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A Sense of Our Uniqueness:
Gender and Time in Joseph Brodsky’s “Lullaby”

Joseph Brodsky’s 1992 poem “Lullaby” is a key text in furthering the discussion on Brodsky’s poetic preoccupation with time: the image of the Christ child surrounded by the desert is an image of finite time surrounded by the infinite. The poem also represents a unique attempt in Brodsky’ oeuvre to speak extendedly in a female voice. In its original Russian, the poem’s language goes out of its way to identify the speaker as a woman, reinforcing the speaker’s separateness from both her son and the poet, and insufficient critical attention has been paid to the reasons for and effects of this heavily feminized monologue. In addition to thematic discussions, this paper will address how Brodsky uses prosody to transform the poem itself into a physical embodiment of time and gender. The poem’s ability to create and reinforce two fundamental aspects of human identity, gender and temporality, fosters in its readers a heightened sense of their own uniqueness.

Composed over the span of his entire writing life, Joseph Brodsky’s Nativity Poems represent a blend of the devotional and the occasional on a topic somewhat divided from his writing in general. Brodsky’s attempt to write a poem for every Christmas has left us with a collection of eighteen poems (due to several omitted years), which were published in 2001 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.1 These eighteen poems all present Christmas in various ways, such as by retelling the story of the birth of Christ or by describing contemporary Christmas scenes. Considering the large time span—the poems were written between 1962 and 1995—and the thematic breadth of Brodsky’s corpus, the poems also diverge widely into philosophy, history, metaphysics, and autobiography. Brodsky’s most recurrent theme, time, is well represented in the nativity poems.

What makes the nativity poems distinct from the rest of Brodsky’s poetry is the recurrent fixation on the image of the infant Christ and his mother, in contrast to the more usual focus on characters from classical antiquity. An informal pattern in style and subject matter can be found in the arc of the nativity poems; the earlier ones more commonly depict contemporary Christmases, in Russia, Venice, or America. These poems often explore culture, history, politics, philosophy, and autobiography, sometimes with complex rhyme schemes sustained impressively over dozens of stanzas. In the later nativity poems, however, the gaze is more commonly restricted to the nativity scene itself, the infant Christ with his mother at or near the moment of birth. Additionally, these later poems—such as “Star of the Nativity” written in 1987, “Nativity” written in 1990, “Lullaby” written in 1992, and “Flight Into Egypt (2)” written in 1995—exhibit less thematic and narrative deviation than the earlier nativity poems, are often [End Page 32] shorter, and have a more relaxed, reverent tone. Read as a chronological whole, this movement from wide-ranging and structurally complex poems to poems that are more simple and subdued can be seen as a winnowing away, a sharpening of focus, as well as a movement toward a more symbolic or imagistic style. I argue that, as well as being the most obvious subject for a nativity poem, the image of the infant Christ and his mother provides for Brodsky a way to personify abstractions such as time and gender.

Because of Brodsky’s own religious ambiguity (a Jewish man writing about the birth of Christ), I will not read the poems as texts of religious devotion. Instead, I focus on one of the nativity poems, “Lullaby” (Brodsky 2001, 87–91), and examine how the poem’s heavily feminized and metrical structure works in relation to the image of the infant Christ and his mother to reveal the role of language in protecting and reinforcing our own invaluable individuality. The persistent fixation on the image of the infant Christ and his mother is what makes the collection of nativity poems so unique in Brodsky’s oeuvre and in the context of his contemporaries, and therefore deserving of more formal discussion. These notes will first examine “Lullaby” in the thematic context of time, a well-explored area in Brodsky criticism, and will then build on that critical discussion by illustrating how the poem’s conscious assertion of gender relates to time as a thematic preoccupation in Brodsky’s poetry. “Lullaby” was originally written in Russian, and then translated into English by Brodsky himself. As the translation is the author’s own, I will not argue for its ‘success’ in terms of preservation of style, tone, or form. In fact, I will argue that the unique characteristics of each language reinforce Brodsky’s sentiments regarding the importance of individuality.


