by Joseph Brodsky
Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:
use the cracks in the floor to feel the cold.
Use crockery in order to feel the hunger.
And to feel the desert - but the desert is everywhere.
Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,
the fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;
and imagine, as you towel your face in the towel's folds,
the bundled up Infant. And Mary and Joseph.
Imagine the kings, the caravans' stilted procession
as they make for the cave, or rather three beams closing in
and in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;
(but in the cerulean thickening over the Infant
no bell and no echo of bell: He hasn't earned it yet.)
Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
immensely in distance, recognising Himself in the Son,
of Man: homeless, going out to Himself in a homeless one.
Translated by Seamus Heaney, From Nativity Poems by Joseph Brodsky, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Joseph Brodsky, who jokingly referred to himself as "a Christian by correspondence," endeavoured from the time he "first took to writing poems seriously," to write a poem for every Christmas. Starting in 1962 the poems stretch through his career all the way to 1995. When asked why he was so attracted by Christmas, Brodsky once replied that it was more the scene of a birth and the waking of consciousness that fascinated him, rather than the nativity story as a whole – “I liked that concentration of everything in one place--which is what you have in that cave scene." The poem we have chosen was translated by Seamus Heaney. Taken from later on his life, we find the poet already in a stage where he was more concerned with inner reflection rather than outer rebellion, but still fully dedicated to making, as Heaney described it “life live up to the demands of art and not vice versa…”