A while ago, my tweet about the Joseph Brodsky poem apparently recounting the conversation between the too tiny figures at the bottom of Piranesi’s famous etching provoked lively interest among my literary-minded followers. Apart from the highly original premise of the poem, this enthusiasm could be explained by the fact that there is no English translation of the piece. Even the bulky Collected Poems in English doesn’t have it. Half-heartedly, I tinkered a bit with it, intending to produce a more or less acceptable English translation to satisfy the curiosity of my audience, but, after the third stanza, it became obvious that I was spawning an abomination, and that I should the last person to attempt to convey to the English-language reader the sophisticated beauty of Brodsky’s poetry. To prove that I’m not being falsely modest, I present to you the misbegotten product of my brief and conceited endeavour (the original is rhymed, by the way):
A lunar crater or a Colosseum, or a place somewhere
in the mountains. A man in a coat
is talking to a man clutching a staff.
Nearby, a dog is searching for grub in the garbage.
It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about. Apparently,
About something sublime; about such matters as bliss
And aspiration for truth. It’s quite natural to converse with a pilgrim
About this insurmountable sentiment.
The cliffs, or the remnants of erstwhile columns,
Are covered in wild herbs. And the way
The pilgrim’s head is bent belies certain
reconcilement with the world in general and
with the local fauna in particular. …
Enough. So, instead of the horrible translation, I would like to offer a brief analysis of this strange poem.
I owe the discovery of Piranesi’s etching to the outstanding commentary by Russian poet and philologist Lev Loseff, which appeared in the recently published two-volume edition of Brodsky’s collected poems. At first, I thought that the poet simply had chosen to zoom in on the pair with the dog, think up their exchange and write it down in his versed description of the print. However, as Lev Loseff points out, Dedicated to Piranesi is not a pure ekphrasis. If you magnify the image and look carefully enough, you will notice that the two people in the picture are a woman and a man, and not two men as stated in the poem. So, it would be more appropriate to regard Piranesi’s etching as the initial inspirational impetus that sent Brodsky’s poetic imagination racing.
The protagonists of the poem are a modern man walking his dog and a discalced pilgrim who clearly belongs to some earlier epoch, perhaps the 18th century, when the etching was made or, maybe, the period of Roman Antiquity, with which the Russian poet was so enamored. The violation of the arrow of time represented by their impossible encounter is echoed in the indeterminate character of the setting itself: it is difficult to tell whether the conversation takes place in the mountains or in some ancient ruins. The topic of the discussion is one of the major leitmotifs in Brodsky’s whole oeuvre: the nature of time and its influence on human beings. As the poet himself said in an interview: “if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man. That’s one of the closest insights into the nature of time that we’re allowed to have.” The pilgrim prefers to walk about barefooted because the prickling sensation given to his foot soles by the stiff tufts of grass and the hard-edged gravel reminds him of the difference between the present and the past. Although it is possible to experience directly only the present, this is not always clear to human beings who are compelled to inhabit the “mixture” of the past and the present due to the evanescent character of the latter. The man in the coat, on the other hand, always wears shoes. He cannot accept the pilgrim’s fixation on the present, believing it to be of minor significance compared to the vast solidified realm of the past. Nor is he in favour of the “heat-haze” of the future (in Russian, the beautiful word marevo is used), for all too soon it acquires the features of the past. To the sceptical pilgrim’s remark about the man in the coat himself not long ago being just a spot in the said heat-haze until the two met, his opponent bitterly responds that both of them are “two pasts”, which, by getting together generate the present.
The highest point of the modern man’s speculation about time is his bringing up their creator, the Italian engraver, who was kind enough to let them both exist in his elaborate landscape, which did not require any human presence at all. Needless to say, the microscopic size of the people in Piranesi’s etching conclusively proves his point. Landscape is the quintessence of the past, and the notion of the fleeting present introduced into it by the inclusion of the wretched creatures like them is just an indication of the artist’s generosity.
The pilgrim’s next question catches the man in the coat off guard: “So, have you emerged from the past?” It is clear that with all the past trailing behind him, a 20th-century person cannot be somebody from the past with respect to a man who used to live centuries ago. Their brief encounter creates a concentrated node of the past, present and future, which, owing first to Piranesi, who made the engraving, and then to Brodsky, who described it in the poem, starts to expand. There is no way for the man in the coat to deny it. And he acknowledges this expanding present by describing what he and his dog are doing right now: “Not really, […] we’re just taking a walk here.” And then, finally, the dead ossified landscape dominated by the ancient ruins is ruptured by the prolonged barking of the dog, celebrating this convergence of the temporal aspects, to which yet another present is added: our aesthetic experience of reading the poem at this very moment. The dog is triumphantly barking at us.