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AN APPETITE FOR METAPHYSICS

Joseph Brodsky, who suffered imprisonment in Soviet Russia and later won the Nobel Prize while living in involuntary exile in the US, always privileged poetry over prose. The point is worth noting because Brodsky was a superb prose stylist as his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason, amply demonstrated. But it was poetry that was Brodsky’s first love. He believed poetry lent itself to precision more easily than prose. Moreover, literature started with poetry: “the song of a nomad predates the scribblings of a settler”. Above all, he wrote, “poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics which distinguishes a work of art from mere belles lettres.”

This volume brings together all the poems that Brodsky published in English. There are some 200 poems here, beginning with his early collaborations with Derek Walcott to those he wrote on his own. When he first came to the West, his English was faltering and his hold over grammar and syntax, uncertain. His poetic diction and sensibility were, however, unmatched. He also had, in those initial days, excellent company. He was a guest in the house of Stephen and Natasha Spender and Auden was his constant companion. Auden and Spender were lasting influences on Brodsky, and so was Louis MacNeice (though when Brodsky first came to England, he did not even know that MacNeice was already dead for nine years). But their verse opened up to the poet, culturally and otherwise frozen in Stalin’s Russia, new dimensions of poetry. He learnt from them to take “a bewildered look at the familiar”. Their poems freed him metrically and stanzaically.

Brodsky too wove poems out of the familiar. “The nightclubs reek of cheese, spices, spies,/ yet the more neutral you are, the less you are finicky./ In places like this, one craves infinity/ with double intensity.” The daily routine, set against contemporary history, suddenly acquires an air of irrelevance and even of deliberate neglect: “As you sip your brand of scotch,/ crush a roach, or scratch your crotch,/ as your hand adjusts the tie,/ people die. In the towns with funny names,/ hit by bullets, caught in flames,/ by and large not knowing why,/ people die.” Thus the horror of Bosnia.

Like any exile, Brodsky saw himself as a nomad. Places fascinated him. Florence, the Tha-mes at Chelsea, Cape Cod, the Lake Districts, all became subjects for poems. But here too, it was the quotidian that caught his attention. Here is Brodsky in East Finchley, a district of London highly unlikely to evoke poetry: “Evening. A bulky body moves quietly along a narrow/ walk, with brush-cut hedges and rows of fuchsias/ and geraniums, like a dreadnought on a country canal./ His right jacket sleeve, heavily chalk-dusted, betrays/ the way he makes his living.”

Brodsky is perhaps at his best when he is singing of love: “If you were Chinese, I’d learn the language,/ burn a lot of incense, wear funny clothes./ If you were a mirror, I’d storm the Ladies’,/ give you my red lipstick, and puff your nose.

“If you loved volcanoes, I’d be lava,/ relentlessly erupting from my hidden source./ And if you were my wife, I’d be your lover,/ because the Church is firmly against divorce.”

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