Time is a frequently reoccurring subject of Brodsky’s poetry, and therefore has already received much scholarly attention. Brodsky himself went so far as to say that he “exclusively writes about one thing: about time and what time does to a person” (Polukhina 1989, 249). For the present discussion of “Lullaby,” two specific critical observations are worth building upon. The first is David Rigsbee’s particularly apt description of time’s place in Brodsky’s religious cosmology: “Of time and God, time is here the more powerful, since anyone can, so to speak, reject the Deity’s invitation. It will be Brodsky’s project to deflect the brunt of this tyranny by calling it poetic advantage, thus making time serve, because it is an agent for death, as an agent of poetry too” (Rigsbee 1999, 46). One form this “poetic advantage” takes is the simple fact that a poem outlives the poet in the minds of the readers. More importantly, however, as Rigsbee writes, a poem itself uses language and prosody to “restructure” time (Rigsbee 1999, 36). But how does this restructuring of time happen in a poem, and how exactly can time be turned into an agent of poetry? Since “Lullaby” is about the relationship between time and a deity, it is the perfect text to analyze in order to put Rigsbee’s claim into [End Page 33] practice, and on which to develop a specific discussion of how Brodsky’s poem manipulates the flow of time.

A related observation is made by Valentina Polukhina: “Brodsky knows full well that time cannot exist without matter and that there is no time in its pure form . . . this is why he is convinced that there is some kind of thing there, an object” (Polukhina 1989, 255). Indeed, time is physically embodied in such a multitude of metaphors and metonyms that Polukhina points out how “things, which can be regarded as masks for time, threaten to assimilate man to themselves. The image of time is now associated with the image of scissors . . . now with dust . . . now with a piece of grey rag” (Polukhina 1989, 249). This observation can be extended to see the object of the poem itself as an embodiment of time. Thus, Brodsky is constantly trying not only to talk about time, but to ‘recreate’ it or incarnate it in the poem. The poem can be read the same way that Brodsky himself described the poems of Mandelstam in his essay “The Child of Civilization”: “It is better, then, to speak not about the theme of time in Mandelstam’s poetry, but about the presence of time itself, both as an entity and as a theme” (Brodsky 1986, 125). In the context of “Lullaby,” just as Mary gives birth to Christ, so does language—through prosody’s ability to create it and shape it—give birth to time. A closer look at the formal structure of “Lullaby” is crucial in understanding how Brodsky embodied time inside a poem.

In the context of the nativity poems, the form of “Lullaby” is as unique as its female point of view:

Birth I gave you in the desert
not by chance,
for no king would ever hazard
its expanse.

Seeking you in it, I figure,
won’t be wise
since its winter cold is bigger
than its size.

As you suck my breast, this vastness,
all this width,
feeds your gaze the human absence
it’s filled with.

Grow accustomed to the desert
as to fate,
lest you find it omnipresent
much too late.

(Brodsky 2001, 87–88)

Among the nativity poems, form is only moderately varied from poem to poem. Common formal patterns include somewhere from four to eight line stanza structures, with usually around four metrical feet per line. The varieties of meter include iambs, anapests, dolniks,2 and also the four-foot amphibrach Pasternak [End Page 34] used in Doctor Zhivago for his own nativity poems (Vail 2001,104). In contrast with the relative similarity of these structures, “Lullaby” is composed of four-line ballad-like stanzas (appropriate considering the title), whose lines alternate between four (or three) feet and two feet. The effect of these comparatively truncated lines is twofold. First, on the horizontal level of the line, truncation creates a halting, staccato, telegraphic effect. The first and third lines of each stanza end always with a feminine rhyme, but despite this soft falling away, abrupt enjambments and often a missing foot mean that readers end lines seemingly prematurely. Then readers are jolted into the next line only to find that line even shorter, even more telegraphic, an effect reinforced by the masculine rhymes that consistently end the second and fourth lines of each stanza.

A second effect of the uncharacteristic use of the truncated ballad stanzas plays on the poem’s visual appearance on the page. Short lines mean the poem is stretched out to be taller and, in a sense, longer. The poem’s tallness and narrowness produce a sense of quickly falling through the poem. The quickness of the poem’s vertical movement creates tension with the poem’s abrupt horizontal movement; on one plane (the horizontal), time seems marked and halted, while on the other (the vertical) time seems either fast or endless.

