The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

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“To a Friend: In Memoriam” is a twenty-eight-line elegy replete with irony. The poem is a first-person address to the poet’s dead friend. The poet’s friend is also a poet, the author of “the most smashing ode” and a “word-plyer,” and hence is a double to the narrator-poet. Despite the poem’s specificity—the anonymity suggests the friend could be anyone—the narrator also addresses the condition of loss. Though the poet is separated from his friend by the grave as well as by geography (“I’m up here and, frankly, apart from this paltry/ talk of slabs, am too distant for you to distinguish a voice”), the poem has the immediacy and intimacy of direct address. The poem’s long lines and lack of stanzaic division underscore the immediacy.

The poem begins by establishing the relationship between the poem’s narrator and the unnamed “you.” It continues, in lines 9 through 16, as a catalog of the friend’s qualities: “a word-plyer, a liar, a gulper of bright, measly tears,/ an adorer of Ingres, of clangoring streetcars, of asphodels’ slumbers.” At line 17, the poem shifts to the poet’s wish that his dead friend may “lie, as though wrapped in an Orenburg shawl, in our dry, brownish mud.” The poem shifts again at line 20 to an acknowledgment of the pointlessness of death as exemplified by the circumstances of the friend. The final three lines are the poet’s farewell.

The poem changes its tone at several points. It opens with a political joke—that the Soviet authorities can, if they so desire, rehabilitate one from beyond the grave: “It’s for you whose name’s better omitted—since for them it’s no arduous task/ to produce you from under the slab.” The poem maintains this sense of irreverence as a backdrop, although it moves very assuredly into moments of pathos and anger, comic epithets, and searing commentary. It never lapses into generalities: Every phrase is descriptive of both the poem’s subject and of the poet’s emotional reaction to the death and the culture that tolerates such conditions of spiritual and material diminishment. This does not shift the poem into a strictly political posture, however. The meaninglessness of death and the diminishment of life throughout Russian history, both Czarist and Soviet, is Joseph Brodsky’s theme.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

Brodsky’s poems are richly allusive, often drawing upon Greek mythology and literary history. “To a Friend: In Memoriam,” as might be expected in an elegy, mentions “Gloomy Charon,” who, in vain, seeks the fare for the soul’s passage to the underworld. The poet bids farewell from the shore, but confesses that he cannot distinguish which shore (of Charon’s river Lethe) he is on. Such a slight allusion to Charon nevertheless serves several distinct purposes. It interjects a rhetorical seriousness to the poem: The allusion maintains the decorum expected of an elegy. The allusion, and the use of allusions in general, conserves poetic idiom, iconography, and the memory of one’s entire being while forestalling sheer transience.

The reference to “the laced Goncharova,” the young and frivolous wife of Alexander Pushkin, exemplifies Brodsky’s use of literary allusions. At the height of his poetic powers, Pushkin died uselessly in a duel with one of his wife’s lovers. As with the death of the poet’s friend, Pushkin’s death is meaningless; indeed, the culture they all inhabited has an overwhelming fatalism. The “Orenburg shawl,” in which the poet wishes his friend wrapped, further emphasizes the sense of oppression and fatalism, for Orenburg was the site of the 1774 suppression of a peasant uprising that resulted in the strengthening of serfdom by Catherine II.

Brodsky, as is typical of Russian poets, brilliantly and, at times, flamboyantly uses rhyme. “To a Friend: In Memoriam” is no exception. Brodsky, an accomplished translator of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and Czesaw Miosz, translated this poem himself, and it gives a clear indication of the types of rhymes he utilizes: slant rhymes, perfect rhymes, and internal, compound-slant rhymes.

Brodsky’s poetry is as highly figurative as it is allusive and well crafted in rhyme and meter. The poem is filled with epithets, such as “Man of sidewalks” and “Gloomy Charon,” as well as synecdoche and metonymy, as demonstrated by such phrases as “that homeland of bottle-struck livers” and “the Third Rome’s cold-piss-reeking entrance.” “To a Friend: In Memoriam” utilizes hyperbole juxtaposed with understatement, which creates an ironic portrait, as in “youthe offspring of a widowed conductress, begot/ by the Holy Ghost or by brick courtyard’s soot circling all over.” The poem also employs allegorical personification as in the line, which, incidentally, demonstrates Brodsky’s interest in the English metaphysical poets, “Maybe Nothing has no better gateway indeed than this smelly shortcut.” The wide use of tropes, or figurative language, demonstrates Brodsky’s virtuosic handling of language.

Lines 9 through 16 present a list of qualities that define the dead friend. This list climaxes with one of Brodsky’s more surreal images: “a monogamous heart and a torso of countless bedchambers.” Here the synecdoche of “heart” (used as an abstraction) is made physical by the metaphor of “a torso.” The combination of the suppressed erotic is refigured but distorted in the image of a classical torso opening into many bedchambers. Such surreality is not uncommon in Brodsky’s work. Brodsky’s poetry often contains radical juxtapositions of language and image that suggest the inclusiveness of the poetic idiom as well as its potential to surprise. Juxtaposition also occurs between the figurative language and the more formal sensibility of rhyme and meter.

The language is reminiscent of the descriptive, but also ironic, language of novelist Nikolai Gogol. In fact, the twenty-third and twenty-fourth lines (“as you drifted along the dark river in your ancient gray, drab overcoat/ whose few buttons alone were what kept you from disintegration”) recall Gogol’s stories of poverty and the disintegration of personality. This poem, like Gogol’s stories, maintains a grim but redeeming comic realism.