David Crumm has been my greatest supporter in the writing of these inspiring biographies in the three books we have produced. He took a small project of mine and said it should be for a larger audience. He challenged me with ideas that greatly enriched my writing and the book concepts. But David Crumm is rich in stories himself, so it’s time for him to step out from behind the curtain to spin us a story himself. Thanks for all you do, David, to support the empowering inspiration that drives us to the works of freedom, justice, and peace! For us in Detroit, and more and more around the world, David Crumm is an interfaith peacemaker, too!
Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)
When Joseph Brodsky finally became one of the world’s most famous poets—a name students were expected to study in school—he may have lost some of his power to shock and provoke. This was, after all, a man who once wrote a poem about the agonizing experience of riding, as a convict, on a filthy Soviet-era prison train to the gulag. This was a man who, later, made his own students memorize poetry, explaining, “Because, someday, if you are sent to a prison camp—the poetry you carry in your memory may be your entire world. So, we must choose well what world we will carry, no?”
Today, the late Nobel laureate may be at risk of gathering dust as a poet suitable for academics. Yet, after studying with Brodsky for a term in the early 1970s at the University of Michigan, where he found refuge after leaving Russia, I closely followed his career. Beyond his reputation as a universally celebrated poet, I can tell you, he also was what we call today an interfaith peacemaker.
Pope John Paul II, survivor of the lethal challenges of World War II and the Soviet era, wrote eloquently about the unique God-given value of each human life. As a young man, Brodsky talked about that same insight in his testimony in the Russian legal process that eventually sent him to the gulag. Many peace-and-justice activists today talk about the plight of the prisoner, the refugee, the homeless. Brodsky was, in turn, all of those and his life’s work explores how to cope with each spiritual challenge.
Those of us who are fans of Brodsky have a slim volume of his prose on our shelves, called Watermark. The book is often recommended as a brilliant portrait of the city of Venice, which Brodsky visited dozens of times throughout his later life. In blurbs promoting the book, it sounds like a kind of travel guide. In fact, the book explains how Brodsky—as a stateless, homeless citizen of the world—decided to adopt a city as his own new home in the world. Certainly, choosing Venice as a destination isn’t the answer for the vast majority of the world’s homeless today, but the deeper challenge—fashioning a new spiritual home in the world for a rootless refugee—is the yearning of countless men and women around the globe.
He was a peacemaker, at the root of his work, driven by his own traumas. I recall, during my term as one of his students in a small poetry seminar, walking along a street in Ann Arbor at night. We were heading from our classroom building to a local pub where he liked to conduct the actual seminar, sometimes. Suddenly, he stood still. He waved his hand for us to pause. Slowly, he brought out one of his foul-smelling cigarettes and lit up before we could proceed. Once inside our pub, he explained: “I’m sorry. But there were these two policemen crossing the street up ahead. To this day …” he said and shook his head. He repeated, “To this day, I have this physical response to seeing police in uniform. I can’t be near them.”
Of course, that particular trauma subsided and, as Brodsky circled the world, he stood near many uniformed officers in various public venues. But it was that visceral memory that shaped his life and his writing—in poetry and prose, in Russian and English.
But an “interfaith” peacemaker? That’s the most fascinating puzzle of Brodsky’s life and one that many contemporary writers and educators all but ignore as they focus on his more popular works. So, I challenge those readers who are interfaith peacemakers to get a copy of a lesser-known Brodsky work: the Russian-English edition of Nativity Poems. (Note: The Russian word Brodsky used is usually translated “Nativity,” but the term means the same as “Christmas” in its original Russian Orthodox context.)
Brodsky was Jewish, although not regularly practicing. He had memorized large passages from the Psalms. In our early 1970s seminar at the University of Michigan, he had us memorize from Psalms and discuss these ancient pleas from the depths of human fear and hope. He did not speak or write from a specific religious tradition. On occasion, he visited a number of different kinds of religious services.
But, from early in his life—much as he later would adopt Venice as a new home for his homeless soul—he began writing Christmas poems. He made a discipline of writing one each year through two long periods of his life. The early poems are more muscular and restless. The later series of poems settled on what became his Christmas theme: How the birth of a baby at the Nativity was a moment of hope coming into the world—watched over by the star high above that was God.
And so, in 2014’s Interfaith Peacemakers Month, at Epiphany and Russian Orthodox Christmas, here are a few lines from one of Brodsky’s Nativity poems. In Russian Christmas icons, the Nativity scene is shown not as a European-style wooden stable, but as a cave (and, in fact, the rocky site in Bethlehem is a cave). The Jewish poet envisions the baby as a tiny ray of hope emerging in the world watched over by a star:
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.
Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the father’s stare.
Care to read more?
Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.
David Crumm has written more about his experiences with Brodsky. Earlier, he wrote a more extensive article about the poet’s life, when the first major biography of Brodsky was published. Also, David’s own collection of 40 Lenten readings, Our Lent: Things We Carry, contains two chapters about Brodsky.