhymes used by Brodsky, another syntactical technique was utilized in “Lullaby”:

Some get toys, in piles and layers,
Wrapped or bound.
You, my baby, have to play with
All the sand. (Brodsky 17-20)
The use of the preposition “with” conveys that Christ is so privileged to find himself among such vast resources that he gets all the sand in the desert as his toy. Once again, Brodsky brings a new technique to the poetry table by using “enjambment and semantically neutral rhyme words; he is, I think, the first Russian poet to use prepositions in the rhyme position” (Jones). Typically seen in the “Lullaby” poem, the first and third lines encompass a feminine rhyme, while the second and fourth follow masculine rhymes. The enjambment by a preposition, “with,” breaks the rhyming pattern. Furthermore, vastness, absence, phantom, and mountain are all examples or feminine rhyming nouns used throughout “Lullaby”. These meaningful rhyme pairs engender a new idea because vastness and absence relate to the stability of the desert without humans while phantom and mountain exemplify juxtaposition because mountains would obstruct the view in a desert. Evidently, Brodsky expands his realms of techniques for rhyming through utilizing methods of “rhyming noun with noun [giving] the poet the most opportunities for suggesting new unsuspected connections to the reader. It may produce rhyme metaphor” (Jones). Meanings are expressed but the connections are suggested. It is not simple for Brodsky to utilize the rhymes in supporting his themes of time and gender.

Another topic that Brodsky focuses on in his nativity poems is individuality that is evoked through his detailed syntax. Brodsky uses the phrase “in the desert” repeatedly in “Lullaby”, emphasizing how syntax influences the desert to become a second mother to Jesus. In speaking of the struggle that Mary faces and Brodsky portrays, “Brodsky immediately sets up syntactically one of the poem’s tensions: Christ is torn between two women, two mothers. Mary is, in a sense, set at odds with the character of the desert as a surrogate mother for her son” (Lavers). Mary is fazed with struggles of individuality due to the paradox of virgin birth through which Brodsky transforms the desert into the second mother for Jesus. This individuality is particularly evident through the language that Mary uses in comparison to the gender of herself and Christ. Lavers says, “as Mary and her feminine diction are being separated from Christ and his masculinity, the poet is not only paying her homage in her own feminine terms, but he is asserting language’s ability to create and assert identity, and the feminine rhymes and POV are the only feminine aspects of the poem to survive translation”(Lavers). The language of the poem reinforces how gender, a tool Brodsky uses throughout the poem, can create the individuality of a character. Based on the poem, the nativity ideal creates a separation between gender of Christ and Mary and a separation between mankind and God.

Brodsky’s inherent skills brought him will power to write about whatever he wished, as he was a Jewish man writing poetry about Biblical ideas. The focus on time and gender becomes prevalent as a theme through many instances of conceptual rhymes, requiring a reader to deepen their thoughts in order to fully understand. The advanced concepts of individuality that Brodsky presents are supported by examples of differences between genders within both “Lullaby” and “Star of Nativity”. Brodsky’s poems, “Lullaby” and “Star of Nativity,” support advanced concepts of individuality and differences between genders.

Works Cited

Brodsky, Joseph. “Collected Poems in English.” Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=xZlEdVcnzlYC&pg=PA426&lpg=PA426&dq=joseph%2Bbrodsky%2Blullaby.%2Bbirth%2Bi%2Bgave%2Byou%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bdesert&source=bl&ots=eL8ZQbjcK2&sig=Vq72jVdNzpd7M013hnrjtFETZWI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi0iK6N97zXAhXmxlQKHW5uAN8Q6AEIPDAE#v=onepage&q=joseph%20brodsky%20lullaby.%20birth%20i%20gave%20you%20in%20the%20desert&f=false.

Brodsky, Joseph. “Star of the Nativity by Joseph Brodsky.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57943/star-of-the-nativity.

Gillespie, Alyssa Dinega. "Joseph Brodsky." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 1, Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 329. Literature Resource Center,

Jones, Christopher. "Rhyme and Joseph Brodsky: Making Connections." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 219, Gale, 2009. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420091549&it=r&asid=8e30bec0c181cf15d2550a723ad91c25. Accessed 14 Nov. 2017. Originally published in Essays in Poetics, vol. 18, no. 2, Sept. 1993, pp. 1-11.

Lavers, Michael. "A sense of our uniqueness: gender and time in Joseph Brodsky's 'Lullaby'." College Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, p. 32+. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA317904335&it=r&asid=284cb0170e9479c4ae831ce0bde64f8f. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.