Books by Joseph Brodsky

Released: Aug. 1, 2000

"Surely the appearance of this collection will gratify Brodsky's admirers, but despite his hallowed resumé, it is not likely to convert skeptics."
This volume gathers the three major books published in English by Brodsky—Soviet exile, Nobel Prize-winner, and US Poet Laureate—along with a handful of previously uncollected poems. Brodsky displays a dazzling knowledge of history and confronts what he calls "the nothingness of Time" without sentimentality or self-pity. Nor do his poems flinch from profound mental, physical, and spiritual hardships—his own and those of others—often revealing a startling beauty through such images as a wind that "breaks / a chain of crows into shrieking links." His later work is at times sweetly playful, most notably in the love poems. Brodsky's prodigious gift for description made him adept at conveying a sense of place, especially when writing about his native Russia. However, while he may be an immortal poet in his first language, the book's editor notes that Brodsky "believed strongly that a poem's verse structure should be rendered in translation." Unfortunately, when this belief is put into practice, it can harm the poems, many of which the author translated himself. In one tercet the reader is confronted by the end-rhymes "waters," "foetus," and "photos"—an extreme example, but by no means an unusual one. His attempts at American colloquialisms are frequently awkward or, at best, outdated. (In "The Fly," he addresses his subject as "my buzzy buddy.") Elsewhere lurk such bizarre clunkers as "Hail the vagina / that peopled China!" Read full book review >
DISCOVERY by Joseph Brodsky
Released: Oct. 6, 1999

Brodsky (for adults, On Grief and Reason, 1996, etc.) challenges the notion that a place—any place—can be truly "discovered" by humans, as if willed into being by their intents and designs. His poem is also, more quietly, a promise of wonder that the world holds in wait for those open to its charms. The book has a Genesis-like, Big-Bang beginning, when "there were just waves/hammering at the obstacles." Clouds sent down rain, fish came, birds alighted on the new land, "yet they were just pilgrims, and very few/of them evolved into settlers." By the time Europeans arrived, America was an old place. "They stepped ashore and they rode across/this land of milk and honey,/and they settled in with their many laws,/their cities, their farms, their money." Although this is a picture book, with collage artwork from Radunsky that is fluent in its rude edges and construction-paper color, the text claims readers' heed as it signals a gracious, elemental style: "When you are a continent, you don't mince/words and don't crave attention." (Picture book/poetry. 6-10) Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Sept. 1, 1996

A laurel wreath for Frost hoisted by several Nobel laureates whose own poetry is published regularly by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. That said, the pickings are mostly good. Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott reconsider the poet as a symbolic figure who did much of the work himself in promoting the evolution of his symbolism. As Walcott puts it, Frost seemed, and to some remains, ``the icon of Yankee values,'' suggestive of ``the smell of wood smoke, the sparkle of dew, the reality of farmhouse dung, the jocular honesty of an uncle.'' All three of the essayists complicate or refute this clichÇ through the act of criticism. The late, Russian-born Brodsky's piece, ``On Grief and Reason,'' included in his 1995 essay collection of the same title, is the most precise, unaffected, and clarifying of the lot, discussing two poems in detail to illuminate Frost's great reserves of inner ``terror.'' Irish poet Heaney, like Brodsky, calls on the metaphor of brimming over to observe, in ``Above the Brim,'' how Frost's poetic ``performance succeeded fully only when it launched itself beyond skill and ego into a run of energy.'' His comments on the Frost poem ``To Earthward'' are especially rousing. Walcott's piece, ``The Road Taken,'' is more facile and less scrutinizing. He generalizes about Frost's work as a whole, based on a long acquaintance with it, and tussles briefly with the poet's alleged racism, concluding, ``A great poem is a state of raceless, sexless, timeless grace.'' Perhaps, but won't some readers hold out hope nonetheless for a literary fate less fatuous? Bound together in one book, these accomplished poets and critics give off a strong whiff of cultural conservatism in an era also interesting for the critical adventures of Andrew Ross and bell hooks. A reader or a critic or a poet would be well advised to read more of Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott—but also to consult and consort with some true icon-smashers. Read full book review >
ON GRIEF AND REASON by Joseph Brodsky
HISTORY
Released: Jan. 1, 1996

In the best of these recent essays, Nobelist Brodsky achieves a unique synthesis of philosophical acumen and literary craftsmanship: considering the exigencies of exile together with those of poetry, reflecting on ethics and aesthetics. Like Less Than One (1986), Brodsky's previous collection of prose, this volume opens with a collage of memories from the author's youth in Leningrad. The theme this time, however, is intimations of America: radio transmissions, lovingly preserved lend-lease remnants (Brodsky focuses on the cult of empty meat tins), and exotic imports like the RCA records, with their famous dog-at-the-gramophone label, that Brodsky's father owned. The mode of reverie that Brodsky employs in this piece serves him well elsewhere in the volume. It reappears in a pastiche of travel dreams and in impassioned reflections on a Soviet stamp honoring British double agent Kim Philby. Too often, however, Brodsky takes on an expository tone that clashes with the essentially elliptical quality of his best insights. Two commencement addresses find him at his best and worst. Whereas Brodsky offers Dartmouth graduates wise words on the unlikely topic of boredom's importance, an audience at Ann Arbor, Mich., receives a hodgepodge of bromides like ``try not to set too much store by politicians.'' Other low points include an aimless account of a decadent writer's junket to Rio and a sententious open letter to V†clav Havel. But a sterling appreciation of Thomas Hardy's subtle poetry more than compensates. Much of Brodsky's best commentary on modern poetry and politics comes indirectly, in imaginative essays devoted to classical figures: Clio, the Muse of history; Horace, the Roman man of letters; and Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and emperor. Brodsky repeatedly cites Frost's line: ``The best way out is always through.'' At his most successful, however, he seems to be following another adage: Emily Dickinson's advice to ``tell all the Truth but tell it slant.'' Read full book review >
WATERMARK by Joseph Brodsky
NONFICTION
Released: June 1, 1992

A very, very short prose-exercise by Nobelist Brodsky about Venice, his many wintertime trips there, the enchantment and ironies and visual splendors. Brodsky has piquant ideas about space and time (see Less Than One, 1986) that lend interesting angles to his Venice-for-visitors: ideas about water, light, brick (``an alternative order of flesh, not raw of course, but scarlet and made up of small, identical cells. Yet another of the species' self-portraits at the elemental level, be it a wall or a chimney''). He finds himself one evening in the company of Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound's companion, which engenders a wonderfully European assessment of Pound: ``For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn't recognized that beauty can't be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.'' Brodsky writes poetically of winter light: ``And the city lingers in it, savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.'' When he's setting up to make aphorisms like this, Brodsky sails along. But even in such a tiny book he can't always be doing that; and when he isn't, he writes personally, with an air of swagger, lechery, and disdain (for homosexuals in particular, it seems) that makes his meditations seem more crotchety than anything else: Venice gets lost in the fog. Read full book review >