For a Western lover of literature and art, it is difficult not to feel both outrage and gratitude toward the Soviet Union. Outrage, for the relentless harassment of significant poets, painters, thinkers, of whom Joseph Brodsky is but one example; and gratitude for the intermittent treasures falling to the West from those artists who live in exile, or who manage to convey their work to the West through underground channels. Brodsky's poems, or at least some of them, must number among these treasures. They are filled with the most dangerous challenges to any form of limitation: the teeming of the intellect and spirit to explore every realm of human experience, from pain and doubt and loneliness to faith and luminous vision.
"A Part of Speech" is not Brodsky's first collection of poetry to be published in the United States. His "Selected Poems" appeared in 1973, shortly after his arrival, in exile, in this country. But this new collection has several advantages over the old. In addition to the obvious virtue of including new work, "A Part of Speech" reflects Brodsky's own choice of translation: Eleven translators, including Richard Wilbur, Howard Moss, Alan Myers, George Kline, and Brodsky himself, contribute their English versions of the poems. This arrangement offers some reassurance, since "A Part of Speech" supplies no Russian text.
Brodsky is a poet of dramatic ye delicate vision -- a man with a sense of the increasingly obscured loftiness of human life. But under no circumstances is his poetry dully ethereal. His dramatic power cuts both ways: He can portray a luminous moment or a time of seemingly purposeless suffering with equal clarity. For example, at the outset of "The End of a Beautiful Era," written in Leningrad , Brodsky establishes a sense of mediocre routine resulting in a kind of intellectual and emotional stasis -- a keen enemy against which the poet pits himself: Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose, Deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less insignificant natoin that's stuck in this super power, wishing to spare my old brain, put on clothes -- all by himself -- and head for the main street: for the evening paper . . . Everything in these parts is geared for winter: long dreams, prison walls, overcoats, bridal dresses of whiteness that seems snowlike.
The numbling environment, filled with numbing action, leads the poet to observe, "To exist in the Era of Deeds and to stay elevated, alert,/ain't so easy, alas." But where should one turn for guidance? Brodsky concludes with an exclamatory reminder that one's own conscience -- one's own sense of the world, its history and perils -- should be the first guide: "Wake up a dinosaur, not a prince, to recite you the moral!" Yet conscience is too rare, except as afterthought. "For the innoncent head there is nothing in store but an ax/and the evergreen laurel."
To see the end of a beautiful era as clearly as Brodsky does is to see dreadful varieties of absurdity: lives lived without conscience, lives lived conscientiously but immersed in contradiction, lives consumed in the specter of mortality. For the poet, the question then becomes not what to say, but whether to speak at all. In several of Brodsky's poems -- "Nature morte" and "The Butterfly" are two clear examples -- this burden of speech is a central problem. "Nature Morte" struggles with a soul's darkness, in the midst of which the poet avers. "All talk is a barren trade./A writing on the wind's wall."
Yet the poet chooses to speak: "It is better to speak, although I can also be mute." Through speech, an incisive description of one's condition may become an act of understanding. Here Brodsky's vivid perceptions of humans and objects become the threshold of his understanding of the way human beings use objects to focus their sense of self in the world. In "Nature Morte," objects provide a sense of definition -- a clear distinguishing between thing and no-thing: "Things do not move, or stand./That's our delirium./Each thing's a space, beyond/which there can be no thing."
Ordinarily one might expect to start from this concrete evidence of definition -- as Plato does, for example, in his famous discussion of beauty in the "Symposium" -- and move to a symbolic or allegorical vision of "definition," in which a given instance of clarity assumes a spiritual nature. But for Brodsky, the actual and the symbolic -- the thing and its meaning -- never part ways. He concludes the poem with a vision of the ultimate and primary unity -- God and human-kind.Constructing a dialogue between Mary and Christ, Brodsky writes: "Many now speaks to Christ: /'Are you my son? -- or God?' . . ./ Christ speaks to her in turn: / 'Whether dear or alive,/ woman, it's all the same -- / son or God, I am thine.'"
This unity has a hard, almost desperate quality in "Nature Morte"; in other poems, notably "December 24, 1971" and "Nunc Dimittis," it is radiant, founded in both earth and mystery. the portrayal of Christmas Eve in "December 24, 1971 " is almost reprovingly humorous: "When it's Christmas we're all of us magi. / AT the grocers' all slipping and pushing." Yet the poem is flooded with goodwill , with the re-invoking of the miraculous birth. "Herod reigns but the stronger he is,/the more sure, the more certain the wonder." Though risking triteness at its conclusin, "Nunc Dimittis" is filled with an extraordinary sense of spiritual immanence, as it tells the story of the Christ-child and Simeon. The modulation between the earthly and Godly in this poem is magnificent. Simeon, Anna the prophetess, Mary and the Child are all admirably human:
And only a chance ray of light struck the hair of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet was conscious of nothing and blew drowsy bubbles; old Simeon's arms held him like a stout cradle.
Yet the presence and promise of the divine are everywhere. Simeon's return to God evolves as he walkd toward the main door of the temple:
The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe and fanned at his forehead; the roar of the street, exploding in life by the door of the temple, beat stubbornly into old Simeon's hearing. . . .
The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.
The rendering articulate of this conjunction of human life with the life we know only in glimpses is the consummate test of poetry. It is a test that the best of Brodsky's poems manage with dignity and grace.