Pure elegies, or elegiac lyrics on the transience of life, may start out with someone else’s life and death but, more often than not, work their way around to the poet’s own—something Brodsky himself pointed out in “Footnote to a Poem,” his essay on Marina Tsvetaeva’s elegy for German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Mourning oneself through others is a time-honored tradition in lyric poetry, with the tone of the lament ranging from defiant (Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”) to nobly hopeful of immortality in some other form. The poet may be losing hair and teeth, but the consolation is a permanent place in art and memory.
The standard elegiac themes of time passing, age, and loss run through “Afterword”; what makes the poem interesting is not so much their presence but their relationship. Brodsky has often written about exile and loss, and the themes have often taken the form of meditations on separation forced either by history or geography—in other words, by time or space. In Brodsky’s poetry, those are not abstract notions but things that can be smelled, touched, seen, felt, and heard.
Here, Brodsky’s speaker is not so much mourning as he is musing over an observable, tangible process. The tone is both philosophical and wry. Mortality itself is a process, not an event: In his singular version of the law of preservation of matter, life reclaims its own in segments, increments, and fractions. That...
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