Joseph Brodsky Poems >>
History of the Twentieth Century (A Roadshow)
The Sun's in its orbit,
yet I feel morbid.
Ladies and gentlemen and the day!
All ye made of sweet human clay!
Let me tell you: you are o'kay.
Our show is to start without much delay.
So let me inform you right away:
this is not a play but the end of the play
that has been on for some eighty years.
It received its boos and received its cheers.
It won't last for long, one fears.
Men and machines lie to rest or rust.
Nothing arrives as quick as the Past.
What we'll show you presently is the cast
of characters who have ceased to act.
Each of these lives has become a fact
from which you presumably can subtract
but to which you blissfully cannot add.
The consequences of that could be bad
for your looks or your blood.
For they are the cause, you are the effect.
because they lie flat, you are still erect.
Citizens! Don't neglect
history! History holds the clue
to your taxes and to your flu,
to what comes out of the blue.
We'll show you battlefields, bedrooms, labs,
sinking ships and escaping subs,
cradles, weddings, divorces, slabs.
Folks! The curtain's about to rise!
What you'll see won't look like a Paradise.
Still, the Past may moisten a pair of eyes,
for its prices were lower than our sales,
for it was ruining cities: not blood cells;
for on the horizon it's not taut sails
but the wind that fails.
1900. A quiet year, you bet.
True: none of you is alive as yet.
The '00' stands for the lack of you.
Still, things are happening, quite a few.
In China, the Boxers are smashing whites.
In Russia, A.P.Chekhov writes.
In Italy, Floria Tosca screams.
Freud, in Vienna, interprets dreams.
The Impressionists paint, Rodin still sculpts.
In Africa, Boers grab the British scalps
or vice versa (who cares, my dear?).
And McKinley is re-elected here.
There are four great empires, three good democracies.
The rest of the world sports loin-cloths and moccasins,
speaking both figuratively and literally.
Upstaging "Umberto's" in Little Italy,
in the big one Umberto the Ist's shot dead.
(Not all that's written on walls is read).
And marking the century's real turn,
Friedrich Nietzsche dies, Louis Armstrong's born
to refute the great Kraut's unholy
"God is dead" with "Hello, Dolly."
The man of the year, though, is an engineer.
John Browning is his name.
He's patented something. So let us hear
about John's claim to fame.
( John Moses Browning )
"I looked at the calendar, and I saw
that there are a hundred years to go.
That made me a little nervous
for I thought of my neighbors.
I've multiplied them one hundred times:
it came to them being all over!
So I went to my study that looks out on limes
and invented this cute revolver!"
1901. A swell, modest time.
A T-bone steak is about a dime.
Queen Victoria dies; but then Australia
repeats her silhouette and, inter alia,
joins the Commonwealth. In the humid woods
of Tahiti, Gauguin paints his swarthy nudes.
In China, the Boxers take the rap.
Max Planck in his lab (not on his lap
yet) in studying radiation.
Verdi dies too. But our proud nation,
represented by Mrs.Disney, awards the world
with a kid by the name of Walt
who'll animate the screen. Off screen,
the British launch their first submarine.
But it's a cake-walk or a Strindberg play
or Freud's "Psychopathology of Everyday
Life" that really are not to be missed!
And McKinley's shot dead by an anarchist.
The man of the year is Signore Marconi.
He is an Italian, a Roman.
His name prophetically rhymes with "Sony":
they have a few things in common.
( Guglieimo Marconi )
"In a Catholic country where the sky is blue
and clouds look like cherubs' vestiges,
one daily receives through the air a few
wordless but clear messages.
Regular speech has its boring spoils:
it leads to more speech, to violence,
it looks like spaghetti, it also coils.
That's why I've built the wireless!"
1902. Just another bland
peaceful year. They dissect a gland
and discover hormones. And a hormone
once discovered is never gone.
The Boer War (ten thousand dead) is over.
Elsewhere, kind Europeans offer
railroad chains to a noble savage.
A stork leaves a bundle in a Persian cabbage
patch, and the tag reads "Khomeini". Greeks, Serbs, Croats,
and Bulgars are at each others' throats.
Claude Monet paints bridges nevertheless.
The population of the U.S.
is approximately 76
million: all of them having sex
to affect our present rent.
Plus Teddy Roosevelt's the President.
The man of the year is Arthur Conan Doyle,
a writer. The subjects of his great toil
are a private dick and a paunchy doc;
occasionally, a dog.
