The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

“Afterword” is a poem of forty lines divided into five numbered sections of eight lines each (two quatrains, in the English translation). As the title suggests, it is a look backward, but, in this case, over a life still in progress rather than a finished work. It is written in the first person. The speaker, at first, seems to be talking to himself or to no one in particular. By the end, he seems to be talking to a single interlocutor, but the “you” could be the distant reader just as easily as the person across the table. This move from singular experience to common fate is at the heart of much lyric poetry, but here the change takes on material form: The self, with time and age, becomes not merely something else, but everything else.

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The first section begins with the most general of lyrical-elegiac observations: “The years are passing.” The speaker observes their passage around him almost as if he is sitting at a café table. A palace facade is cracking and the Holy Family, whether on a relief, a painting, or a calendar, moves ever-so-slightly closer to Egypt. The world is crowded with the living, the city is full of lights, and the astronomer counts up his “sparkling tips.”

The next section shifts from the general to the particular. The pronoun “I” appears for the first time and notes rather dispassionately, seemingly without complaint, that it can no longer remember exactly when or where events took place. The speaker also observes that the events themselves cannot remember anything, so that whoever was involved (“saved or fled”) is away and clear.

The next step is both logical and crucial to the poem. The speaker defines what all this means—he, the individual, is, with time, becoming part of the whole. Life, in general, is a “rustlingfabric,” and now his individual skin is taking on the look of what enwraps it. His profile could be a wrinkle, a patch, or a leaf, all visible things that could be wholes or parts in themselves. Whether whole or part, however, they have always been something apart from him, and anything outside of himself can be “ignored, coveted, stood in fear of.”

If the previous stanzas are addressed to the reader—or someone—in general, the next two stanzas narrow the focus. “Touch me—and you’ll touch dry burdock stems” might be figuratively addressed to the reader in general but, by virtue of that imperative, sounds more immediate. By touching the speaker, one also touches whatever and whomever one has seen or known.

The final section moves from sight to sound, or rather speech. “I am speaking to you, and it’s not my fault/ if you don’t hear.” However, the listener is not at fault either. Rather, like the cracked wall or the gaunt Holy Family, the vocal cords wear out. The voice is muffled and hard to distinguish from other sounds around it. The speaker, however, does not complain about losing his voice on top of all the other losses; that loss makes it easier for the listener to hear those other sounds, which are part of life’s rhythm—the rooster’s crow, the ticking sound made by a needle on a record. The poem ends with a twist on the story of Red Riding Hood: “The better to hear you with, my dear,” says the wolf when the girl tells him what big ears he has. Here, the line is, “the better for you not to notice when my talk stops,” and it is anyone’s guess who is the wolf and who is not.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

For Joseph Brodsky, poetry was always a process of thought more than an exploration of emotion or music. That is not to say that he ignored the latter two, but “Afterword” is a good example of poetic logic at work.

The translation follows the original Russian’s rhyme scheme (abab cdde, with some variations) and rhythm without observing a strict metrical pattern. There is also a good deal of internal rhyme and alliteration, while the end rhymes used in the translation themselves are often near, rather than full, rhymes. Still, for the English-speaking reader, what ties the poem together is image and metaphor rather than sound.

Each section represents a shift in focus and direction: The first three are linked by imagery of accumulation and profusion. The first abounds in visual images: the passage of time expressed in space, the palace facade cracking, the eyeless seamstress finally threading her needle, the Holy Family inching its way toward Egypt. Important, too, is what occupies the space. The emphasis is on “the visible world” and its multitudes, its numbers upon numbers of living beings, its bright and “extraneous” light, its quantity of “sparkling tips” that strain the astronomer’s eyes. When the speaker begins questioning his own memory of events, there follows a list of possible times and places, and, after that, a list of almost generic events, “an explosion, or say, a flood,/ the lights of the Kuzbas derricks or some betrayal.” The transition from section 2 to section 3 introduces the paradox that drives the poem: Events themselves cannot remember, so, when those who “were saved or fled” lose track, that means their tracks are covered. Therefore, loss, in some way, equals survival.

The answer section 3 offers is not an answer to individual questions of what, where, or who, much less how or why. Rather, it is a statement of what all this, taken together, now undifferentiated, means. The poet, too, can no longer be set apart from the surrounding shapes and objects, the “fractions or wholes,” or their more abstract effects or the feelings they evoke. This section contains another list, this time combining physical objects, actions, and emotions.

Touch dominates section 4—the first stanza contains images of dryness and dampness, while the second stanza returns to a list that ends with the word “loss.” In the final stanza, sense of hearing replaces sense of touch, with the addition of time (“The sum of days”) again equated with subtraction of sound (“when my talk stops”).

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