Joseph Brodsky's “Predstavlenie”: At the Crossroads of Poetry and Photography

Joanna Madloch, Montclair State University

To anyone even remotely acquainted with the work of Joseph Brodsky, there is an undeniable connection between his work and the language of photography. Photography readily appears in Brodsky's poems, essays and given interviews as a topical motive and, what's more, it ostensibly influences the way the poet presents the world in his works. The recurrent use of geometry; color; spatial fragmentation, and limitation of perspective - all of which (are) tools keen to visual manipulation; convey a strong sense of "photographic seeing" (Sontag 61) characteristic of Brodsky's unique perception of space and time.

Brodsky’s penchant for photography is evident in his decision to have the poem “Predstavlenie” published in conjunction with a collection of 143 photographs by the Russian war-correspondent Oleg Smirnow. “Predstavlenie” was originally written in 1987. A distinguishing trait of this extended poem is its intertextuality and polyphonic character.

Built on the structural scheme of Alexander Block's poem “Dvenadcat’” Brodsky's work alludes to the literary tradition of Mayakovsky, Pushkin and Axmatova, incorporating their signature styles as inter-textual fragments throughout the poem. “Predstavlenie” even reiterates to the charisma of colloquial language and argot, further propelling the poem to the visual equivalent of a buffoonery. What seems of pivotal importance in “Predstavlenie,” is undeniably its language, which equates the total moral and social-value degradation with the political and ideological disembodiment of the Soviet system.

My research looks at the relations and interactions between the ontologically different levels in the text further propelled by the addition of the 143 black-and-white photographs (added only recently, in 1999). The visual images, treated as the text itself, bring yet another facet to the polyphony of voices. Although the individually powerful verbal and pictorial levels of the poem in its new format often appear to compete for the reader/viewer's attention, they seem to enthrall a symbiotic relationship of curious and strange power. This newborn aesthetic has the capacity to appeal to the audience both pictographically and poetically.

“Predstavlenie” is one of the long list of works in which Joseph Brodsky deals with the problem of the Empire and its influence upon human nature. This time, however atypical to the poet, the empire does not wear its usual Roman attire. It has finally embodied its authentic Soviet decoy with its most distinctive capital--Homo Sovieticus. In my paper I explain how adding plain and even sometimes crude photographs changes a very difficult and enigmatic work into a text, which can be easily interpreted in categories of postcolonial discourse, one that lets the "others" of the Soviet/Russian Empire speak with their own voice.

Sontag, Susan. “Photography within Humanities.” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2004. 59-66.