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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Commended

Read the judges’ report

Judith Pulman

From The Butterfly


VII

Tell me, why was such
a pattern given
to you for a day, living
in the land of lakes; what
amalgam can preserve
this expanse?
You were deprived of your chance
during your short term
to get caught
in a net, to tremble
in the hands, to charm a pupil
in the moment of pursuit.

VIII

You will not answer me,
not because you are
shy, and not for
maliciousness, or even
because you have died.
Alive or not, no matter:
each of God’s creatures,
as if a kindred sign,
was given a voice to relate
and sing: to prolong
the seconds,
minutes, and days.

IX

And you, you are deprived
of this guarantee.
Though, speaking strictly,
this is better: why
be indebted to heaven
and on its register?
Don’t be disturbed,
your weight and lifespan
make your muteness fit fine.
Sound is a burden, too.
Sans flesh, you
are even more silent than time.

X

Not sensing a thing nor
living long enough to dread,
you whirl overhead
lighter than dust over flower
beds, outside of both the past
and future, which look
as if they were in the choke-
hold of some prison. Now, as
you fly in the meadows, looking for
fodder, the air
itself has suddenly acquired
a form.

Translated from the Russian by Judith Pulman
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Бабочка
Иосифь Бродский (Oтрывок)


VII

Скажи, зачем узор
такой был даден
тебе всего лишь на день
в краю озер,
чья амальгама впрок
хранит пространство?
А ты -- лишает шанса
столь краткий срок
попасть в сачок,
затрепетать в ладони,
в момент погони
пленить зрачок.

VIII

Ты не ответишь мне
не по причине
застенчивости и не
со зла, и не
затем, что ты мертва.
Жива, мертва ли --
но каждой Божьей твари
как знак родства
дарован голос для
общенья, пенья:
продления мгновенья,
минуты, дня.

IX

А ты -- ты лишена
сего залога.
Но, рассуждая строго,
так лучше: на
кой ляд быть у небес
в долгу, в реестре.
Не сокрушайся ж, если
твой век, твой вес
достойны немоты:
звук -- тоже бремя.
Бесплотнее, чем время,
беззвучней ты.

X

Не ощущая, не
дожив до страха,
ты вьешься легче праха
над клумбой, вне
похожих на тюрьму
с ее удушьем
минувшего с грядущим,
и потому,
когда летишь на луг,
желая корму,
преобретает форму
сам воздух вдруг.

Joseph Brodsky
© The Estate of Joseph Brodsky
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Translation commentary


This particular poem reminds me of George Herbert’s poetry in both its immediacy and apparent simplicity; I love the profound work that the tender and witty language attempts. Elegiac gestures abound but the focus is not in grief, the subject of the poem is time. Brodsky’s fourteen truncated sonnets in the poem almost mimic the passing of a day and within that, the passing of a life, and within that, a self-elegy that accepts paradox as a resolution. I think that this poem is brilliant; I admire its gentleness in a genre that is not often delicate in observation of its lost subject.

Formally, I have preserved the rhyme scheme using various rhymes that are not as obvious to the eye as to the ear. The Russian poem builds power through its quick lines of two, three, or four stresses—I have attempted to retain these short, almost ephemeral lines in English. Regrettably, some of Brodsky’s punning on line breaks was lost in the English due to the preservation of the rhyme scheme. The wit in some Russian rhymes could not be directly translated, for example: время/бремя, страха/праха; but I strove to keep a mix of high and low diction to keep the ear awake to the play of language that abounds within this poem.

Judith Pulman