The structural play between horizontal finiteness and vertical infinity is a compelling example of how a formal attribute can enhance thematic meaning. Although in a religious sense Christ is seen as eternizing, in a secular sense he is the maker of the finite, someone who makes the earth even more temporal and temporary. Thus, the finiteness and halting horizontal lines, with all their starts and stops, represent Christ the calendar maker. Contrastingly, the desert represents infinite time, void of calendars, where the centuries “freely” or “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (without human presence) pass (Brodsky 2001, 89). The hurried and bottomless pace of the poem’s vertical fall recreates the desert’s infinity. The prosody of “Lullaby” is a specific example of Rigsbee’s claim that time itself can be restructured in a poem, and of how Brodsky strove to make time an agent of poetry.

When asked why he repeatedly returned to the subject of the nativity, Brodsky replied: “Above all, this is a temporal holiday, linked to a particular reality, to the movement of time” (Vail 2001, 103). Thus, the image of Christ in the desert (and the nativity scene) is compelling because of how it inserts a finite body (Jesus), and the sense of time that that body represents, into a landscape that is seemingly infinite both geographically and temporally. The Christ child in the desert is not only God-in-man, but he is time-in-timelessness. The fascination with Christ’s secular temporality, or the effects of time in general, occurs in several other of Brodsky’s nativity poems. One example is “With riverbanks of frozen chocolate, a city,” translated by Derek Walcott:

I am writing you this from the other side of the earth
on the birthday of Christ. The snow choir
outside the window recite, as if with one mouth,

their mute “ailu-li.” Whiteness multiplies the air. [End Page 35]
Soon he’ll be two thousand. Just fourteen more years.

(Brodsky 2001, 69)

Equally, another example can be found in “Flight into Egypt (2),” translated by Seamus Heaney:

Another day behind them now,
its worries past. And the “ho, ho, ho!”
of Herod who had sent the troops.
And the centuries a day closer too.

(Brodsky 2001, 99)

These two examples show Brodsky’s recurring depiction of Christ not as one who eternizes, but as one who makes finite. Even for believers who celebrate his birthday, Christ’s most immediate impact is not spiritual, but temporal, as a marker of time. Because of him, time’s movement becomes even more obvious and inescapable. Another allusion to Christ as the marker of time occurs in “Lullaby”:

Paths one sees here are not really
human paths
but the centuries’ which freely
through it pass.

(Brodsky 2001, 89)

Here again time seems measured, not abstract, and therefore finite, not infinite; linear, not circular. This linearity leaves room for a distinct beginning which only Christ, and specifically the event of his birth, can occupy. It is as if time flows horizontally out of the Christ child like rays of light.

Often in Brodsky’s work, time means not only death but separation from other human beings. Brodsky’s 1971 poem “Nature Morte” illustrates this fear, and is relevant to the present discussion in that it presents a very different relationship between Mary and her son. At the moment of the crucifixion, Mary, speaking to Christ, seems lost and afraid:

“Are you my son?—or God?
You are nailed to the cross.
Where lies my homeward road?

“Can I pass through my gate
not having understood:
Are you dead?—or alive?
Are you my son?—or God?”

(Brodsky 2000, 52)

Written more than twenty years before “Lullaby,” this Mary seems much less aware of her own and of her son’s identity. She differs from the self-assured speaker of “Lullaby,” who seems to sense, with intuition if not prophecy, that her son needs to “grow accustomed to the desert” (Brodsky 2001, 89). In “Nature Morte,” Christ’s answer to Mary is one of comfort: “Whether dead or alive, / woman, it’s all the same— / son or God, I am thine” (Brodsky 2000, 52). “Lullaby” has no such reconciliation. A key difference between “Nature Morte” and “Lullaby,” and a clue in deciphering the poems’ two attitudes about time, are the titles. “Nature Morte” means “still life,” and it is just that: an attempt to freeze time in order to stave off Christ’s imminent death and separation from his [End Page 36] mother. It is an attempt to preempt the necessity for elegy. “Lullaby” is a song, something that is dependent on time for its existence. Therefore, the later poem shows both grief at separation and a knowledge that this separation is important (“grow accustomed to the desert”). Mary (or the poet) implies that a relationship with her son is possible not through the cessation of time, but through its flow. In the last stanza of “Lullaby” “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic,” “hour,” is rhymed with “‘INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic,” “us” (Brodsky 2001, 91). The implication is clear: it is not birth, or the breast, but the passage of time that paradoxically both separates and unifies.


