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Collected Poems in English

Collected Poems in English

by Joseph Brodsky

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The poems of the legendary Nobel Laureate, in one volume at last

One of the greatest and grandest advocates of the literary vocation, Joseph Brodsky truly lived his life as a poet, and for it earned eighteen months in an Arctic labor camp, expulsion from his native country, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Such were one man's wages. Here, collected for


The poems of the legendary Nobel Laureate, in one volume at last

One of the greatest and grandest advocates of the literary vocation, Joseph Brodsky truly lived his life as a poet, and for it earned eighteen months in an Arctic labor camp, expulsion from his native country, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Such were one man's wages. Here, collected for the first time, are all the poems he published in English, from his earliest collaborations with Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur, Howard Moss, and Anthony Hecht to the moving farewell poems he wrote near the end of his life. With nearly two hundred poems, several of them never before published in book form, this will be the essential volume of Brodsky's work.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I know Joseph Brodsky as a world poet--partly because I cannot read him in Russian; mainly because that's the range he commanded in his poems, with their extraordinary velocity and density of material notation, of cultural reference, of attitude. He insisted that poetry's 'job' (a much-used word) was to explore the capacity of language to travel farther, faster. Poetry, he said, is accelerated thinking. It was his best argument, and he made many, on behalf of the superiority of poetry to prose.” —Susan Sontag

“Brodsky charged at the world with full intensity and wrestled his perceptions into lines that fairly vibrate with what they are asked to hold. There is no voice, no vision, remotely like it.” —Sven Birkerts, The New York Times Book Review

Our Review
Making It Happen
Food, shelter, clothing -- and words. For Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, a giant of 20th-century Russian literature, poetry was as basic a requirement for living as the air he breathed. Sent to the Arctic labor camps by Russian authorities and eventually expelled from the Soviet Union for his writings, the late Brodsky remains a symbol of the activist writer, the poet for whom poetry was a matter of life and death.

The Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjellberg, brings much of Brodsky's poetry together under one cover for the very first time (two-thirds of his work remain to be published in English translations). Brodsky's are big poems about death, love, life, and duty. Since Anna Akhmatova's early support, Brodsky's powerful, awe-filled poems -- and his equally powerful argument that verse must chronicle and fight for the world it lives in -- have inspired poets around the globe and drawn a slew of talented translators determined to bring Brodsky into English. From his earliest collaborations with poets and friends such as Derek Walcott, Howard Moss, and Richard Wilbur to poems composed directly in his adopted tongue, The Collected Poems is the essential volume of the Nobel winner's work.

Despite his commitment to the craft, the irony of creating beauty in the language of his tormentors was certainly not lost on Brodsky. In "The End of a Beautiful Era," Brodsky approached his role as poet of the country that termed him a "social parasite" with a characteristic mix of awe and duty:

Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose,
deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less
insignificant nation that's stuck in this super
power, wishing to spare my old brain,
hand myself my own topcoat and head for the main
street: to purchase the evening paper.

Outside of the Soviet Union, Brodsky's views on poetry as the main and necessary vehicle of language has had a major effect on American poetry, with Susan Sontag, Mark Strand, and Derek Walcott among his most ardent supporters.

Though at turns humorous and often fiercely political, Brodsky is also regarded as a poet of love, a believer to the end in the power and comfort of romance. One of his magnificent contributions is "Six Years Later," which presents six stanzas of six lines each about the quotidian, predictable life of a man and a woman who have lived together for a long time.

So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
    somehow its halves were split and we went right
    through them into the future, into night.

For Brodsky, the familiar is as big a cause for wonder as the shocking. A natural death is as amazing as a violent death, and a love that lasts for decades is still worthy of a poem, just as a sudden infatuation is. Poetry matters no matter what the occasion and no matter what the language. This was Brodsky's personal twist; he impressively proved that the specific language was secondary to the inherent power of verse. As both author and translator, Brodsky's poems are at once translations and original creations. He refused to give up the pleasure of a poem. In either language, Brodsky was -- and remains -- a poet of wonder.

