Brodsky's is a powerful and--despite its plain-spoken avoidance of the sentimental--poignant reminiscence of his life as a poet, as a Russian, as a Jew. Rejecting 19th-century fiction's emphasis on the ""shaping"" force of early experiences, Brodsky instead offers a collage of largely visual early memories. He recalls Leningrad (still called ""Peter"" by its inhabitants) as scarred, empty, elegantly desolate in the early postwar years (Brodsky was born there in 1940). He remembers the blue stripe painted just at eye level in every institution in institutional Russia--his school, his summer camp, his apartment building; later, his prison cell. He notes the coincidental proximity of three buildings in which he spend much of his early life: the armaments factory that employed him when he dropped out of school at 15; the hospital just behind it where he briefly studied medicine; and the prison adjoining that, where he was repeatedly jailed for dissent. Brodsky's perspective is largely elegaic: with a mixture of reticence and unsparing honesty, he mourns his parents, his fellow writers (Anna Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam), his whole generation of Russian intellectuals (to whom literature became, he says, more real than life--an alienated habit of thought that destroyed many). Proud of Russia's rich literary heritage but particularly of its poets, Brodsky argues boldly that poetry has always preceded prose; that Dostoevsky's characters, for instance, were inspired by Pushkin's. He brings to light work by writers almost unknown in this country--Egypt's Constantine Cavafy, Italy's Eugenio Montale, many Russian poets. The weakest essay, however, is also on poetry; Brodsky's discussion of Auden's ""September 1, 1939"" is transcribed from a taped classroom presentation and lacks the spare, shaping intelligence of the other essays here. (Many, incidentally, have been published before, but they have a collective force and gain by republication in a group.) Brodsky's English is sometimes unidiomatic (likably, he tends to err in the direction of the overly informal). But at their best (as in his memorable remarks on ""turning the other cheek"") these sane, forthright essays offer the clear vision and piercing insight of true classics.