The relationship in “Lullaby” between Mary and her son presents several complexities in terms of gender and identity to which no critical attention has been given. These thematic complexities both relate to and deviate from the usual discussion of time in Brodsky’s poems, and deserve to be elaborated on. One of the things that makes “Lullaby” strikingly different from the other nativity poems is that it is the only nativity poem written in the voice of one of the nativity characters, namely Mary. Nowhere else in Brodsky’s work does a woman get such an extended monologue, and no critical discussions have speculated on why this particular poem requires such a unique—in Brodsky’s oeuvre—point of view. To begin, the deliberate choice of a feminine speaker in “Lullaby” may share a common source with its biblical subject matter. Writing about Brodsky’s friendship with the acclaimed Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Tomas Venclova describes how near the end of Akmatova’s life she and Brodsky considered the possibility of creating a verse translation of the Bible (Venclova 2002, 8). Akhmatova herself wrote three poems that were retellings of biblical narratives, her “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (“Biblical Verses”): “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (“Rachel”), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (“Lot’s Wife”), and “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (“Michal”), all of which depicted women, perhaps in an attempt to give voice to that biblical minority. It could be tempting to interpret the use of the feminine point of view in “Lullaby” as a similar attempt to let the women of the Bible speak for themselves, were it not for an overshadowing practical consideration: to speak of the voice of the Christ child could be presumptuous. At the same time, speaking in the voice of Joseph was also out of the question—Brodsky himself admits in a 1973 interview on his poem “Nunc Dimittus” that “I couldn’t have as a major figure someone with the same name as mine” (Kline 1973, 39). But to assert that Brodsky had no choice would also be untrue, considering that in another poem, “Nature Morte,” Brodsky does put words in Christ’s mouth. Also, unlike Akhmatova’s biblical verses, in which a narrator discuses the poem’s female protagonist, “Lullaby” is a monologue in the voice of Mary herself. Therefore, this unique appropriation of a female voice must be seen as more than an avoidance of potentially blasphemous or biographical readings; it represents a deliberate creation of a self separate from her poet-creator as well as from her newborn son. The language Mary uses further reinforces not only her femininity but also her separateness from all other individuals. [End Page 37]

In addition to the feminine title (lullaby is a feminine word in Russian), Brodsky asserts the feminine personality of his speaker by the poem’s first line, even the first word:

INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic
Birth I gave you in the desert

(Brodsky 2001, 86, 87)

In his English translation, Brodsky preserves the concentration of the poem’s central themes that exist in the original Russian line. All lyric poetry begins with the birth of a consciousness, the coming-into-being of that poem’s speaker, its lyric “I.” This poem heightens the sense of nativity by using the word “birth” as its first word. In Russian, personal pronouns are often left off when they are self-evident from context or from the verbs’ endings themselves. But it is significant to note that Brodsky chose to retain “birth” as the beginning in English as well: he writes “Birth I gave” and not “I gave you birth.” Mary as the speaker asserts herself as a woman and mother before she even says “I.” Thus, Brodsky chooses to begin the poem by highlighting one of the differences between Mary and her son, and between Mary and the poet. At the moment of birth, one individual becomes two. Thus, the poem’s thematic preoccupation with individualization and separation are re-enacted linguistically by the poem’s first word.

Understanding the placement of other words in this line and attention to Russian word gender are keys to understanding the dynamics of the poem. Like the poem as a whole, this line begins with the act of birth, a separation, and ends with desert. In addition, INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic (desert) is a feminine-gendered noun. By placing the “you” of the poem (Christ) almost exactly between “birth” and “desert,” Brodsky immediately sets up syntactically one of the poem’s tensions: Christ is torn between two women, two mothers. Mary is, in a sense, set at odds with the character of the desert as a surrogate mother for her son. Once that syntactical relationship is established, the rest of the poem follows that basic conflict. Brodsky repeatedly uses the phrase “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic,” “in the desert,” ironically turning the desert into a second womb (Brodsky 2001, 86, 87). Using the desert as a symbol for the womb is congruent with the paradox of virgin birth: both seem unexpected to the point of miraculous. But this commonality is perhaps serendipitous. Brodsky is, after all, only following the story of the family’s flight into Egypt as it appears in the Bible. Additionally, the poem is clearly playing off Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness, where the desert becomes a second mother or home, a site of spiritual re-birth. In this way, Mary’s lullaby seems almost prophetic.