( Sir Arthur Conan Doyle )
"Imagine the worst: your subconscious is
as dull as your conscience. And you, a noble
soul, grab a Luger and make Swiss cheese
out of your skull. Better take my novel
about the Hound of the Baskervilles!
It'll save a handful of your brain cells
and beef up your dreams. For it simply kills
time and somebody else!"
1903. You may start to spy
on the future. Old Europe's sky
is a little dim. To increase its dimness,
The Krupp Works in Essen erect their chimneys.
(Thus the sense of Geld breeds the sense of guilt.)
Still, more smoke comes from London, from a smoke-filled
room where with guile and passion
Bolsheviks curse Mensheviks in Russian.
Speaking of Slavs: The Serbian King and Queen
are done by local well-wishers in.
Painters Whistler, Gauguin, Pissarro are gone.
Panama rents us its Canal Zone.
While bidding their maidens bye-bye and cheerio,
the tommies sail off to grab Nigeria
and turn it into a British colony:
to date, a nation's greatest felony
is if it's neither friend nor foe.
My father is born. So is Evelyn Waugh.
Man of the year, I am proud to say
is two men. They are brothers. Together, they
sport two heads, four legs and four hands-which brings
us to their bird's four wings.
( The Wright Brothers )
"We are Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Our name simply rhymes with 'flight'!
This may partially explain
why we decided to build a plane.
Oh there are no men in the skies, just wind!
Cities look like newspaper print.
Mountains glitter and rivers bend.
But the ultimate plane'd rather bomb than land!"
1904. Things which were in store
hit the counter. There is a war.
Japan, ever so smiling, gnashes
teeth and bites off what, in fact, in Russia's.
Other than that, in Milan police
crack local skulls. But more common is
the touch of the new safety razor blade.
The nuances of the White Slave Trade,
Mount St.Victoire by Monsieur Cezanne
and other trifles under the sun
including popular French disgust
with the Vatican, are discussed
in every Partisan cafeteria.
Radioactivity - still a theory -
is stated by Rutherford (when a particle
brings you a lordship we call it practical).
And as the first Rolls Royce engines churn,
Chekhov dies but Graham Greene is born,
so is George Balanchine, to upgrade the stage,
so too - though it's sin to disclose her age -
is Miss Dietrich, to daunt the screen.
And New York hears its subway's first horrid scream!
The man of the year is a Hottentot.
South-West Africa's where he dwells.
In a German colony. And is being taught
German. So he rebels.
( A Hottentot )
"Germans to me are extremely white.
They are white in broad daylight and what's more, at night.
Plus if you try to win minds and hearts
of locals, you don't call a black guy "schwarz" -
"Schwarz" sounds shoddy and worse than "black".
Change your language and then come back!
Fly, my arrow, and hit a Hans
to cure a Hans of his arrogance!"
1905. In the news: Japan.
Which means that the century is upon
us. Diminishing the lifespan
of Russian dreadnoughts to naught, Japan
tells urbi et orbi it's loathe to lurk
in the wings of geography. In Petersburg
those whose empty stomachs churn
take to the streets. Yet they won't return
home, for the Cossacks adore long streets.
A salesman of the Singer sewing devices greets
in Latvia the arrival of yet another
daughter, who is to become my mother.
In Spain, unaware of this clever ploy,
Pablo Picasso depicts his "Boy
With Pipe" in blue. While the shades of blonde,
Swedes and Norwegians, dissolve their bond.
And Norway goes independent; yet
that's not enough to turn brunette.
Speaking of things that sound rather queer,
E is equated to MC square
by Albert Einstein, and the Fauvists
(Les Fauves is the French for unruly beasts)
unleash Henri Matisse in Paris.
"The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehar is
the toast of the town. Plus Transvaal gets its
constitution called by the natives "the pits".
And Greta Garbo, La belle dame sans
merci, is born. So are neon signs.
The man of the year, our record tells,
is neither Strindberg nor H.G.Wells,
he is not Albert Schweitzer, not Oscar Wilde:
his name is obscured by his own brain-child.
( Camouflage )
"I am what gentleman wear in the field
when they are afraid that they may be killed.
I am called camouflage. Sporting me, each creature
feels both safer and close to Nature.
The green makes your simper's pupil sore.
That's what forests and swamps are for.
The planet itself wears me: the design
is as French as it is divine."
1906. Time stands at ease.
Having one letter in common with
his subject, Freud adds to our bookshelf
preparing the century for itself.
On the whole, Europeans become much nicer
to each other: in Africa. Still, the Kaiser
when asked of the growth of his navy, lies.
