Constancy by Joseph Brodsky is a twenty-six line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. Brodsky has not chosen to give this piece a consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm. That does not mean that the verses are without unifying elements though. A reader should take note of the moments in which the end sounds come close to slant or half rhymes. For example, this occurs in the fourth and fifth lines with the words “matter” and “parlor.” Additionally, in other lines such as six and ten there is a repetition of the ‘k’ consonant, creating a rhythmic familiarity in the end words “Slavic” and “like”. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Constancy
‘Constancy’ by Joseph Brodsky describes what it means to change over time, specially when moving from one’s own home to another wholly unknown environment.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the way one’s thoughts can change but still remain in their constant “rectangle” or “parallelogram” form. Additions are added, such as an oval, that help to transform who a person is. The speaker sees this as a type of evolution. One’s brain takes in as much information about the new location as possible until the past becomes a memory. It is no longer one’s “reality” but something that exists wrapped up like a pearl in a mussel.
Analysis of Constancy
Lines 1- 5
In the first set of lines the speaker begins by defining “Constancy” as “an evolution of one’s living quarters into / a thought.” He defines constancy, or the quality of remaining unchanged, as something that happens within one’s mind. It transforms one’s physical experiences into something only exists in the mind. The next lines add onto this definition be relating constancy to the expansion of a “parallelogram or a rectangle.” These are perfect forms which when stretch will no longer sit in the same shape. They also represent one’s original state of being. The “rectangle” one’s life changes as one moves through life. It is added onto and expanded, as will be discussed in the third set of lines.
In the third line of the poem the speaker mentions “Clausewitz.” This is a reference to a Prussian military general and theorist who wrote on the moral aspects of war in the book On War. He saw war as something that could not be reduced down to maps, rules, and right/wrong orders. Rather, it was a deeply socio-political and as he stated, “continuation of policy by other means.” War was not straightforward but the culmination of actions and reactions within an uncertain context.
When one considers this philosophy alongside Brodsky’s speaker’s statements about constancy it seems as if he is attempting to convey that one’s ability to remain unchanged develops over time. It is in reaction to a variety of different circumstances. It is the “voice”that continues on the rectangle and therefore “the gray matter.” Here, the speaker is referring to the brain. Then referencing how the most important and challenging changes happen mentally.
In the next set of lines the speaker alludes to one’s inner space. He is speaking on the brain and how one makes sense of changes. The mind has been transformed into a “brain-cell parlor.” Here, an observer would see a variety of different pieces of furniture. There is an armoire as well as “studded chairs” and a “bedside table with / little medicine bottles.” The bottles act as the only truly personal objects in the scene. They are symbols of one’s mental state and the history that one carries from place to place. This is the evolution the speaker was touching on in the first set of lines.
Change, as one will see in the following sections, is something one must grow accustomed to. These lines seem to be speaking on the things that don’t change. The medicine bottles can be seen as in two different ways. Either as they as stated, bottles containing medicine, or they could alcoholic drinks. This contrast is made more complicated by the last line which compares the standing pill bottles to a “kremlin” or a “manhattan.” Both of these words could speak to locations and to drinks. Either way, they are standing as markers of a past that travels along within the “brain-cell parlor.”
The poem takes a turn from the generally abstract to the more emotionally straightforward at the eleventh line. In this section the speaker is contemplating all the ways that one is able to “go away for good.” These are huge changes, and in the case of death, the ultimate. The speaker describes what it means to “abandon a family” move to a new country, or “change hemispheres.”
In an effort to describe physically what this sort of change is, the speaker crafts an image of, “new ovals” being “painted into the square.” One’s larger body, soul, or state of being might not change. It remains a rectangle or square, while adding features, such as the oval. When this happens the “gray cell” of one’s brain will insist on more and more information. It longs to be fed facts about the oval and about the new location one is in. It is seeking to create a new room within one’s mind. Then furnish it with the appropriate details of the new setting.
One’s new location must feed the “gray cell” within one’s brain. This is spoken of as being a “sacrifice” on the part of the “new locale.” Everything around one must be taken and reorganized into information that one can process. The states that the sacrifice eventually comes “from your very self.” Changes require sacrifices and in this case, evolution.
In the next three lines the speaker moves to discuss place and memory. He starts that “Evolution” is more than just one’s ability to get used to a “new locale.” It happens successfully when one’s memories are triumphant “over reality.” The past is no longer what is real. It exists in the cells of one’s brain and no where else.
In the final five lines the speaker discusses changes larger than those within one’s mind. Reality is transformed into memory and the “amoeba” becomes the “ichthyosaurus” which “pines” or misses its previous form.
The world becomes nothing more than a source for memories of the past. As the train, or life itself, blunders through the “darkness,” one passes the memories and references to the past. These are things hidden deep within one’s mind and in the landscape. They are represented by the “mussel shells” which hold tight a pearl. This speck of beauty is surrounded by “spineless, soggy” insides or the miscellaneous details of everyday life.