In a previous blogpost I wrote about my writer's tryst, where I spent time working with my MA thesis this summer. Of course, no work can be properly done without the sufficient amount of leisure so in-between work I relaxed with a book of verses by Joseph Brodsky, well, two actually. These books were selected translations in Norwegian, beautifully crafted, and I was of course immediately taken with Brodsky's elegy for W. H. Auden, particularly because it evokes my beloved city of York, Auden's birthplace. This poem is a part of a sequence titled In England and it is taken from Collected Poems in English, a book in the series Oxford Poets by Carcanet (2001). The poems in this book have been translated either by Brodsky alone or in cooperation with others. It is not specified which alternative applies for In England.
York: In Memoriam W. H. Auden
The butterflies of northern England dance above the goosefoot
below the brick wall of a dead factory. After Wednesday
comes Thursday, and so on. The sky breathes heat;
the fields burn. The towns give off a smell of striped
cloth, long-wrapped and musty; dahlias die of thirst.
And your voice - "I have known three great poets. Each
one a prize son of a bitch" - sounds in my ears
with disturbing clarity. I slow my steps
and turn to look round. Four years soon
since you died in an Austrian hotel. Under the crossing sign
not a soul: tiled roofs, asphalt, limestone,
poplars. Chester died, too - you know that
only too well. Like beads on a dusty abacus,
sparrows sit solemnly on wires. Nothing so much
transforms a familiar entrance into a crowd of columns
as love for a man, especially when
he's dead. The absence of wind compels taut leaves
to tense their muscles and stir against their will.
The white butterflies' dance is like a storm-tossed ship.
A man takes his own blind alley with him wherever he goes
about the world; and a bent knee, with its obtuse angle,
multiplies the captive perspective,
like a wedge of cranes holding their course
for the south. Like all things moving onward.
The emptiness, swallowing sunlight - something in common with
the hawthorn - grows steadily more palpable
in the outstretched hand's direction, and
the world merges into a long street where others live.
In this sense, it is England. England, in this sense,
still an empire and fully capable - if
you believe the music gurgling like water -
of ruling waves. Or any element, for that matter.
Lately, I've been losing my grip a little: snarl
at my shopwindow reflection; while my finger
dials its number, my hand lets the phone fall.
Closing my eyes, I see an empty boat,
motionless, far out in the bay.
Coming out of the phone booth,
I hear a starling's voice - in its cry alarm.
But before it flies away the sound
melts in the air. Whose blue expanse, innocent of objects,
is much like this life here (where things stand out more in the desert),
for you're not here. And vacuum gradually
fills the landscape. Like flecks of foam,
sheep take their ease on bottle-green waves
of Yorkshire heather. The corps de ballet of nimble
butterflies, taking their cue from an unseen bow,
flicker above a grass-grown ditch, giving the eye
no point of rest. And the willow herb's vertical stalk
is no longer than the ancient Roman road,
heading north, forgotten by all at Rome.
Subtracting the greater from the lesser - time from man -
you get words, the remainder, standing out against their
white background more clearly than the body
ever manages to while it lives, though it cry "Catch me!" -
thus the source of love turns into the object of love.