--Aviya Kushner

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A writer of global scope and acclaim, a Nobel Prize winner and a former U.S. poet laureate, Brodsky (1940-96) first came to U.S. readers' attention as a young Russian poet. Exiled to Siberia in the mid-'60s, and then kicked out of the Soviet Union, Brodsky arrived in the United States and began a second career in English, assisting his translators and eventually composing poems in English. This big book gathers all the poetry in English Brodsky originally saw through to press in books (or had earmarked for eventual publication), including Russian poems he translated or co-translated. Originally Russian verse from the '60s and '70s gives way to the later, sometimes lighter, work of his last two decades, when he found a second home in the speech of his adoptive country. In the earliest parts of the volume, Brodsky's attempt to render in English the formal pyrotechnics of his much-admired Russian results in awkward shifts between the demotic and the hieratic "To exist in the Era of Deeds and to stay elevated, alert/ ain't so easy, alas." But by 1978 Brodsky's English verse could be as dramatically confident--not to mention quotable--as these lines, from "Strophes," about middle age: "Ah, for the bounty of sibyls,/ the blackmail of future years,/ as for the lash of our middle/ names, memory, no one cares." His later work can be intimately jocular, or grandly authoritative: often he acknowledges Latin precedents or else tips his hat to the late poems of Auden. Most of Brodsky's verse in English appeared in three books, A Part of Speech (1980), To Urania (1988) and So Forth (1996). Even readers who already know and own those might want this one for its concluding forty-odd pages of previously uncollected work, and for its scrupulous bibliographical notes. Brodsky knew he had lived, and suffered, through more than most poets; he enjoyed speaking with the Voice of Experience, as his poems attest: "One's dreams,/ unlike the city, become less populous/ the older one gets." (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Named U.S. poet laureate in 1991, Joseph Brodsky was born in Russia in 1940. His education was meager; largely self-taught, he learned a half-dozen languages in order to read and translate poetry. Writing prolifically in addition to translating, Brodsky incurred the wrath of Soviet authorities for his outspoken irony and wit, as well as for his Jewish identity. He spent five years in an Arctic labor camp before choosing exile, moving to the United States with the help of mentor W.H. Auden. Brodsky, who died of heart failure in 1996, wrote primarily in Russian; he himself translated many of his poems into English or worked closely with his translators. The collection under review consists of all his poems that were published in English. He ends the poem "At a Lecture" thus: "As the swan confessed/ to the lake: I don't like myself. But you are welcome to my reflection." This is a highly accomplished, deft, and entertaining book, with a talent for exploitation of the richness of language and with a deep core of sorrow. "There is only one way to be born," says Brodsky, "but so many ways to die." Highly recommended. Judy Clarence, California State Univ. Lib., Hayward Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
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!" Surely the appearance of this collection will gratify Brodsky's admirers, but despite his hallowed resumé, it is not likely toconvertskeptics.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Six Years Later

So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
    so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
    a cloudless distance waiting up the road.

So long had life together been that once
the snow began to fall, it seemed unending;
that, lest the flakes should make her eyelids wince,
I'd shield them with my hand, and they, pretending
    not to believe that cherishing of eyes,
    would beat against my palm like butterflies.

So alien had all novelty become
that sleep's entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might plumb;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
    her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
    to join my own, without another thought.

So long had life together been that all
that tattered brood of papered roses went,
and a whole birch grove grew upon the wall,
and we had money, by some accident,
    and tonguelike on the sea, for thirty days,
    the sunset threatened Turkey with its blaze.

So long had life together been without
books, chairs, utensils—only that ancient bed—
that the triangle, before it came about,
had been aperpendicular, the head
    of some acquaintance hovering above
    two points which had been coalesced by love.

So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
    somehow its halves were split and we went right
    through them into the future, into night.


Anno Domini

The provinces are celebrating Christmas.
The Governor-general's mansion is bedecked
with mistletoe, torches smoke by the entrance.
In the lanes the people press and lark around.
A merry, idle, dirty, boisterous
throng crowds in the rear of the mansion.

The Governor-general is ill. He lies
on a couch, wrapped in a shawl from Alcazar,
where he once served, and his thoughts turn
on his wife and on his secretary
receiving guests downstairs in the hall.
He is not really jealous. At this moment

it's more important to him to retire
into his shell of illness, dreams, the deferment of
his transfer to the capital. And since
he knows that freedom is not needed
by the crowd at all to make a public holiday—
for this same reason he allows

even his wife to be unfaithful. What would
he think of if ennui attacks
did not plague him? If he loved?
A chilly tremor runs through his shoulders,
he chases these alarming thoughts away.
In the hall the merrymaking subsides

but does not end. Muddled with drink,
the leaders of the tribes stare glassily
into a distance now devoid of enemies.
Their teeth, expressive of their rage,
set in a smile that's like a wheel
held fast by brakes—and a servant

is loading them with food. In his sleep
a merchant cries out. Snatches of song are heard.
The Governor-general's wife and secretary
slip out into the garden. And on the wall
the imperial eagle, like a bat, stares down,
having gorged on the Governor-general's liver.

