In describing his poetry, Joseph Brodsky had said that his “main interest is the nature of time,” a theme that also recurs with obsessive frequency in his essays. Beginning even before his exile to Arkhangel’sk in 1964 and persisting in his later works, there is a preoccupation with endings, with concluding moments that illuminate with sudden new depth the meaning of all that has come before. Brodsky, whose stance as a poet is that of a watcher and listener rather than that of a participant and speaker, records his sense of a period of time in a manner that is more transcendental than teleological. In a 1962 poem, “Ogon’, ty slyshish’ . . .” (“The Fire Is Dying Down”), Brodsky observes how the room and objects around him absorb the shifts in time marked by the changing fire. A sense of lateness advances on the poet “from the corners”; he finds himself “suddenly at the center.” Time has paused so palpably that the “clock hands have completely disappeared.” The fire dies by the end of this twenty-line poem, but its brightness does not abandon the attentive watcher, who remains behind in the room’s darkness. Just as it is important that the clock hands are not only invisible but also silent, silence being the analogue of time’s halt, so it is crucial in the last line that the fire glows not in the poet’s eyes but in the room itself. The encroaching darkness of the dying fire becomes an external event that marks the inner fact of the...
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