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God Does Not Live in Corners

March 2, 2013

By Joseph Brodsky

It’s not a religious poem – the beautiful description of primitive thought loses to the final joke. But read it again – the atheist is missing much consolation.  And it was written in 1964, just after the 23-year-old Leningrad poet had been sentenced to five years internal exile. Are these the lines scratched out by a starving dissident in Siberia?  

Not exactly. Khrushchev was acting tough after the Cuban missile crisis, but Brodsky was small beer. A rival for his girlfriend had denounced him, and his sentence for “freeloading” was mild. He wasn’t sent to the Gulag, but to a farm in the village of Norenskaya, only 300 miles away. He had his own cottage, typewriter and books, and friends were able to visit.

But the trial had brought him notoriety.The poet Anna Akhmatova’s campaign for his release soon attracted the attention of Auden, Shostakovitch and Sartre, and his sentence was commuted after 18 months. He got the girl, got her pregnant, and a few years later got to America, where he eventually won the Nobel prize. 

This new translation appeared in the New Yorker, 25 Feb 2013. I like the alternate near rhymes, climaxing in the complex, but perfect, the mist and atheist.  

In Villages God Does Not Live in Corners

In villages God does not live in corners
as skeptics think. He’s everywhere.
He blesses the roof, he blesses the dishes,
he holds his half of the double doors.
He’s plentiful. In the iron pot there.
Cooking the lentils on Saturday.
He sleepily jigs and bops in the fire,
he winks at me his witness. He
assembles a fence, he marries some sweetheart
off to the woodsman. Then for a joke
he makes the warden’s every potshot
fall just short of a passing duck.
The chance to watch all this up close,
while Autumn’s whistling in the mist,
is the only blessed gift there is
in villages, for the atheist.

by Joseph Brodsky.  Translated by Glyn Maxwell and Catherine Ciepiela

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