As illustrated by the first line, gender plays a key role in Brodsky’s poem. Besides the two feminine characters outlined in the poem’s first line, feminine words overwhelmingly dominate the rest of the diction. Of the fifty-six words that end lines, thirty-three of them are feminine words, twelve are neuter, and eleven masculine. In a quick survey of the line endings of the other nativity poems (and Brodsky’s poems in general), a reader will see that this overwhelming feminine dispersal is not a general or coincidental structure. And within the lines, feminine [End Page 38] words, especially nouns, dominate the diction. “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (desert), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (winter), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (fate), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (toy), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (star), “ropa” (mountain), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (power), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (lamp), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (breast), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (human absence), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (mystery), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (emptiness), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (love), and “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (flesh) are all feminine words. Compare that list to the scant selection of male nouns: “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (king, which we are told in the poem is actually characterized by its absence), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (ball), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (sand), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (son), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (cross), and “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (hour). Since this cannot be attributed to a predominance of feminine nouns in the language itself, it must be seen as a conscious decision by the poet to overwhelm the poem with the feminine. It is as if Mary (subconsciously, or consciously through the mind of the poet) is asserting her right to motherhood, and her identity as separate from Christ’s, by the very fact that she, symbolized by her diction, is more fertile than the desert, and the gender opposite of her son.

The poem’s rhymes are also enlightening. The interchange between the masculine and feminine rhymes is a technique that owes a debt to its Russian predecessor, the Pushkin stanza of Eugene Onegin, which interlocked couplets of masculine and feminine rhyme. This interlocking rhyme is evidently important enough to the poem that Brodsky as self-translator preserved it in English, despite the occasional awkwardness and forced quality that English feminine rhymes can have. Since Russian is inherently more polysyllabic than English, many more opportunities exist for Brodsky to make surprising comparisons by juxtaposing rhyme words in his native language. Some particularly enlightening pairings include “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” with “ropy” (“view” with “mountain”), “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” with “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (“breast” with “human absence”), and “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” with “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (“meek” with “power”) (Brodsky 2001, 88, 90). In many ways these pairs are semantic or thematic opposites; in a desert, mountains obstruct view; a nursing breast suggests an intimate human presence; and meek and powerful relate directly to the paradoxical nature of Christ himself, the God-child who is omnipotent yet turns the other cheek.

Brodsky is often able to create similarly enlightening or intriguing semantic pairings in English. “Vastness” corresponds thematically with “absence,” and “phantom” with “mountain” (Brodsky 2001, 87, 89). However, in English Brodsky often has to sacrifice more meaningful rhyme pairs, and exchange them for relatively meaningless or awkward juxtapositions for the sake of (sometimes very slant) feminine rhyme. “Layers” and “play with” is an example of this. So is “ever” and “shows where” (87, 89).

But the preservation of the feminine rhymes, no matter how difficult in English, was necessary for more than just stylistic reasons. As Mary and her feminine diction are being separated from Christ and his masculinity, the poet is not only paying her homage in her own feminine terms, but he is asserting language’s ability to create and assert identity, and the feminine rhymes and point of view are the only feminine aspects of the poem to survive translation. This is not to say that the English translation, which lacks linguistic gender, is necessarily inferior, or that English itself is less sophisticated. A writer of English poems doesn’t have [End Page 39] linguistic gender as part of his or her craft but can still evoke a feminine presence in the poem by relying on feminine characters, feminine rhyme, and more frequently, feminine images. For example, Seamus Heaney, a contemporary and friend of Joseph Brodsky, has used the image of milk to inflect his poems with a feminine gender. One particular example is relevant to the present discussion: in “Digging,” the speaker remembers himself as a boy, and says, speaking of his turf-cutting grandfather, “Once I carried him milk in a bottle / corked sloppily with paper” (Heaney 1998, 3). In the context of the older men working with their spades, the effect of the image of milk being associated with the young poet is to slightly feminize him, make him self-conscious about his identity and role, and also, just as in “Lullaby,” to reinforce his separateness from those around him.

