Iosif Brodsky and the Big Bang

Dan Newton, University of Washington

This paper will identify and examine correspondences between Iosif Brodskij's poetic conception and twentieth-century scientific theories, particularly in his long poem "Gorbunov and Gorchakov." Completed in 1968 during his northern exile, the poem refers directly to Brodskij's brief but harrowing stay in a psychiatric hospital just prior to his being sent north. It is for the most part a monologue in the form of a dialogue, that is, the eponymous interlocutors represent two conflicting voices in the mind of the poet. The poem is very tightly organized, like many of Brodskij's works, but here the strict form contrasts especially starkly with the outspreading bursts of madness and metaphysical vision it contains, not unlike the psychiatric hospital itself. Vague and fragmentary yet persistent images appear in the poem, having to do with the creation of poetry. These images bear striking similarity to modern theories of physics, mathematics and cosmology.

Several associations are made involving particles within a field. The first of these is Gorbunov's recurrent dream of mushrooms in the grass. This image is likened to words in a field of silence, to islands in the sea and to life against the background of oblivion. The sea represents both death and the source of life, "the abyss of being from which we all arose so long ago." This spontaneous generation of being from nothingness is enlarged by means of images of doubling (multiplication by means of division) and of radial expansion.

Like light, which paradoxically seems to propagate now as particles, now as waves, Brodsky's particles generate outward radially: "it is not the sea [...] that runs on to the shore, but word following upon word." The poet beseeches God to "bring to You my coughing mind, resettling its microbes [...]." In a kind of rapid-fire, metaphysical "Who's on First?" the word "[he]said" (skazal) takes on a life of its own as it travels outward in ripples: "Circles--one, four..." "And he said." "And it's the same circle, but the radius is unquestionably wider." "Said is a ring." "Said is another ring." "And here his said has run into the shore."

The poem has a "fractal" quality, to borrow the word invented by Benoit Mandelbrot to describe the curious geometric shapes generated by chaos theory. Such shapes are "self-similar," that is, any small portion of the object is similar in its irregularity to any larger portion. (James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science). Edwin Hubble's expanding universe also bears this regular irregularity, but spread over time instead of space: as the eons pass, everything becomes equivalently farther and farther away from everything else. "Gorbunov and Gorchakov" is fractal both in form-- the titles of the poem's fourteen cantos form a macro rhyme scheme of their own, AABB-C-AABB-C-AADD--and in content--rather than devote one section of the poem to the subject of creation, Brodskij scatters its images throughout.

During the last century the old separation of art and science was significantly narrowed, both by scientific theories that border on mysticism and by artists, like Joseph Brodskij, who see the poetic element in such theories. The paper will broaden the discussion to include other poems by Brodskij in order provide a context for the discussion of the correlation between the physicist's vision of the creation and structure of the universe and Brodskij's vision of the creation and structure of poetry.