Moscow Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 (undated photo) / Image courtesy of liveinmsk.ru
This Christmas, in place of my usual translation of a nativity poem by a Russian poet, I’m posting an excerpt from an article by Yelena Aizenshtein (Neva, #1, 2012). In this passage, she comments on a lesser-known Christmas poem by Joseph Brodsky, written on the eve of his famous trial and internal exile to the village of Norenskaya for “social parasitism” (тунеядство). I considered simply translating the poem that Aizenshtein describes, but I think her commentary sheds necessary light on parts of the text that could otherwise remain murky. Here is what she has to say:
In 1964, Brodsky spent the New Year holiday in a psychiatric hospital in Moscow: there had been a “war council” at the Ardovs on December 27, 1963, with the participation of Akhmatova. It was decided that he could avoid arrest if he got treatment with the help of some psychiatrists they knew at the Kashchenko Mental Hospital and then received a certificate of his “mental instability.” On January 8, 1964, the day after Orthodox Christmas, the newspaper Evening Leningrad published a selection of indignant “readers’ letters” demanding harsh punishment for the “social parasite Brodsky.” That January, Brodsky wrote the poem “New Year’s at the Kanatchikovo Dacha.”* He paints his lines in gloomy tones. The poet sees the absence of traditional Christmas images as omens of an unlucky year and its coming calamities:
No magi, no donkey,
no star, no blizzard
to save the child from death—
they disperse like circles
at the strike of an oar.
The poem is structured on the model of a lullaby for oneself, sung from the sixth ward—this is the Chekhovian “Ward No. 6,” and it is a terrible billet, “a land where insulin is king,” where Brodsky ended up “in clouds of bed sheets,” instead of in the sky of free thought. The poet sees himself as a Christmas goose devoured by the power of the state. The lullaby helps the speaker of the poem not to fear his fate: “Sleep, Christmas goose. / Fall quickly asleep.” Another image that stands in for the speaker is a cricket singing from behind the baseboard (was Brodsky thinking of Pushkin’s nickname?), whose song corresponds to the song of a large violin bow, somehow contrary to the violence of the institute:
The song sung by a cricket
here in the red baseboard
is like the song of a great bow,
since sounds always grow,
like the glint of your pupil
through the great institute.
The Christmas motif is made invisible in the USSR, like a “double winter” that has lasted two thousand years: only the blizzard and the winter landscape remind us of Christmas. The author cunningly structures the text as not quite “normal,” as unwell: the theme of fear is made urgently relevant, with white as an analogue for the hospital, lifelessness, death, unfreedom. But the poem contains the author’s ruefully ironic view on what is happening: “the night turns white with a key / split fifty-fifty with the head doctor.” It concludes with a tercet in which the rhyme words are ‘hospitals’, ‘eye-sockets’, and ‘birds’ [bol'nitsy, glaznitsy, ptitsy], images of the author’s existence in the psychiatric hospital, and his sense of dread at the endured moment:
bodies’ terror – of hospitals,
clouds’ terror – of eye-sockets,
insects’ terror – of birds.
* * *
I’m sure some will find the content of this post a tad gloomy for the holiday season, but if Brodsky’s experience is any indicator, Christmas is not always sugarplums dancing in our heads. Anyway, I find some solace in the mere fact of his turning that experience into art—and going on to write his nativity poems for decades to come.
* “Kanatchikovo Dacha” is a well-known nickname for the Kashchenko Mental Hospital, whose official name is actually Moscow Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1. Until 1994, the hospital was named for Pyotr Kashchenko (1858-1920), a noted Russian psychiatrist, and since then has been named for Nikolai Alekseyev (1852-1893), the Moscow city leader who founded the hospital in 1894. The hospital is located in the Kanatchikovo district of Moscow.