The point is not that English and Russian are different. That is self-evident. And the point is also not that “Lullaby” is feminine simply because of gendered nouns—the poem is, after all, written in the voice of a woman. The point is, rather, that language in a poem can be used as a tool to transform and reinforce gender, one of the most fundamental aspects of human identity. By hardwiring the speaker’s identity into the very structure of the poem, that poetic utterance becomes unique and individual, just like the mind it represents. This notion of individuality relates not only to Brodsky’s belief in the importance of a person’s separate uniqueness, but to the poem’s religious subject matter as well: it is not a coincidence that a poem about Christianity’s founding moment goes out of its way to illustrate Christ’s separation from his mother, the separation of mankind from God, a central concept in Christian theology.

Brodsky’s native gendered language lets him reinforce one crucial aspect of his speakers’ identity, and the poem’s English translation can be seen not as a different version of the same poem, but as a completely different, individual poetic utterance. In fact, Brodsky succeeds in preserving even more relevant juxtapositions with desert as a feminine rhyming word in English than he does in Russian. In English, “desert” is used as a rhyme word six times (whereas in Russian, it is used five times), and with each new usage our semantic and thematic interpretations of the poem change. “Desert” is rhymed with “hazard,” “omnipresent,” “isn’t,” “pestered,” “incandescent,” and “treasured” (Brodsky 2001, 87, 89, 91). Each of these words is a mirror for the desert, and since these rhymes appear in that order, it is as if the desert is transformed as the poem moves on: it shifts from omnipresent hazard to incandescent treasure. This transformation not only prefigures the sanctifying aspect of the desert in the life of Christ, but it is also an example of poetic form mirroring content: Mary’s injunction to her son to “grow accustomed to the desert” is carried out by the poet in the rhymes themselves.

This thematic and structural nuance is absent in the Russian. Its English translation has taken on a life of its own, and so it should. In Russian, only two of the “desert” rhymes seem particularly important: “desert” is rhymed with both “you are not” (INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic) and “son” (INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic) (Brodsky 2001, 88, 90). In the latter, a relationship is being drawn between Christ and the desert that seems to foreshadow the desert’s importance in his life. But in the former, [End Page 40] Mary can be seen asserting her child’s identity as separate from the desert, and because the desert is Mary’s alter ego in the poem, separate from Mary herself.

Let us return to the poem’s use of alternating masculine and feminine rhyme. In addition to stylistic effects already outlined, this rhyme scheme formally recreates the separation of mother from son that the poem depicts. As discussed, the poem begins with a son thematically and linguistically separated and torn between two mother figures. These three characters are set in linear opposition to each other. By the final stanza of the poem, this linear opposition is transformed into vertical separation. Here is the last stanza of the poem, first in Russian, then in Brodsky’s English verse rendering:

INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic
INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic
INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic
INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic

just a lamp to guide the treasured
child who’s late,
lit by someone whom the desert
taught to wait.

(Brodsky 2001, 90, 91)

In the Russian, the son (“INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic”) is set in vertical opposition with, and swallowed by, the desert (“INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic”), who is Mary’s counterpart in the poem, but not Mary herself. The central struggle of this poem is Mary’s struggle between the desire to create a new life which is divided from herself, and her desire to keep the child as her own, as a part of her. Perhaps this is why Brodsky gives her the last word “INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic” (us), as a final effort to reunify herself with her son. It is significant that it is “us,” a communal neuter pronoun, and not “you” and “I,” two isolated and gendered pronouns. But this reunification she longs for cannot take place in reality, and the contrasting masculine and feminine aspects of the poem illustrate how real their separation from one another is; even in terms of line endings, her son is separate from her. This separation no doubt causes grief, and could be seen as wholly negative. However, it is also the very thing that makes any kind of meaningful relationship between mother and son a possibility.


Speaking of the phrase “time worships language” in Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Brodsky, in an often quoted passage, set up a hierarchical cosmology:

Worship is an attitude of lesser towards the greater. If time worships language, it means that language is greater or older than time, which, in turn, is older and greater than space. That is how I was taught, and I indeed felt that way. So if time—which is synonymous with, nay, even absorbs deity—worships language, where then does language come from? For the gift is always smaller than the giver.

(Brodsky 1986, 363) [End Page 41]

Time can be seen as inferior to language only in the context of a poet or poetry; the above analysis of the structure of “Lullaby” illustrates language’s ability to manipulate the flow of time, and to alter how human beings perceive time’s passing. A historian or linguist would argue that on the cosmic scale, the rapidity with which languages come and go proves their finiteness and their inferiority to time. But for a poet, language is deified. Valentina Polukhina commented:

The attempt to come to grips with time, to find a reconciliatory relationship with that very real abstraction with which we all live is one of the central themes of Brodsky’s poetry. Time and death are interwoven; in fact, according to Brodsky, Time was created by death. . . . To conquer both, we are given language.

