The Poem

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 414 words.)