Joseph Brodsky’s 1993 poem “Dedal v Sitsilii” perfectly illustrates his view that in reading a poet one participates “in his or his works’ death” (or in both). My introduction comments briefly on issues raised by this programmatic poem — whether/how Brodsky developed as a poet, the role of classical myths and literature in his art — but my major concern is Brodsky’s: “Time and what it does to a man.” Crude autobiographical readings of the poems in the Theseus-Minos-Daedalus “cycle” should be avoided as we go beyond the obvious themes of empire, tyranny, and exile. What is missing from the poem’s account of Daedalus’s escape from the Cretan lairs/liars? What does it tell us about the risks of translating one’s earlier identity into a new cultural space? How is one to explain errors, omissions, unusual allusions in the poem, or differences between original and translation?
One clue is that the poem’s imagery and the phrase “fear of replication” revisit the Bloomian theory of influence: although in later years Brodsky was highly critical of Bloom, his earlier essays and poetic practice appear to be Bloomian in significant respects. Daedalus is not only the archetypal artist, but also the artist at different stages of his development - the jealous, almost Salierian murderer of the youth Perdix whose work surpassed his own, as well as the older, “stronger” artist whose son dies in the attempt to follow in his path. In a previous paper I argued that Brodsky revised the myth of Daedalus and Icarus in “Osennii krik iastreba” (“The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn,” 1975) in working through his own ambivalent relationship to W. H. Auden. Auden’s renunciation of the “power” of poetry found its most significant symbolic expression in his rejection of all forms of the “Icarus” symbolism of the 1930s; but “Osennii krik iastreba” wondered whether the best of both poetic worlds — Russian and Anglo-American — could be combined. The 1993 poem betrays Brodsky’s ambivalent love that can speak its name only in poetry — that later Auden was probably a lesser Auden, and that Brodsky’s own dependence on him, and/or his attempt to inscribe himself into an alien tradition, may have led to a similar loss of potency. Thus Daedalus here is to be read (in part) as both Auden and Brodsky (with Icarus as their younger selves); and although hope remains that the fear of death may yet inspire the aging poet (like Hardy, Yeats, Frost), the poem’s wider context suggests that the problem for the Russian poet is that true strength comes through the repetition of the “last creative act” of a “Pushkinian” death: a replication to be feared by the man, welcomed (!) by the poet, but no longer available anyway. Yet the poem’s anxieties are not those of “a nervous, world-class mediocrity” (Craig Raine). They embody the quarrel with oneself that produces great poetry, and the poem’s brutal, if masked, honesty suggests that Brodsky is indeed a poet who will stand the test of time.