The Japs, for some reason, nationalize
their railroads of whose existence none,
save several spices, had known.
Along the same, so to speak cast-iron
lines, aping the rod of Aaron,
the Simplon Tunnel opens to hit your sight
with a smoking non-stop Vis-a-vis. Aside
from that the civilized world condemns
night shifts (in factories though) for dames.
Prime ministers are leapfrogging in
Russia, as though they've seen
in a crystal ball that the future keeps
no room for these kinds of leaps.
The French Government warily says "pardon"
to Captain Dreyfus, a Jew who's done
ten years in the slimmer on the charge of treason.
Still, this distinction between a prison
and a Jew has no prophetic air.
The U.S. troops have a brief affair
with the Island of Cuba: their first tete-a-tete.
Samuel Beckett is born. Paul Cezanne is dead.
The man of the year is Herr von Pirquet.
He stings like honey-bee.
The sting screams like Prince Hamlet's sick parakeet:
TB or not TB.
( Dr. Clement von Pirquet )
"What I call allergy, you call rash.
I'll give you an analogy: each time you blush,
it shows you're too susceptible to something lurid,
obscene and antiseptical to hope to cure it.
This, roughly, is the principle that guides my needle.
To prove you are invincible it hurts a little;
it plucks from your pale cheeks the blooming roses
and checks their petals for tuberculosis!"
As for 1907, it's neither here
not there. But Auden is born this year!
This birth is the greatest of all prologues!
Still, Pavlov gets interested in dogs.
Next door Mendeleev, his bearded neighbor
who gave the universe the table
of its elements, slips into a coma.
The Cubists' first show, while Oklahoma
becomes the Union's 46th
state. Elsewhere New Zeland seeks
to fly the Union Jack. Lumiere
develops the colored pictures ere
anyone else (we all owe it to him!)
The Roman Pope takes a rather dim
view of modernism: jealous Iago!
Having squashed (4-0) Detroit, Chicago
forever thirsting for Gloria Mundi
wins the World Series. In Swinemunde
Nicholas the IInd meets the German Kaiser
for a cup of tea. That, again, is neither
here not there, like Kalamazoo.
And Carl Hagenbeck opens his careless zoo
where walruses swim, lions pace, birds fly
proving: animals also can live a lie.
The man of the year, you won't believe,
is Joseph Stalin, then just a tried.
He is young; he is twenty-eight;
but History's there, and he cannot wait.
( Joseph Dzhugashvili, alias Stalin )
"My childhood was rotten, I lived in mud.
I hold up banks 'cause I miss my dad.
So to help the party, for all my troubles
one day I took four hundred grand in roubles.
Thus far, it was the greatest heist
in the Russian history after Christ.
Some call me eager, some call me zealous;
I just like big figures with their crowd of zeroes."
1908 is a real bore
though it provides a new high in gore
by means of an earthquake in the Southern part
of Calabria, Italy. Still, the world of art
tries to replace those one hundred fifty
thousand victims with things as nifty
as Monet's depiction of the Ducal Palace
in Venice, or with Isadora's galas,
or with the birth of Ian Fleming: to fill the crater.
In the World Series Chicago's again a winner.
In the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina
are taken by Austria (for what it took
it will pay somewhat later with its Archduke).
And the fountain pen is in vogue worldwide.
The gas of helium's liquefied
in Holland which means the rising of
that flat country a bit above
sea level, which means thoughts vertical.
The king and the crown prince are killed in Portugal,
for horizontality's sake no doubt.
Also, the first Model T is out
in Dearborn to roam our blissful quarters
trailed by the news that General Motors
is incorporated. The English Edward
and Russia's Nicholas make an effort
to know each other aboard a yacht.
The Germans watch it but don't react -
or do, but that cannot be photographed.
And the Republic calls on William Taft.
The man of the year is German scientist
Paul Ehrlich. He digs bacterias
and sires immunology. All the sapiens
owe a lot to his theories.
( Paul Ehrlich )
"The world is essentially a community
and to syphilis, nobody has immunity.
So what I've invented beefs up your arsenal
for living a life that's a bit more personal.
I've made Salvarsan. Oh my Salvarsan!
It may cure your wife, it may cure your son,
it may cure yourself and your mistress fast.
Think of Paul Ehrlich as you pull or thrust!"
1909 trots a fine straight line.
Three Lives are published by Gertrude Stein.
(On the strength of this book, if its author vies
for the man of the year, she sure qualifies.)
Other than that, there is something murky
about the political life in Turkey:
in those parts, every man has a younger brother,
and as Sultans they love to depose each other.