(Polukhina 1989, 188; emphasis in original)

It is because we are mortal that we feel the need to artistically play with language, to create, as Frost said, that momentary stay against confusion. “Lullaby” is ultimately a lamentation, an elegy that acknowledges that even the mother of Christ must experience sadness and loss. However, the poem’s carefully chosen language illustrates the victory of all good poetry: it gives us the ability, if only temporarily, to control time instead of being controlled by it.

The same observations can be made regarding Brodsky’s manipulation of gender in the poem. Since language makes it possible for us to assert fundamental aspects of our physical identities—our gender and our temporality—attentive use of language can help reinforce our uniqueness, our individuality. For Brodsky, this individuating aspect is poetry’s highest goal. In his Nobel lecture, Brodsky commented:

If art teaches anything (to the artist, in the first place), it is the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly, a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous “I.” Lots of things can be shared: a bed, a piece of bread, convictions, a mistress, but not a poem by, say, Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.

In the same way that each lyric poem can be seen to create a separate self, Brodsky suggests that so too can each be seen as a unique assertion of their speaker’s (and readers’) individual identity, their self-perception, their relationships with others and with deity. During a question-and-answer session after a reading of his poetry at the University of Iowa, he refused to answer a question about his attitude toward religion, calling such a topic too “intimate” and commenting only: “This is one of those questions one is not supposed to ask, or to answer” (Musial and Longinovic 2002, 131).

Brodsky’s view of religious devotion as “intimate” discourages categorization and makes a claim for the importance of an individual’s separateness from others. The intricateness of “Lullaby” illustrates that a poem can be a similarly intimate assertion of identity. It is a poem about the creation of two identities, one masculine, one feminine, the differences between them, their uniqueness [End Page 42] and division, and their attempts at some form of unification. I believe this unification is achieved, paradoxically, through the individuating language of the poem itself. Although Brodsky, in his valorization of the individual, highlights the uniqueness of each speech utterance, it is by making these utterances at all that the human experience can be shared. This linguistic intersubjectivity does not negate Brodsky’s vision of individualization; rather, the two phenomena create each other. It is the communal experience of language, time, and gender that makes individuation meaningful and valuable. At the same time, the poem also illustrates how language (or the poet), God-like, manipulates time in a way that seems outside a mortal human’s ability. “Lullaby” is characteristic of Brodsky’s fundamental belief that even in a poem with religious subject matter, a poet’s most worshipful or devotional attitude should be first and foremost towards the poem’s own building blocks—its language, the thing which enables poets to keep on creating.

Michael Lavers  

Michael Lavers is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah and has an MFA from Johns Hopkins University. His poems have been published in multiple journals, including Tar River Poetry, River Styx, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.


1.  Most of these poems are found in his Collected Poems in English (2000), but a number had never been translated into English prior to this volume.

2. Dolnik is a Russian poetic meter in which the amount of unstressed syllables between stresses is not constant but varies from one to two syllables.

Works Cited

Brodsky, Joseph. 2001. Nativity Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
———. 2000. Collected Poems in English. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
———. 1987. “Nobel Lecture.” The Nobel Foundation.http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1987/brodsky-lecture.html
———. 1986. Less Than One. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Heaney, Seamus. 1998. Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Kline, George. 1973. “A Poet’s Map of His Poem: An Interview by George L. Kline.” In Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. 2002. Edited by Cynthia L. Haven. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Musial, Grzegorz, and Tomislav Longinovic. 2002. “Esthetics is the Mother of Ethics.” In Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Edited by Cynthia L. Haven. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Polukhina, Valentina. 1989. Joseph Brodsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rigsbee, David. 1999. Styles of Ruin: Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodern Elegy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Vail, Peter. 2001. “A Conversation with Joseph Brodsky.” In Nativity Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Venclova, Tomas. 2002. “A Meeting of Two Poets: Joseph Brodsky’s “Nunc Dimittis.” Havighurst Humanities Lecture Series, Miami University.http://www.units.muohio.edu/havighurstcenter/publications/paperarchive.htm [End Page 44]