No 7 - 1982
December in Florence
The doors inhale air and exhale steam;
but you will not return here. Breaking into pairs,
the crowds go strolling by the Arno’s failing stream
like some new breed of quadruped that’s strayed,
doors slamming behind them, down the quais.
Truly, there’s something of the woodland shade
about this handsome city. Yet at a certain age
you simply turn up your collar,
shutting out its people from your gaze.
The eye blinks, straining in the damp dusk. Fearful of
it gobbles up streetlamps like memory-drugging pills.
Your doorway, only two minutes away
from the Signoria, offers - centuries later - a silent clue
to the cause of your exile: near a volcano,
one cannot live without shaking a fist at it, nor can you
unclench that fist in dying, even,
since death is always another Florence,
with the architecture of Heaven.
Are the shadows black beneath park benches at noon? Cats peer under
to see. On the Ponte Vecchio, rebuilt again, and thrusting
Cellini’s bust against the blue hills yonder,
trade in gold trinkets goes on. Fumbling its driftwood, the Arno
plashes below. A beautiful woman with golden locks
bends to examine the precious cargo
spread out on trays, while the shopgirl greedily guesses:
what will she buy? In this realm
of the raven-haired one glimpses an angel’s traces.
Men’s lives turn into scratches of pen on paper, into the stitching
their tiny wedges and hooks; and - since it is slippery work -
into commas and colons. Only consider
how often, meaning to write the letter “M” in some word,
the pen will have stumbled and fashioned two eyebrows instead.
That is, ink on the page is more honest than blood.
And a face in the darkness, its surface splattered
with words (they will dry much quicker that way) -
laughs like a ball of crumpled paper.
The embankments resemble a train abruptly halted.
Palazzi stand in the earth, visible down to their waists.
A shape in a trenchcoat plunges into the damp vaulted
mouth of the entrance, mounting a flight
of stairs like stumps of teeth, then climbs with small steps
toward the rough, inflamed palate, straight
to the door marked, as always, “16”. He waits,
unnerved by the doorbell’s silence, till a voice rasps “Prego, prego”:
round you on the landing press two ancient figure 8s.
In a dusty cafe your eyes, under a cap’s shadow, take in
the nymphs on the painted ceiling, the cupids, the stucco molding.
A goldfinch, out of the tremble of wires he’s caged in,
feebly runs through the terzinas of his tune.
A ray of the sun, breaking against the palace and against
the cupola of the sacristy that holds Lorenzo’s tomb,
warms, through the shutters, a tub of flowering verbena
and the veins of the dirty marble.
The goldfinch’s voice flows out from its cage in Ravenna.
The doors, exhaling steam and breath-
ing air, slam shut in Florence. Whether you live one life
or two - and that depends upon your faith -
one fine evening you confront the first. It is not true
that love moves the stars (much less the moon)
for it divides all things in two,
even the money in your dreams. Even the thoughts of death that appear
in empty moments. If the southern stars
were to be moved by love, they would surely move apart.
This stone nest resounds with the ear-splitting screech
of brakes. Cross the street and you risk
being battered to death. Under the lowering reach
of December’s sky, the enormous egg that Brunelleschi laid
brings tears to an eye long used to the glitter
of cupolas. The traffic policeman’s gestures are splayed:
neither straight up not straight down, they fashion an X. “High
prices!” the loudspeakers blare in complaint.
How urgent the need for an “I” in the words “to live” and “to die”!
There are cities in this world to which one can’t return.
The sun beats on their windows as though on polished mirrors.
And no amount of gold will make their hinged gates turn.
Rivers in those cities always flow beneath six bridges.
There are places in those cities where lips first pressed on lips
and pen on paper. In those cities there’s a richness
of scarecrows cast in iron, of colonnades, arcades.
There the crowds besieging trolley stops are speaking
in the language of a man who’s been written off as dead.
Joseph Brodsky is considered by many, including the editor of this magazine, to be the finest Russian poet of the post-war era, lie was exiled from the USSR in 1972, before which time only 6 of his poems had been published, despite his considerable reputation. Upon leaving he settled in the USA, where he still lives - though recently he has been on the staff of the American Academy in Rome. His two full-length Russian collections are published by Ardis (Chast’ Ryechi & Konyets Prekrasnoi Epochi), large parts of which have also appeared in English in the volumes Selected Poems (tr.George Kline, Penguin) & A Part of Speech (tr, various hands, OUP).
Translated by Maurice Englishand George L. Kline
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