The same goes apparently in Iran:
Ahmed Shah tells Mohammed Ali: "I run
the show", though he's 12 years old.
In Paris, Sergei Diaghilev strikes gold
with his "Ballets Russes". While in Honduras,
screaming the usual "God, endure us!"
peasants slaughter each other: it's a civil war.
Sigmund Freud crosses the waters for
to tell our Wonderland's cats and Alices
a few things about psychoanalysis.
But David Griffith of Motion Pictures,
boggling one's dreams, casts Mary Pickford.
The Brits, aping the Royal Dutch
Shell Company, too, legalize their touch
on the Persian oil. The Rockefeller
Foundation is launched to stall a failure
and to boost a genus. Leaving all the blight,
glitter and stuff made of Bake light
(that heralds the Plastic Age) far below, the weary
bearded and valiant Captain Robert Peary
reaches the North Pole, and thus subscribes
virginal white to the Stars and Stripes.
Ah those days when one's thoughts were glued
to this version of the Absolute!
The man of the year is the unknown
nameless hairdresser in London Town.
Stirred either by its cumulous firmament
or by the British anthem, he invents the permanent.
( A London hairdresser )
"The Sun never sets over this Empire.
Still, all empires one day expire.
They go to pieces, they get undone.
The wind of history is no fun.
Let England be England and rule the waves!
And let those waves be real raves.
Let them be dark, red, chestnut, blonde
unruffled by great events beyond!"
1910 marks the end of the first decade.
As such, it can definitely be okayed.
For there is clearly a democratic
trend. Though at times things take an erratic
turn. Like when Egypt's Prime Minister, through no fault
of his, gets murdered. But the revolt
in Albania is the work of masses
(although how they tell their oppressed from their ruling class is
anyone's guess). Plus Portugal bravely rids
itself of its king, and as he's hugged by the Brits,
becomes a republic. As for the Brits themselves,
one more generation of them learns God saves
no king, and mourning the sad demise
of Edward the Seventh, they fix their eyes
on George the Fifth. Mark Twain and Tolstoy die too.
But Karl May has just published his Winnetou
in German. In Paris, they've seen and heard
That causes some riot, albeit a tiny one.
Whereas the twangs of the Argentinean
Tango do to the world what the feared and hailed
Halley's comet, thank heavens, failed
to do. And our watchful Congress
finds it illegal if not incongruous
to take ladies across state lines
for purposes it declines
to spell out, while Japan moves nearer
to Korea: a face that invades a mirror.
The man of the year is an architect.
His name is Frank Lloyd Wright.
Things that he's built still stand erect,
nay! hug what they stand on tight.
(Frank Lloyd Wright)
"Nature and space have no walls or doors,
and roaming at will is what man adores.
So, a builder of houses, I decide
to bring the outside inside.
You don't build them tall: you build them flat.
That's what Nature is so good at.
You go easy on bricks and big on glass
so that space may sashay your parquets like grass."
1911 is wholly given
to looking balanced albeit uneven.
In Hamburg, stirring his nation's helm
the German Kaiser (for you, Wilhelm
the Second) demands what sounds weird for some:
"A Place for Germany in the Sun".
It you were French, you would say C'est tout.
Yet Hitler is barely twenty-two
and things in the sun aren't so hot besides.
The activity of the sun excites
the Chinese to abolish pigtails and then
proclaim a republic with Sun Yat-Sen
their first President. (Although how three hundred
twenty-five millions can be handled
by a Parliament, frankly, beats
me. That is, how many seats
would they have had in that grand pavilion?
And even if it's just one guy per million
what would a minority of, say, ten percent
add up to? This is like counting sand!
For this democracy has no lexicon!)
Along the same latitude, the Mexican
Civil War is over, and saintly, hesitant
Francisco Madero becomes the President.
Italy finding the Turks too coarse
to deal with, resorts to the air force
for the first time in history, while da Vinci's
Mona Lisa gets stolen from the Louver - which is
why the cops in Paris grab Monsieur Guillaume
Apollinaire who though born in Rome,
writes in French, and has other energies.
Rilke prints his Duinese Elegies
and in London, suffragettes poke their black
umbrellas at Whitehall and cry Alack!
Man of the year is a great Norwegian.
The crucial word in their tongue is "Skol".
They are born wearing turtlenecks in that region.
When they go South, they hit the Pole.
"I am Roald Amundsen. I like ice.
The world is my oyster for it's capped twice
with ice: first, Arctical, then Antarctical.
Human life in those parts is a missing article.