And I, a writer who has seen the world,
who has crossed the equator on an ass,
look out of the window at the hills asleep
and think about the identity of our woes:
the Emperor won't see him, I won't be
seen by my son and Cynthia ... And we,

we here shall perish. Arrogance will not raise
our bitter fate to the level of proof
that we are made in the Creator's image.
The grave will render all alike.
So, if only in our lifetime, let us be various!
For what reason should we rush from the mansion,

we cannot judge our homeland. The sword of justice
will stick fast in our personal disgrace:
the heirs, the power, are in stronger hands ...
How good that vessels are not sailing!
How good that the sea is freezing!
How good that the birds in the clouds

are too frail for such cumbrous frames!
For that, nobody is to blame.
But perhaps our weights will be
proportionate exactly to their voices.
Therefore, let them fly to our homeland.
Therefore, let them yell out to us.

My country ... foreign gentlemen,
visiting Cynthia, are leaning
over the crib like latter-day magi.
The infant slumbers. A star glimmers
like a coal under a cold font.
And the visitors, not touching his head,

replace the halo by an aureole of lies,
and the Virgin Birth by gossip,
by the passing over of the father in silence ...
The mansion empties. The lights on each floor die.
First one, then another. Finally, the last.
And only two windows in the whole palace

are alight: mine, where, with my back to the torchlight,
I watch the moon's disk glide
over the sparsely growing trees, and see
Cynthia, the snow; the Governor-general's, where
he struggles silently all night with his illness
and keeps the fire lit, to see his enemy.

The enemy withdraws. The faint light of day
barely breaking in the world's East,
creeps through the window, straining
to see what is happening within,
and, coming across the remnants of the feast,
falters. But continues on its way.

[January] 1968

Autumn in Norenskaia

We return from the field. The wind
clangs buckets upturned,
unbraids the willow fringe,
whistles through boulder piles.
The horses, inflated casks
of ribs trapped between shafts,
snap at the rusted harrows
with gnashing profiles.

A gust combs frostbitten sorrel,
bloats kerchiefs and shawls, searches
up the skirts of old hags, scrolls them
tight up as cabbageheads.
Eyes lowered, hacking out phlegm,
the women scissor their way home,
like cutting along a dull hem,
lurch toward their wooden beds.

Between folds flash the thighs of scissors,
wet eyes blur with the vision
of crabbed little imps that dance on
the farm women's pupils as a shower flings
the semblance of faces against a bare
pane. The furrows fan out in braids
under the harrow. The wind breaks
a chain of crows into shrieking links.

These visions are the final sign
of an inner life that seizes on
any specter to which it feels kin
till the specter scares off for good
at the church bell of a creaking axle,
at the metal rattle of the world as it
lies reversed in a rut of water,
at a starling soaring into cloud.

The sky lowers. The shouldered rake
sees the damp roofs first, staked
out against the ridge of a dark
hill that's just a mound far off.
Three versts still to cover. Rain
lords it over this beaten plain,
and to the crusted boots cling brown
stubborn clods of the native earth.



A second Christmas by the shore
of Pontus, which remains unfrozen.
The Star of Kings above the sharp horizon
of harbor walls. And I can't say for sure
that I can't live without you. As
this paper proves, I do exist: I'm living
enough to gulp my beer, to soil the leaves, and
trample the grass.

Retreating south before winter's assault,
I sit in that café from which we two were
exploded soundlessly into the future
according to the unrelenting law
that happiness can't last. My finger tries
your face on poor man's marble. In the distance,
brocaded nymphs leap through their jerky dances,
flaunting their thighs.

Just what, you gods—if this dilating blot,
glimpsed through a murky window, symbolizes
your selves now—were you trying to advise us?
The future has arrived and it is not
unbearable. Things fall, the fiddler goes,
the music ebbs, and deepening creases
spread over the sea's surface and men's faces.
But no wind blows.

Someday the slowly rising breakers but,
alas, not we, will sweep across this railing,
crest overhead, crush helpless screams, and roll in
to find the spot where you drank wine, took catnaps,
spreading to the sun your wet
thin blouse—to batter benches, splinter boardwalks,
and build for future molluscs
a silted bed.


Homage to Yalta

The story to be told below is truthful.
Unfortunately, nowadays it's not
just lies alone but simple truth as well
that needs compelling argument and sound
corroboration. Isn't that a sign
of our arrival in a wholly new
but doleful world? In fact, a proven truth,
to be precise, is not a truth at all—
it's just the sum of proofs. But now
what's said is "I agree," not "I believe."

