Friday, December 24, 2010

A Nativity Poem by Joseph Brodsky

Photograph of Joseph Brodsky speaking / Image courtesy of Yale's Beinecke Library

NOTE: My English translation follows the Russian text of this poem, which is one of the first "Nativity poems" that Brodsky wrote. This poem does not appear in the collection that Farrar, Straus and Giroux put out in 2001 under the editorship of Pyotr Vail.

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Рождество 1963 года

Спаситель родился
в лютую стужу.
В пустыне пылали пастушьи костры.
Буран бушевал и выматывал душу
из бедных царей, доставлявших дары.
Верблюды вздымали лохматые ноги.
Выл ветер.
Звезда, пламенея в ночи,
смотрела, как трех караванов дороги
сходились в пещеру Христа, как лучи.

1963 - 1964

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Christmas, 1963

The savior was born
into fierce, brutish cold.
Shepherds’ small campfires blazed in the wasteland.
A blizzard seethed and battered the souls
of the humble kings who bore gifts for the infant.
The camels lifted their shaggy legs in sequence.
The wind howled.
The star, aflame in the night,
looked on as the paths of the three processions
converged on Christ’s cave like beams of light.


Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson


  1. Excellent indeed. I've seen very few good versions of Brodsky poems, so I'm glad to see it done so well.

  2. Beautiful! I do not know Russian to view this as a translation but this stands well enough on its own.

    Love the line "A blizzard seethed and battered the souls..". So very true then as it is now!

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks to all three of you for your kind judgments. I'm glad to hear that my translation came off well.

  4. Since I've just read Brodsky's Nativity Poems translated into my own language, Finnish, I'd like to ask your idea about the actual theme of these poems.

    First I thought the poems were kind of religious, but later - maybe because I had read the inteview or the conversation between Brodsky and Vail - I began to think I might have understood the poems all wrong. Brodsky states at the interview that he is not a religious person. That makes me wonder if his poems only use the symbols of the Christian faith, such as the Christmas Star, as an allegory to something else. Which would in his case be the antipathy towards the Soviet system. So the Christmas Star should actually be interpreted as the Red Star (watching from above)! Boris Pasternak's poem, in the novel Doctor Zhivago, tells that the Chistmas Star has a red glow and later in the poem the Star watches the Child over the treshold like a guest.

    I am quite confused about these poems by Brodsky. Do you find them as critic towards the Soviet system? Or should I think that Brodsky is telling about the lives of the Russian emigrants as he in his poems from the 80's and 90's starts to describe the life of Jesus and his family in exile in Egypt?

  5. These are very good questions, but I'm afraid I don't have the answers. I've always found it intriguing that Brodsky, a Soviet Jew, returned each year to these same Christian images, often rewriting the scene with only subtle differences, but I've never discovered why he was drawn to them. I don't have my volume of the nativity poems on hand, so I can't check to see what he said in the interview with Vail, but I don't think Brodsky meant for the poems to be read allegorically. I do believe, however, that he used them to proclaim his own individuality by writing about something that was completely taboo under Soviet Communism.