O! when the temperature falls subzero
the eyes grow blue, the heart sincere.
There are neither doubts nor a question mark:
it's the tails of your huskies which pull and bark".
1912. Captain Robert Scott
reaches the South Pole also. Except he got
there later than Amundsen. He stares at ice,
thinks of his family, prays, and dies.
Ice, however, is not through yet.
S.S. Titanic hits an iceberg at
full speed and goes down. The bell grimly tolls
at Lloyd's in London. Fifteen hundred souls
are lost, if not more. Therefore, let's turn
to Romania where Eugene Ionesco's born
or to Turkey and her Balkan neighbors: each
one of them feels an itch to reach
for the gun; on reflection, though, they abandon
the idea. It's peace everywhere. In London
by now there are five hundred movie theaters
which makes an issue of baby-sitters.
At home, after having less done than said;
Woodrow Wilson becomes the Prez. Dead-set
to pocket the dizzy with flipping coin
New Mexico and Arizona join
the Union. For all its steel mills and farms
the Union keeps currently under arms
only one hundred thousand men. That's barmy
considering five million in the Russian Army,
or four million in Germany, or the French
who, too, have as many to fill a trench.
This sounds to some like a lack of caution.
But then there is the Atlantic Ocean
between the Continent and the U.S.,
and it's only 1912, God bless,
and the hemispheres luckily seem unable
to play the now popular Cain and Abel.
The man of the year is both short and tall.
He's nameless, and well he should
stay nameless: for spoiling for us free fall
by using a parachute.
(Captain Albert Berry)
"Leaving home with umbrella? Take a parachute!
When it rains from below, that is when they shoot
down a plane and its pilot objects to die,
when you wand to grab Holland or drop a spy
behind enemy lines, you need parachutes.
O, they'll be more popular than a pair of shoes.
In their soft descent they suggest a dove.
Aye! it's not only love that comes from above!"
1913. Peace is wearing thin
in the Balkans. Great powers try their pristine
routine of talks, but only soil white gloves:
Turkey and the whole bunch of Slavs
slash one another as if there is no tomorrow.
The States think there is; and being thorough
introduce the federal income tax.
Still, what really spells the Pax
Americana is the assembly line
Ford installs in Michigan. Some decline
of capitalism! No libertine or Marxist
could foresee this development in the darkest
possible dream. Speaking of such a dream,
California hears the first natal scream
of Richard Nixon. However, the most
loaded sounds are those uttered by Robert Frost
whose A Boy's Will and North of Boston
are printed in England and nearly lost on
his compatriots eyeing in sentimental
rapture the newly-built Grand Central
Station where they later would
act as though hired by Hollywood.
In the meantime, M.Proust lets his stylus saunter
the Swann's Way, H.Geyger designs his counter;
probing nothing perilous or perdu,
Stravinsky produces Le Sacre du
Printemps, a ballet, in Paris, France.
But the fox-trot is what people really dance.
And as Schweitzer cures lepers and subs dive deeper,
the hottest news is the modest zipper.
Think of the preliminaries it skips
timing your lips with you fingertips!
The man of the year is, I fear, Niels Bohr.
He comes from the same place as danishes.
He builds what one feels like when one can't score
or what one looks like when one vanishes.
Atoms are small. Atoms are nice. Until you split one, of course.
Then they get large enough to play dice with your whole universe.
A model of an atom is what I've built! Something both small and big!
Inside, it resembles the sense of guilt. Outside, the lunar dig.
Nineteen-fourteen! Oh, nineteen-fourteen!
Ah, some years shouldn't be let out of quarantine!
Well, this is one of them. Things get raw:
In Paris, the editor of Figaro
is shot dead by the wife of the French finance
minister, for printing this lady's - sans
merci, should we add? - steamy letters to
- ah, who cares!.. And apparently it's c'est tout
also for a socialist and pacifist
of all times, Jean Jaures. He who shook his fist
at the Parliament urging hot heads to cool it,
dies, as he dines, by some bigot's bullet
in a cafe. Ah, those early, single
shots of Nineteen-fourteen! ah, the index finger
of an assassin! ah, white puffs in the blue acrylic!..
There is something pastoral, nay! idyllic
about these murders. About that Irish enema
the Brits suffer in Dublin again. And about Panama
Canal's grand opening. Or about that doc
and his open heart surgery on his dog...
Well, to make these things disappear forever,
the Archduke is arriving at Sarajevo;
and there is in the crowd that unshaven, timid
youth, with his handgun.... (To be continued).
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