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Future Tense

DISCOVERY; By Joseph Brodsky Illustrated by Vladimir Redunsky; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 24 pp., $16

November 07, 1999|NICOLE KRAUSS | Nicole Krauss is making a documentary about Joseph Brodsky for the BBC's Radio 3

"English wants to be monosyllabic," Joseph Brodsky was fond of saying as an explanation for his love affair with the language of his adopted country. Brodsky, a poet who settled in the United States in 1972 after being expelled from the Soviet Union, liked language with hard edges that caught in the throat, language that got to the brute point without dilly-dallying ("Grief is brief," he once announced as a way to illustrate the point). Brodsky took pleasure in the physicality of English, its dense thorniness and no-nonsense taste for palpable consonants over diaphanous vowels. Modern English is something of a mutt, and Brodsky, like his beloved W.H. Auden, favored its Anglo-Saxon lineage. No luxe and volupte for Brodsky; he preferred to "lurch in a cross town bus, clutching a couple of bucks." Just as a person born under a dictatorship can most appreciate democracy, so a foreigner can best recognize and enjoy the qualities of a new native tongue.

As a Russian, Brodsky, who in 1987 was awarded the Nobel Prize, is often compared to Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, but the measure of his genius lies also in his English-language essays and poetry. Born in Leningrad in 1940, he was arrested by the KGB in 1963, charged with "decadence and modernism" and being a "semiliterate parasite" whose "pornographic and anti-Soviet poetry" would corrupt the young. He was sentenced to five years in an Arctic labor camp, later reduced to 18 months because of internal and international protest. Exiled in 1972, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1980. When he died in 1996, he had lived nearly half his life in English.

In 1977, he wrote his first poem in English--an elegy for Robert Lowell--though the choice of language presumably had everything to do with the person whom the poem addressed (at this point Brodsky's English was not yet as strong as it would later become, and writing in the new language must have been a struggle). But in the last decade of his life, Brodsky not only translated his own poems from the Russian but at times also wrote verse directly in English. His English poems are unique in their cadence and language, something of a hybrid of a Russian high style and American slang. Their greatest single influence is the English ballad, for in that terse and rhythmic form he found an ideal expression of the language. If some of his English poems are less than great, it's partly because their lines, strung tight with meter and rhyme, occasionally condense into jingles. "Here they are for all to see, / the fruits of complacency. / Beware of love, of A.D., B.C., / and the travel agency." But the very finest of these poems are among his best, such as the beautiful northern "Tornfallet," whose verses are at once severe and graceful. "I took her in marriage / in a granite parish. / The snow lent her whiteness, / a pine was a witness." These poems are- never simple--Brodsky never wrote a simple poem--but their economy is striking, especially against the background of his verbally more complex Russian works. Compare, for example, the translated first stanza of "Lithuanian Nocturne" ("Having roughed up the waters, / wind explodes like the loud curses from fist ravaged lips / in the cold superpower's / innards, squeezing trite wobbles / of the do-re-mi from sooted trumpets that lisp") with the first stanza of "A Song" ("I wish you were here, dear, / I wish you were here. I wish you sat on the sofa / and I sat near. / The handkerchief could be yours, / the tear could be mine, chin-bound. / Though it could be, of course, / the other way around").

In Russian, Brodsky was a classical poet whose often-elevated language expressed complex images and ideas. But in his English poems (and some of the later Russian ones strongly influenced by English), he preferred pared-down language, an oral feel and, when he was not austerely serious, a kind of jokiness. So it is not entirely surprising that he eventually tried his hand at a children's poem; nor is his decision to write it in English, a language he found more apt for getting to the point (children have little patience) and perhaps, given his own associations with Russian, more lighthearted.

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