What troubles people in the atom age is—
much less than things themselves—the way they are
constructed. Like a child who clobbers dolly,
then wails on finding the debris inside,
we tend to take what lies in back of this
or that event as nothing less than that
event itself. To which there is a kind
of fascination, inasmuch as things
like motives, attitudes, environment,
et cetera—all this is life. And life
we have been trained to treat as if it were
the object of our logical deductions.

And sometimes all it seems we have to do
is interweave them—motives, attitudes,
environment, and problems—and events
will then take place; a crime, let's say. But no.
It's just an ordinary day out there.
It's drizzling, cars go rushing by. Inside,
a standard-model telephone (a clump
of cathodes, junctions, terminals, resistors)
is resolutely speechless. No event,
alas, takes place. On second thought, thank God.

The matter here described occurred in Yalta.
Of course, I'll make an effort to comply with
the view of truth I mentioned earlier—
that is to say, I plan to disembowel
that dolly. But I hope you will forgive
me, gentle reader, if I here and there
append to truth an element of Art,
which, in the last analysis, lies at
the heart of all events (though, to be sure,
a writer's art is not the Art of life,
it only forms a likeness).
of witnesses will follow in the order
in which it was obtained. Herein lies an
example of how truth depends on art,
and not of art's dependence on the truth.


"He telephoned that evening and he said
he wasn't coming. He and I beforehand,
on Tuesday, had agreed that he'd drop by
my place on Saturday. Yes, yes, on Tuesday.
I'd called him and invited him to come.
`On Saturday' is when he said he'd see me.
The purpose? Simply that for quite a while
we'd hoped to sit and analyze together
a problem of Chigorin's. That was all.
Our meeting was to have no other `purpose,'
to use your word. Unless, of course, you choose
to say that wishing to take pleasure in a
congenial person's company amounts to
a purpose. Still, you probably know better ...
As luck would have it, though, he phoned that evening
and said he'd not be coming. What a shame
it was! I really would have liked to see him.
Distraught? Was that the word you used? Oh, no.
He sounded just the same as usual. But
of course, a telephone's a telephone;
although, you know, when you can't see a person
you focus on his voice a bit more sharply.
He didn't sound distraught ... But then, the way
he phrased his words was always somewhat odd.
His speech consisted, on the whole, of pauses
that always made you feel uneasy, since
we ordinarily interpret silence
to mean a person's mind is busy working.
And his, in fact, was nothing but pure silence.
You'd soon begin to get a feeling of
your own dependence on this quietness,
and that would irritate a lot of people.
Oh, no, I knew it had resulted from
his shell shock. Yes, of that I'm very certain.
How else would you explain the fact ... What's that?
That's right, he didn't sound at all distraught. But
of course, that's only judging by his voice.
There is one thing I'll say in any case:
that Saturday and earlier, on Tuesday,
he sounded just the same as usual. So
if something really happened to him then,
it wasn't Saturday, because he called!
That simply doesn't fit distraught behavior!
Take me: when I'm distraught, for instance ... What?
The tenor of our conversation? Gladly.
The moment that I heard the telephone I
was there to pick it up. `Good evening, it
is I; I owe you an apology. For,
as things turn out, I simply won't be able
to come today.' Oh, really? That's a shame.
On Wednesday, maybe? Should I call you up?
Offended? Why, for heaven's sake, of course not!
Until next Wednesday, then? `Good night,' he answered.
That's right, it was at eight or thereabout.
When I hung up I cleared away the dishes
and took the board out. Last time, his advice
had been to try the Queen E-8 maneuver.
An odd and somewhat muddled move it was.
Nonsensical, almost. And not at all in
the spirit of Chigorin. Odd it was,
and senseless. Didn't change a thing, and therefore
it nullified the meaning of the problem.
In any game what matters are results:
a win, a loss, or even if a draw—
but nonetheless an outcome. His move, though—
it seemed as if it put the pieces in
some doubt about their very own existence.
I sat up with the board till late at night.
Perhaps the game may someday actually
be played like that. As far as I'm concerned,
however ... Sorry, what was that you asked: does
the name mean anything to me? It does.
Five years ago the two of us broke up.
Yes, that's correct: we weren't ever married.
Was he aware of it? Most likely not.
It surely wasn't something she'd have told him.
What's that? This photograph? I'd make a point
of putting it away before he came here.
Oh, no! You needn't be apologetic.
The question is quite natural, and I ...
How was it that I knew about the murder?
I got a call from her that very night.
Now there's a voice that really was distraught!"


Meet the Author

Joseph Brodsky (1940-96) came to the United States in 1972, an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992.

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