Nunc Dimittis (Joseph Brodsky)

December 24, 2008

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found — of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it —
      devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
      and guarded the Child in the dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary —
      to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

A chance ray of light struck the crown of the head
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing. He blew drowsy bubbles;
      old Simeon’s arms held him like a stout cradle.

It had been revealed to this upright old man
that he would not die until his eyes had seen
the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And
      he said : ‘ Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,
for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring, this Child —
in him thy salvation, which thou hast made ready,
      a light to enlighten the face of all peoples

and carry thy truth to idolatrous tribes;
bring Israel, thy people, its Glory in time.’
Then Simeon paused. A thick silence engulfed them,
      and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,
high over their heads in the tall temple’s vaults,
Like some soaring bird that flies constantly upward
      and somehow is caught and cannot return earthward.

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed
as strange and uncanny as Simeon’s speech.
And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing —
      so strange had his words been. The holy man, turning

to Mary, continued: ‘Behold, in this Child,
now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall
and rising again of the many in Israel;
      a source of dissension, a sign to be spoken

against. The same weapon which tears at his flesh
shall pierce through thine own soul as well.
Thy wound, Mary, like a new eye, will reveal to
      thy sight what in men’s deepest hearts now lies hidden.’

He ended and moved toward the temple’s great door.
Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,
and Mary, gazed after him, perfect in silence.
      He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.
As though driven on by the force of their looks,
he strode through the cold empty space of the temple
      and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

The stride of his old legs was audibly firm.
He slowed his step slightly when Anna began
to speak, far behind him. But she was not calling
      to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe
and touched his cool brow, while the roar of the street,
exploding in life by the door of the temple,
      beat stubbornly into old Simeon’s hearing.

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.
      He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The roaring of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child —
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory —
      aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,
where never before until this point in time
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
      The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

February 16, 1972 / trans. by George L. Kline

*

Joseph Brodsky, if you’re not familiar with him, was a Russian poet who later learned, and wrote in, Polish and English. He was famously arrested in 1963 for being a menace to society, and was exiled internally to a remote region of Russia for five years. He was later expelled from Russia, came to the U.S., and eventually won a Nobel Prize for literature.

I found an excerpted transcript from his trial (on Wikipedia, imagine that!) which is telling of his poetic disposition throughout his life, one of openness to mystery.

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
Judge: Did you study this?
Brodsky: This?
Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it … comes from God.

Brodsky’s famous liturgical poem Nunc Dimittis describes Simeon’s movement (found in Luke chapter two) from the physical to the metaphysical realm, as well as the Biblical transition from Old to New Testament. I was particularly struck by the image of the Christ child as a torch held high to press back the black shadows of Death. The poem tells us that Simeon was the first human to bear Christ’s image–his light–into that other world.

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