Letter to an Archaeologist

Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn’t love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it’s gentler that what we’ve been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don’t reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won’t resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.

— Joseph Brodsky, 1985

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan.Image: 1973 University of Michigan Yearbook, Michiganesian

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan.
Image: 1973 University of Michigan Yearbook, Michiganesian

Joseph Brodsky gave his first public poetry reading at the Gorky Palace of Culture in 1960. In January 1961, he was arrested by the KGB for the first time. In the early 1960s, he was twice imprisoned in a mental institution for producing “pornographic and anti-Soviet” poetry. In 1964, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for “parasitism” (not holding a State-approved job). The Soviet state commuted his sentence to 18 months in response to international protests. Brodksy was forced onto a plane and into exile in June 1972. He became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

[Research note: Alexandra Berlina, “Afterlife Beyond Translation: Joseph Brodsky,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (December 2013): 370-383.]