Poet as Aeronaut: Brodskij’s Dialogue with Cvetaeva on Aging and the Poetic Death-Wish

Despite the fact that, as one critic has put it, Marina Cvetaeva is “Brodskij’s immediate predecessor in Russian poetry” (Lev Loseff, Politics/Poetics), very little has been written on the affinities between these two poets beyond Brodskij’s own two essays on the subject (“A Poet and Prose,” “Footnote to a Poem”). David Bethea’s chapter in his Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile is the one notable exception. Bethea views both Brodskij’s and Cvetaeva’s unrelenting drives toward a state of “psychic exile” (195) as the essential shared element of their poetics, while the two poets’ metaphysical profiles are diametrically opposite: Cvetaeva’s poetics is expansionist, Brodskij’s reductionist. This difference, Bethea suggests, is largely a result of gender difference—and the heavily gendered poems he chooses to juxtapose would seem to support his hypothesis.

In this paper, I propose to go beyond the symbolic dichotomies Bethea traces between Cvetaeva’s “cave/womb” and Brodskij’s “shameful erection” in search of an understanding of the more fundamental poetic issues at stake in Brodskij’s dialogue with Cvetaeva. Specifically, I will discuss two poems on the theme of aging—Brodskij’s “Osennij krik jastreba” and Cvetaeva’s “Poèma vozduxa”—written, for both poets, at the ripe old age of thirty-five, in exile. I will argue that Brodskij specifically has Cvetaeva’s work in mind when he composes his own, as is indicated not just by his similar use of flight as a metaphysical conceit describing poetic destiny, but also by his similar, peculiar notion of an inverse gravitational force that tragically and necessarily besets the poet, subverting the natural laws of physics and propelling him or her toward the realm of the inhuman. In portraying the poet as aeronaut, Brodskij, like Cvetaeva, demonstrates that he knows the risks incurred in poetic flight and the price to be paid. I will argue that Brodskij intends his own poem not as an echo but as a gentle riposte to Cvetaeva’s poèma, a sober emendation of her otherworldly, suicidal yearnings for death with his own recognition that such yearnings (which he, in fact, shares) lead not to the higher, poetic realm of which Cvetaeva dreams but to nothingness: the poem, not the soul, is the only vestige of the poet after death—and even the poem may go astray.

I will inquire in closing to what extent these differences between the two poems stem from differences in the personality, epoch, culture, and/or gender of the two poets, and how Brodskij’s strong affinity with Cvetaeva, differences notwithstanding, might suggest a new, more refined theory of poetic influence. Such a theory would consider the importance of gender (a factor that is ignored in Bloom’s pioneering work on the subject), without making gender a matter of primary concern. At the same time, this new theory would recognize the possibility of intergender influence (in contrast to Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist corrective to Bloom, which addresses the affinities only between women poets) and attempt to unravel some of its complexity.