Nativity Poems


Christmas poems by the Nobel Laureate

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother's breast, the

steam out

of the ox's nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, the team

of Magi, the presents heaped by the door, ajar.

He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

?from "Star of the Nativity"

Joseph Brodsky, who ...

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Christmas poems by the Nobel Laureate

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother's breast, the

steam out

of the ox's nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, the team

of Magi, the presents heaped by the door, ajar.

He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

—from "Star of the Nativity"

Joseph Brodsky, who jokingly referred to himself as "a Christian by correspondence," endeavored from the time he "first took to writing poems seriously," to write a poem for every Christmas. He said in an interview: "What is remarkable about Christmas? The fact that what we're dealing with here is the calculation of life—or, at the very least, existence—in the consciousness of an individual, a specific individual." He continued, "I liked that concentration of everything in one place—which is what you have in that cave scene." There resulted a remarkable sequence of poems about time, eternity, and love, spanning a lifetime of metaphysical reflection and formal invention.

In Nativity Poems six superb poets in English have come together to translate the ten as yet untranslated poems from this sequence, and the poems are presented in English in their entirety in a beautiful, pocket-sized edition illustrated with Mikhail Lemkhin's photographs of winter-time St. Petersburg.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Most poets would benefit from having Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur, and Anthony Hecht render their poems in English—even if the poems were in English already [and in these versions] at times you hear something, not like a bell, but like an echo, of what this poet must sound like in Russian . . . Brodsky, who liked to pass Christmas in Venice, that sinking monument to the decay of architecture and belief, saw with what magnificence a skeptic could contemplate centuries past—these poems express a fealty to the past without being enslaved by it. And there is, almost like frailty, the doubt beneath Brodsky's doubt—you sense he felt the myths might just possibly be true ..."

—William Logan, The New Criterion

Publishers Weekly
Beginning when he "first took up writing poems seriously," former U.S. poet laureate Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996 at age 56, wrote a Christmas poem each year. Of the 18 Nativity Poems of this holiday collection, 10 are previously untranslated, and are presented bilingually. Among the renderers are Seamus Heaney, Anthony Hecht, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur and Brodsky himself. Glyn Maxwell's excellent version of "Speech over Spilt Milk" finds "God/ has lighted in the blue immense/ the planets, icon lamps to glow/ before the face we cannot know./ What's poetry but a review/ of the existing evidence." (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Every year from 1962 to 1993 during the Christmas season, Nobel prize-winning poet Brodsky, who came to the United States in 1972 as an exile from the Soviet Union, endeavored to write a "nativity poem." Frequently a loner, the poet often wrote with an acerbic "bah-humbug" sort of air, as in the poem tellingly titled, "Speech over Spilled Milk": "O, the damnable craft of the poet./ The phone doesn't ring, and the future? A diet." Other poems center on the event of the nativity. Brodsky was, in his own words, "not a churchgoer" and a "Christian by correspondence" who was "sometimes a believer and sometimes not." Yet in "Flight into Egypt" he wrote, "Not divining his role, the Infant drowsed/ in a halo of curls that would quickly become/ accustomed to radiance." For this enjoyable collection, six poets (including the author) have ably undertaken the translations from the original Russian (which appears on facing pages), preserving in most cases the meter of the original. The collection ends with an illuminating conversation with the author. Highly recommended. Judy Clarence, California State Univ. Lib., Hayward Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374528577
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/13/2002
  • Edition description: Bilingual Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 1,381,832
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.29 (d)

Meet the Author

The poet, essayist, and playwright Joseph Brodsky (1940-96) came to the United States in 1972, an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



There floats in an abiding gloom,
among immensities of brick,
a little boat of night: it seems
to sail through Alexander Park.
It's just a lonely streetlamp, though,
a yellow rose against the night,
for lovers strolling down below
      the busy street.
There floats in an abiding gloom
a drone of bees: men drunk, asleep.
In the dark capital a lone
tourist takes another snap.
Now out onto Ordynka turns
a taxicab, with sickly faces;
dead men lean into the arms
      of the low houses.
There floats in an abiding gloom
a poet in sorrow; over here
a round-faced man sells kerosene,
the sad custodian of his store.
Along a dull deserted street
an old Lothario hurries. Soon
the midnight-riding newlyweds
      sail through the gloom.
There floats in outer Moscow one
who swims at random to his loss,
and Jewish accents wander down
a dismal yellow flight of stairs.
From love toward unhappiness,
to New Year's Eve, to Sunday, floats
a good-time girl: she can't express
      what's lost inside.
Cold evening floats within your eyes
and snow is fluttering on the panes
of carriages; the wind is ice
and pale, it seals your reddened palms.
Evening lights like honey seep;
the scent of halvah's everywhere,
as Christmas Eve lifts up its sweet-
      meats in the air.
Now drifting on a dark-blue wave
across the city's gloomy sea,
there floating by, your New Year's Eve—
as if life could restart, could be
a thing of light with each day lived
successfully, and food to eat,
—as if, life having rolled to left,
      it could roll right.


JANUARY 1, 1965

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards' nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you'd snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.
What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.
A little tune that never stops.
One knows by heart its downs and ups.
May it be played on par
with things to come, with one's eclipse,
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for what occasionally keeps
them trained on something far.
And staring up where no cloud drifts
because your sock's devoid of gifts
you'll understand this thrift: it fits
your age; it's not a slight.
It is too late for some breakthrough,
for miracles, for Santa's crew.
And suddenly you'll realize that you
yourself are a gift outright.



I arrive at Christmas without a kopeck.
The publisher's dragging on with my epic.
The Moscow calendar's going Islamic.
    I'm not going anywhere.
Not to the bawling kids of my buddy,
the family bosom, or a certain lady-friend
I know. They all cost money.
    I shake with ill will in my chair.
O, the damnable craft of the poet.
The phone doesn't ring, and the future? A diet.
I could scrounge at the union branch—you try it:
    may as well scrounge from the local girls.
Lost independence is worse by far
than lost innocence. To dream of a dear
hubby is awfully nice, I'm sure.
    How jolly, the jingle of wedding bells.
Aware of my status, my fiancée
hasn't lifted a finger to marry me
these last five years. And where is she?
    The devil can't beat out that news.
She says, "Don't cry over nothing. What matters
are feelings. All in favor?" The vote is
carried. That's good of her. Clearly she favors
    finding a place she can score some booze.
In general I don't trust my fellows.
To the distaff side, my extra belly's
a burden. What I think man's role is
    never fails to piss them off.
They think of me as a kind of bandit,
mock my appetite, probably find it
funny. I certainly get no credit.
    "Pour him some of the watery stuff!"
I see my single self in a mirror.
I can make no sense of this simple data:
that I made it to Holy Christmas number
    nineteen hundred and sixty-seven.
Twenty-six years of continuous hassle,
digging in pockets, the blows of official
fists, performing the legal shuffle,
    flirting, faking I'm slow, unspeaking.
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Table of Contents

Christmas Ballad 3
January 1, 1965 9
Speech over Spilled Milk 11
Anno Domini 41
"A second Christmas by the shore" 49
December 24, 1971 53
Lagoon 59
"With riverbanks of frozen chocolate, a city" 69
"Snow is falling, leaving the whole world outmanned" 71
Star of the Nativity 73
Flight into Egypt 75
"Imagine striking a match that night in the cave" 79
Nativity 81
Presepio 83
Lullaby 87
25.xii.1993 95
"The air - fierce frost and pine-boughs" 97
Flight into Egypt (2) 99
A Conservation with Joseph Brodsky 103
Editor's Note 113
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