Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2258
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 a minor Russian poet such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko was feted in a ceremony at a university in the United States, however, Brodsky refused to attend. This refusal was based on both principle and ethics. Yevtushenko was called a “dissident” by many American commentators, yet this description was absurd: He had built a career on accommodation with the Soviet regime, encouraging the myth that he was a rebel yet revolting against only the most superficial aspects of the regime. Brodsky’s rebellion, on the other hand, was based on a rejection of all totalitarian principles and was applied to all countries at all times. Brodsky’s views continued throughout his long residence in the United States and also from 1990 until his death. This ethical clarity was not merely a trait of Brodsky the man but was a source of consistent strength in his poems. Never a conformist, he saw most ethical issues clearly, with spontaneous and emotional force.
Brodsky’s pessimism is often belied by humor and parody in his poems. His balance between puckish humor and seriousness is sometimes hard for readers to grasp. For example, in the poem “Homage to Chekhov,” Brodsky irreverently concludes:
Where am I, anyway?
wonders Erlich, undoing his braces at the outhouse entrance.
It’s twenty versts to the railroad. A rooster attempts its lied.
The student Maximov’s pet word, interestingly, is “fallacy.”
In the provinces, too, nobody’s getting laid,
as throughout the galaxy.
This is a gentle view of Chekhov, rather than a reductionist judgment on his literary works. For Brodsky, the point is to see the people in Chekhov’s world without literary mystification and to remove them from any pedestal—to describe them bluntly. Brodsky’s irreverence is refreshing, and the poem is a genuine homage to Chekhov. Its intention is not to be dismissive but rather to put the theme of sexual connections—or the lack of them—in a more objective and just perspective. Brodsky tried to maintain a distinction between important and minor manners; he refused to see the failure of sexual connections between the characters in Chekhov’s works as high tragedy, but treated it with humor, satire, and earthiness.
An important theme in So Forth is Brodsky’s own sickness. Well before his death, Brodsky had a heart bypass operation. Occasionally, he obliquely refers to this condition in his poems, yet he is invariably reticent to speak about himself:
The century will soon be over, but sooner it will be me.
That’s not the message, though, of a trembling knee.
Rather, the influence of not-to-be
on to-be. Of the hunter upon—so to speak—his fowl,
be that one’s heart valve or a red brick wall.
Several of the poems in So Forth foresee his death. In two moving poems, he writes of his young daughter and expresses a pained awareness that he will not be with her much longer. In “View with a Flood,” he describes himself entering the sea with his daughter like a periscope: “And it’s high time to shoulder the child like a periscope/ to spot the faraway enemy battleships steaming fast.” In “To My Daughter,” Brodsky imagines himself in another life where he inhabits a café—its objects, tables, and furniture—that they visited together. Perhaps there, in twenty years and covered with dust, he will be able to observe her when she is mature, “in full flower.”
In several of these poems, Brodsky conveys a sense of unhappiness that does not have an avowed cause. A reader might attribute this to his sickness and the fact that Brodsky was a dying man although still in his fifties. Yet great care should be taken here. Brodsky often adopted a wry tone and did not permit himself any optimism.
In “Fin de Siècle,” he writes, “The century was indeed/ not so bad. Well, perhaps the dead/ ran a surplus. Yet the living did// that as well.” And in “Homage to Girolamo Marcello,” he adds “When a man’s unhappy,/ that’s the future.” “Daedalus in Sicily” and “View from the Hill” are both bleak poems, and one of the last poems written by Brodsky, “At the City Dump in Nantucket,” is a meditation on trash. The dust jacket photo singles out this poem and shows an endless dump with junk, seagulls, and smoke. Several poems follow a typical thematic sequence of history, or the passage of time, leading to futility, then leading in turn to trash, leading to . . . the ocean. Brodsky was critical, self-critical, and pessimistic; these traits all antedated his ill health.
Brodsky always saw himself as a traveler or as a temporary visitor passing through space. The poem “New Life” is a lengthy meditation on the theme of Ulysses, who was condemned to voyage against his will:
And should anyone ask you Who are you?’ you reply, Who—I?
I am Nobody,’ as Ulysses once muttered to Polyphemus.”
Many poems are about travel, describing a speaker who is “a bee sans beehive,” or “addressless.” In the poem “Vertumnus,” Brodsky writes:
I’ve mastered the art of merging
with the landscape the way one fades into the furniture or the curtains
(which, in the end, influenced my wardrobe.)
Brodsky’s stance as a poet often had a remarkable, bracing breadth. Freely moving in time, history, and space, he took all of time and space as his province, and his poems often have a unique range of reference. With few local attachments or petty biases, he was capable of giving great extent and spaciousness to his poems.
A few words should be said about the form of these poems. Brodsky’s use of rhyme will be certain to puzzle many English-speaking readers, especially those who have not had the opportunity to follow the evolution of Brodsky’s work over the past twenty-five years. Of the sixty-four poems included in So Forth, twenty-one were written directly in English—roughly a third of the book. Another third of the poems were translated from a Russian text by Brodsky with an American co-translator, and the remaining third were translated from the Russian by Brodsky alone. The texture of the lines varies greatly from group to group. Some of the most serious poems—often written in long, rhymed stanzas—were translated and rhymed by Brodsky together with his English-speaking helper. These poems are dense; to talk in a meaningful way about their form, the reader must compare them with their Russian originals.
The poems written directly into English have an entirely different texture and tone. They are slangy, their lines are shorter, and they resemble ballads. The tone almost always recalls that of W. H. Auden, for example the Auden of “September 1, 1939: I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-Second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade.” For the English-speaking reader of the 1990’s, the diction and tone of these poems have an archaic ring. See, for example, this stanza from “A Tale,” written directly in English in 1995:
“Great!” cries the Emperor. “What one conquers
is up to the scholars’ quills.
And let the Treasury boys go bonkers
trying to pay the bills.”
Another example can be found in “Song of Welcome,” which was also written directly in English:
Welcome to the phone book that stars your name.
Digits are democracy’s secret aim.
Welcome to your claim to fame.
Here’s your marriage, and here’s divorce.
Now that’s the order you can’t reverse.
Welcome to it; up yours.
Brodsky was paying Auden the compliment of imitation. The style was light, usually humorous, and favored by Brodsky when he composed directly in English but not in his other poems.
Probably it should not cause surprise that he chose this style and tone, since Auden had praised Brodsky shortly after his arrival in the United States. This period was a difficult time in Brodsky’s life, and he never forgot Auden’s help. Brodsky was a man of fierce loyalties, and these loyalties are apparent in this posthumous collection.
Sources for Further Study
Atlanta Journal Constitution. October 20, 1996, p. L11.
Booklist. XCII, July, 1996, p. 1797.
Boston Globe. September 8, 1996, p. N27.
Library Journal. CXXI, June 1, 1996, p. 110.
The New Leader. LXXIX, September 9, 1996, p. 14.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 1, 1996, p. 6.
The New Yorker. LXXII, December 16, 1996, p. 107.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, June 24, 1996, p. 51.
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