Brodsky’s last collection contains some superb poems that are as good as any he ever wrote: for example, “Cappadocia,” “Portrait of Tragedy,” “An Admonition,” and “Constancy.” The reader is thankful for these poems and instantly recognizes the voice of a great poet. It is more difficult, however, to gain a true sense of Brodsky’s poetic personality in these poems than in previous volumes; the peaks and troughs of individual poems sometimes seem incommensurable. Two forces are at work in this collection that undermine the quality of some of the poems: Brodsky’s overreliance on an Audenesque speaking voice when he writes in English, and a nihilism or misanthropy that is sometimes not firmly attributed to a specific cause or source.
One of Brodsky’s greatest strengths was always an honest directness and a willingness to look at truth without flinching. These qualities constitute a good reason to avoid describing this volume with generalized praise, since Brodsky himself would have been the first to reject excessive piety or sweetness. These poems do not look at the world through rose-colored spectacles, nor do they contain softening rhetoric.
Brodsky’s directness is on full display in his fine poem “Portrait of Tragedy.” Tragedy is personified as a woman. Brodsky exclaims, “Her face is abominable!” and addresses her in one stanza in this way:
Ah, to inhale her stench of armpits and feces
mixed with the incense clouding subtracted faces;
to exclaim hysterically, You save this
for the sissies! And throw up into her laces.
Thanks, tragedy, for your attempts to cheer up
(since there is no abortion without a cherub),
for jackboots kicking the groin as though it’s a stirrup.
Brodsky would certainly have no use for the meditations on tragedy of a critic such as A. C. Bradley, or for most writings by contemporary literary theoreticians of genre. Brodsky’s poem is intensely irreverent and might be described as “politically incorrect”; a key line reads, “How about the loss of all that’s sacred to us for starters?” Later in the poem, Brodsky writes about the different vowel sounds that best render shrieks of pain: “pick out the yi, born in the Mongol bowels,/ and turn it, ripping our gushing ovals,// into a noun, a verb, an adjective! yi, our common gargle!” He ironically begs tragedy to
Make clowns of us.
Knead us into a pulp on our bunks and sofas.
Spit into our souls till you find a surface,
and afterwards also! Make it a swamp, and stir it,
so that neither the Father and Son nor the Holy Spirit
will clear it up.
The poem is filled with bitter invective and is entirely successful, one of the strongest poems in So Forth. Give us no more rhetorical piety and hypocrisy about tragedy, Brodsky seems to be saying; no more chocolate sauce, no more abstract ruminations by people who know nothing of torture, brutal corporal punishment, terror, and murder.
Brodsky is often willing to shock and to take a view that flies in the face of widespread popular myths. What was the Roman army fighting for?
Sulla, forgetting Marius,
brought here legions to clarify to whom,
despite the brand of the winter moon,
Further into the poem, he writes, “Armies are/ essentially water, without which neither plateaus nor a/ mountain would know how to look in profile.” Or, in more colloquial language:
to the Big Bang than to Roman law,
and you are the loser.
Brodsky entertained few illusions, and this outlook contributed to the strength of his poetry. In “A Footnote to Weather Forecasts,” he wrote: “The best ones among them were/ at once the executioners and the victims.” He concluded his poem “Kolo” in this way:
Mourn the slaughtered
Pray for those squatted
in some concrete lair
Brodsky could be disarmingly modest about himself. One of the best poems in the collection written directly in English is “At a Lecture,” which concludes:
Self-effacement is not a virtue
but a necessity, recognized most often
toward evening. . . .
As the swan confessed
to the lake: I don’t like myself. But you are welcome to my reflection.
In “Taps,” the moving final poem in the collection, Brodsky describes his life as nothing more than a pinhole, one of the many holes in the “sifter” of the galaxy.
Brodsky came to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1972 as an involuntary exile. It is worthwhile to recall the date—the event occurred twenty-four years before his final collection was published. Many American literary critics found it easy to think of Brodsky as a “dissident” or a political émigré hostile to the Soviet regime, yet many of the same critics had difficulty in understanding the more far-reaching implications of Brodsky’s stance as a “dissident,” or his more general views on history and ethics. These views were grounded on principles, not on narrowly based politics.
Even after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990, Brodsky refused to return to Russia. This refusal was frequently misunderstood, and many asked why he did not return like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or at least visit his homeland. When...
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