Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

“A Part of Speech” re-creates the condition of a fragmented consciousness, of loss and alienation, by exploring the mind grappling with apparently irreconcilable aspects of time and space. The lightning shifts between past and present, memory and projection, here and nowhere, compress a universe of possibility into the sequence. At the same time, the strong undercurrents of the forms and meters suggest the healing potential of the poetic vision and the myriad resources of language. What he hopes to reflect is his sense of “the graspable degree of arbitrariness” in the relation of language and experience. Two main elements that Brodsky brings together are the psychological condition of exile, reflected in feelings of loss, anger, displacement, and isolation, and the exile’s relation to language and expression, how language itself forms and informs the nature of his condition.

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One of the central concerns of the sequence is its ability to convey the sense of a mind searching for a firm vantage from which to view experience. As he remarks in the opening essay of Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986), relating the act of memory and writing: “Memorydirects our movements, including migration.[T]here is something clearly atavistic in the very process of recollection, if only because such a process never is linear.[I]t coils, recoils, digresses to all sidesso should one’s narrative.” In keeping with this, the movement of “A Part of Speech” is forward and back in time, unsettled and shifting between the present, the recent past, millennia, and the future; similarly, the spatial dimension of the individual poems keeps changing, some set in extremely confined areas, others covering great sweeps of space in a few lines. The sequence, although read in a consecutive fashion, builds on a nonlinear process that captures in language the speaker’s attempt to “manage the meaninglessness of existenceto domesticate the reprehensible infinity by inhabiting it with familiar shadows.”

One way Brodsky accentuates the nature of the fragmented experience is his construction of the sequence itself. Each section is geared to providing a part of experience, one element connected through language with the others, remaining independent yet creating resonances. For example, the image of the North in section 2 introduces ideas of inclusion and exclusion, of an isolating wasteland, and of a stifling or burial. Later poems return to these images to elaborate or provide another context for them. Section 6, for example, picks up the winter image and links it to the suffocating dreariness of a school classroom. Section 7 translates the wasteland into a remembrance of rural poverty and isolation. Section 8 and the last poem reverse the winter image to summer and redefine the wasteland in the context of political and material freedoms. The onset of time, the limitations of mind, memory, and language, all contribute to this sense of unavoidable fragmentation. As he remarks in section 14: “What gets left of a man amounts/ to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.” The method of the sequence is to gather together diverse parts and, using the synthetic and associative processes of the poetic imagination, fashion that part of speech.

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