BRODSKY’S SERAPHIC DOH.

Ben Zimmer sends me a link to this NYRB tweet—”First (and most likely only) occurrence of ‘doh’ in The New York Review, from 1979 http://j.mp/XsMwfT“—and asks “What do you suppose that seraphic (as opposed to Homeric) ‘doh’ was all about?” The link goes to Brodsky’s own (typically awful) translation of his “A Part of Speech” (Часть речи), and the lines in question are:

After all these years it hardly matters who
or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “doh,”
only their rustle. [...]

Here’s the Russian:

После стольких зим уже безразлично, что
или кто стоит в углу у окна за шторой,
и в мозгу раздается не неземное “до”,
но ее шуршание. [...]

I’m pretty sure “до” in “неземное ‘до’” (‘unearthly “do”‘) is the note do (=C), as in “do re mi fa sol,” and the “doh” is just Brodsky’s idiosyncratic spelling; at any rate, it certainly has nothing to do with Homer Simpson’s familiar exclamation.

Comments

  1. You can just feel Brodsky getting annoyed at the hypothetical reader who would have rhymed “seraphic ‘do’” with “too.”

  2. I don’t have a copy of Brodsky’s “A Part of Speech” (the collection) or his “Collected Poems in English” handy, but I think in both books he spells the word “do,” not “doh.” I’m sure this must be the case because I can clearly remember being confused when reading the poem in English, thinking he had the verb “to do” in mind, and only when I saw the Russian text did it become clear to me that he was thinking of the musical scale. Of course, it could be confusing in Russian as well, since “до” has its more common non-musical meaning too, just like “do” does. So even if this is another “typically awful” translation, my readerly experience indicates that Brodsky may have had a justification for his odd spelling, and we can’t really fault him for sounding like Homer before The Simpsons ever aired. But it sure does look silly now.

  3. mollymooly says:

    doh, ray, fah, soh, and lah are all recognised variant spellings; the redundant h enforces the three-letter rule. Why me/mi and te/ti should be left with two letters I can’t say.

  4. maybe he wanted to avoid the confusion that Jamie points? But then why not put a w at the end of who – whow, or change to though. Shto – doh rhymes, but in English the rhyme is lost anyway.
    If you put C in the last line it may work – the hissing, shuffling sound of the curtains and of the fluttering wings of the angels?

  5. I don’t have a copy of Brodsky’s “A Part of Speech” (the collection) or his “Collected Poems in English” handy, but I think in both books he spells the word “do,” not “doh.”
    I assure you it is “doh” in A Part of Speech (the collection; my copy is a hardcover inscribed “Стивену Додсону от Иосифа Бродского”); I’m looking at it right now. I can’t speak for the Collected Poems in English… wait a minute, I’ll bet Google Books can answer this: yup, there it is on p. 114, “seraphic ‘do.’” So there’s your answer: you saw it in the Collected Poems in English, and I’ll bet it was changed there because in the meantime Homer had raised his doughy face with his lumpish outcry.

  6. Permit me this once to link to a YouTube clip, since it seems moderately apropos.

  7. In any event, the Homeric exclamation has an apostrophe. “D’oh.”

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    If he was willing to change “unearthly” to “seraphic,” maybe he could have swapped in “note” or “tone” for do/doh/doe/dough (does it really matter for the sense where in the scale it is?) – unless he was trying for slant-rhyme with “who”?

  9. Eh, I don’t believe in the annoyance theory. In fact, I think Brodsky thought we iggernt anglophones actually do pronounce the solfa note like the verb of this sentence. Why not /du ri maɪ fɑ(r) sɒl lɑ(r) taɪ du/? (“Do, a verb, a well-bleached verb; Re, a lawyer’s type of fun; My, the way we say моя” etc.)
    After all, we pervert the pronunciation of nearly every other borrowed word according to our strange notions of spelling. And if so, the rhyme with who was normal and unexceptionable, just like что/до in the original.

  10. If you put C in the last line it may work – the hissing, shuffling sound of the curtains and of the fluttering wings of the angels?
    I think you’re right, Sashura. “Seraphic C” not only sounds better, but is a more accurate translation, since English never uses solmization syllables to designate fixed pitches as does Russian, French, etc. And “C” would leave no possibility of confusion, either.

  11. Thanks, Alan.
    My concern with C would be that it completely reverses how B. employs the sonant Z in the first and third lines to unvoiced C.
    There is an obvious play on the contrast between the ringing Z in the 1/3 lines to the hissing S/Sh in lines 2/4.
    But perhaps it doesn’t matter that much.

  12. Two more musical choices. In the system of my tribe (that is, Sacred Harp singers), your Do, the major tonic, would be Fa. Or perhaps you’d prefer the Guidonian Ut? “Otherworldly Ut” has a conclusory ring to it, don’t you think?

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Was it here where I learned what the Homeric apostrophe means?

  14. it hardly matters who
    or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
    and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “doh,”

    Polonius Simpson?

  15. While walking briskly today to stave off the cold, I worked out the rest of the Great Vowel Shifted version of the Sound of Music lyric:

    Do, a verb, a general verb,
    Re, a lawyer’s kind of fun,
    My, a way we call our own,
    Fay, a fairy from Verdun,
    Soo, a bridge across the straits,
    Lay, a thing we do with Sue,
    Tie, a rope around the neck,
    And that brings us back to do, do, do, do ….

  16. Oops. No preview. Hattic Powers to the rescue, please.

  17. Done, and may I congratulate you on a brilliant piece of work.

Speak Your Mind

*