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 poet’s eyes growing cold, “motionless.”
In another short lyric of 1962, a poem of fourteen lines with only a few near-rhymes and simply titled “Sonet” (“Sonnet”), Brodsky explores a moment defined by a different kind of ending. Speaking to a loved woman, the poet envisions a new eruption of Vesuvius that will someday cover their dusty city with ash. He hopes that when the eruption begins, he will be able to set off for her house, so that future excavators will find them still embraced. The poem stops time in that final embrace, preserved by a layer of ash. The embrace and the ash are equally sustaining for the poet, who notes the passing clouds, a frequent emblem for the passing of time in Brodsky’s poems. It is typical of Brodsky’s poems that the very moment that destroys a city and all life in it also contains the possibility of preservation against decay.
The poem mirrors this contrast between the threat of change and the saving power of volcanic ash in its formal arrangement. As in many early Brodsky poems, the unit of division in the poem is the line. Without enjambments and virtually without rhyme (there is some sound interlocking in the first four lines), the poem’s ordering principle is the sequence of its thoughts, expressed at the even pace of one clause per line. The exception is line 12, “then I would like for them to find me,” a single thought in two clauses (in Russian), the crucial turning point of the poem. The meter of the poem is iambic, mostly feminine pentameter, five-footed iambs being the commonest line length in Brodsky’s repertoire in the 1960’s, and the most successful. The sonnet feels experimental, though, because there are two lines of two and four metric feet, respectively, and virtually no rhyme, as if it were testing the boundaries of its own timing. Like Brodsky’s many unrhymed sonnets, the poem shows how time can be controlled, slowed or hurried, within the conventions of meter and rhyme; the final picture of an unending embrace literally suspends time, so that the poem challenges, visually as well as verbally, the unspoken condition of all Brodsky’s work, the effect of time on humans.
The tender lyrics of early, as well as later, Brodsky, are balanced by verses of ironic distance and glittering wit. In some poems, such as the famous “Pamiatnik” (“Monument”), the serious if slightly mocking tones of the first lines (“Let’s build a monument/ at the end of a long city street”) turns toward a sarcastic finale—in this case prepared for by the poem’s accumulation of petty details from Leningrad life: “Let’s build a monument to lies.” That final sentence indicts monument building as yet another hypocritical activity in a society whose public life proves inevitably false. In a longer poem, “Dva chasa v rezervuare” (“Two Hours in a Reservoir”), Brodsky mixes German and Yiddish phrases into a running monologue. The speaker pronounces his thoughts as they furiously charge past him in whatever language comes to his lips: “Enter and exeunt devils, thoughts./ Enter and exeunt guests, years.” Narrative fragments about Faust and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dr. Faustus and Thomas Mann, interrupt speculations about God and poetry and the fact that humans are hurtling toward their deaths. The poem extends Brodsky’s preoccupation with time, quoting Faust’s famous desire to seize and hold one beautiful moment, a line Brodsky might be expected to appreciate—indeed, one he uses more than once. The poem’s pace, though, is breakneck, the puns (particularly between languages) rampant, and the humor of the piece as pungent as it is inventive. Brodsky’s search for ways to understand the passing of time, often defined by its endpoints, emerges in poems as varied as the witty “Odnoi poetesse” (“To a Certain Poetess”), where a relationship has outlived love, or the delicate “Aeneas i Dido” (“Aeneas and Dido”), in which the moment of parting is captured poignantly by details—passing clouds, the hem of a tunic, a fish chasing after a ship at sail.
“Aeneas and Dido”
“Aeneas and Dido” deals with the end of a myth, and the poem concludes with a memorable picture. Dido watches Aeneas looking through a window, both of them realizing that the new gusts of wind will make it possible for Aeneas to set sail and leave Dido behind. Windows appear frequently in Brodsky’s poems, often framing a landscape seen from within a room. Indeed, space becomes almost the conceptual framework through which time is explored in Brodsky’s poems: His remark that literature shows what time does to a person was made in a talk titled “Language as Otherland,” and the titles of his poems often locate lyrics spatially as well as temporally. Examples of this can be found in each stage of his career, including “Zimnim vecherom v Ialte” (“A Winter Evening in Yalta”), “Dekabr’ vo Florentsii” (“December in Florence”), and “Osen’ v Norenskoi” (“Autumn in Norenskaia”).
Brodsky’s settings are occasionally interiors; small rooms become intimate settings for discovering the world outside and, always, oneself. In “Sumev otgorodit’sia . . .” (“Now that I’ve walled myself off from the world”), glimpses of puddles and fir trees merge with the domestic drama of a poet studying his face in a mirror. Brodsky has moments of self-description, framed by mirrors and windows, reminiscent of the later works of Akhmatova, though Brodsky always seems in search of some truth deeper than the self-image a piece of glass presents him. Self and other, interiors and...
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