- Joseph Brodsky at Queens College (Or, Me at Work)
Note from the author: The poems below are selections from a book-length cycle of poems that in part retrace my mother's journey as a half-Jewish, half-Uyghur refugee from the Soviet Union during Perestroika, while very pregnant with me. My mother gives birth to me along the way in the city of Vienna in the summer of 1989. The collection is tentatively titled How to Love the World: Poems for my Mother. The project reflects on what constitutes an act of hope or love in the light of loss, alienation, and stifled expectations that we often cannot help, in spite of a rudimentary desire to live a good life. In the poems excerpted here, I imagine sharing with her what her journey means to me as an adult, working as a CUNY adjunct instructor in philosophy.
I try to imagine him talking to the secretarylecturing to his students who must have looked up at himas they look up at me now, with the heavy-lidded heart of Orpheus,stuffed with sawed-off branches and the lightof interior moonscapes, the glint of snails, clay, and mortar shells.They too only half mean to sing low to themselves,lift lines from epic poetry and actually conjure something from another world.
How interesting it must have been to catch him in the corridoron his way to the toilet or just stretching his legs a bit,to watch his face change expression as he accidentally steps ona wad of bright pink bubble gum,tries to drink from defunct water fountains and makes the janitors [End Page 340] sob out loud from the sudden revelationof the agony of having to love today and again tomorrow.
I'd have enjoyed exchanging cock-and-bull remedies for a chest cold,ruining his day with a pointless argument,or just listening to him complain about bus schedules,the plastic spoons in the cafeteria,and the old-fashioned timetables of college administrators.I can only guess whether he was the kind of old bachelorwho gave gifts to girls like a man sitting down
to an out-of-tune piano and who stubbornly keeps playing it.A dram of vodka. A gunshot to the temple. The last dreamof the morning. The teakettle shapes a winter day into a flying chariot.Olive oil starts leaping out of the frying pan,as his housekeeper sheds a reluctant tear for her daysin the komsomol, when the motherlandwas victorious and men still looked at her a certain way.
Slipping his feet into dog-eared slippers, he must havethought to himself—as I did this morning—that it is hard to lovethe world and oneself in it, with its arrangementsof flowers and false eyelashes. Its many druggists and dentistsclutching the insides of a subway car. Workers who no longerbother to strike. Patients getting lost in the hallsof poorly funded hospitals. I too want to say the hell with it,
get myself exiled, take off into a Siberian snowdrift, like a junkyard dogaccustomed to the vacant lots of the world,but the days already accumulate around me like glass baubles,shattered by my body just stirring from sleep.And I'm already on the bus heading to Queens College.
It's best that without knowing it I keep building this ark.I'll gather all the animals. I'll fill the vending machineswith American chocolate bars. I'll write letters to the mayor. [End Page 341] The doves will return by the thousandslike every snowflake that fell the year Brodsky diedlike me waking up in the early morning in a tenement roomto prepare my lecture and let the last dove go. [End Page 342]