The poems in Joseph Brodsky’s To Urania are a mixed lot, and their dates of composition cover almost a quarter of a century. The focus, however, is on poems taken from his previous collection of poems written in Russian, Uraniia (Urania), published in 1987 by Ardis in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The collection in English puts into relief two of Brodsky’s salient features as a poet. The first is perhaps his greatest strength; the second is one of his greatest obstacles, the problem of translation.
The best poems in this volume achieve a remarkable breadth of freedom and range of reference. These elements are prominent in the poem addressed to his friend Thomas Venclova, “Lithuanian Nocturne,” but are also present in other poems. The breadth is a function of perspective and available space, or rather, different spaces. Unlike the writer of fiction, who is usually close to the consciousness of one of his characters and located at a specific point in space and time, Brodsky’s consciousness as a poet assumes what might be called near-infinite possibility. The consciousness is completely his own: not that of any persona or a synthetic lyric voice or a colored, emotive attitude. The perspective assumed by the speaking voice of the poem is multiple and remarkably agile. At one point he calls it playfully “an aspect of air”; at another, he says that his poem should be seen
from the viewpointof air,of pure air! Air indeed is the epiloguefor one’s retina: nobody stands to inhabitair! It is our “homeward”! That townwhich all syllables longto return to. . . .
The poem is a marvelous evocation of a country that Brodsky knew hardly at all, Lithuania; the poem is also about poetry and the imagination. Yet this poetry is completely at home in the world. It has both multiple perspectives and no perspectives at all; it can light upon any thing or detail for its theme, whether the creaking wheel of a cart, a KGB microphone in the mattress of a hotel room, a medieval legend, or an item from a current newspaper.
All of these are the terrain of the muse, the Urania of the title of the collection. One of nine muses, she was the patroness of astronomy. At one point, Brodsky addresses her:
Muse of dots lost in space! Muse of things one makes outthrough a telescope only! Muse of subtractionbut without remainders! Of zeroes, in short.You who order the throatto avoid lamentation,not to go overboard.
The humor and lightness of touch in this passage are important. The freedom Brodsky assumes is not an insistence on subjectivity; it is a license neither for multiple free-association nor for subjective protection. When he learned that he had just received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, he humorously parodied Neil Armstrong’s statement after landing on the moon and told reporters: “A small step for mankind, a giant step for me!” This ironic humor is related to a very firm respect for a reality that is outside himself. For a lesser poet, freedom easily becomes sheer associative display or self-absorption; for Brodsky it is a means for redirecting his attention outward.
Brodsky’s humor often becomes functional in his poems. It affects not only their texture but also structure and closure. A poem on Venice ends:
And the blinding lagoon is lappingat the shore as the dim pupil’s bright penaltyfor its wish to arrest a landscape quite happyhere without me.
Wry self-deflation leads the poem to its conclusion.
Brodsky is not a self-effacing poet. Often he is in the foreground of the poem, as in his sequence about Mary Stuart, where he imagines himself courting her. Yet he rarely loses sight of the broader reality for long, and his poems usually give an impression of an extensive frame of reference. Humor is quickly transformed into a play of perspectives, showing that reality is far broader than it appears from any single perspective. “My life has dragged on,” he repeats several times in “Eclogue IV: Winter,” and continues
The signs are plenty.
(The entire section is 1941 words.)