Joseph Brodsky: Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjelberg
A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books
Joseph Brodsky: His poems have the strength of remaining relevant. Photograph: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
As usual, I came to Joseph Brodsky with absolutely no knowledge of his Soviet-fleeing history (How have I always managed to remain so resolutely ignorant? I blame TV.) I must’ve realised he won the Nobel, because it’s printed across the cover (although I didn’t hold it against him), but reckon I was initially drawn to nothing more than his name (so full of poetic promise - Jesus’s third-wheel father and a shortened-broad sky), the colours on the spine (wine and yellow), and then, once picked from the shelf, the attractively unpretentious (even convincingly casual, if not for the half-tucked hand in the pocket of his trousers and slightly impatient facial expression) cover photo of Brodsky sitting on a bench before a discoloured and crumbling green-shuttered house.
Then came the poetry.
Brodsky is one of few writers, like Larkin and MacNeice, who first allowed me to entertain the inconceivable notion that I too could actually enjoy poetry, rather than simply memorise it to answer Leaving Cert questions or quote from it so as to make other people feel inadequate (my understanding of poetry readers hitherto).
His accessible language (he translated much of his own work) and often simple-seeming subjects offered me that crystallised vision of life – of how it’s passing through me and on, outwards, into everything – that only contact with its extremities (birth, love, death) and great art can ever achieve.
Brodsky’s poems also have the strength of remaining relevant. It’s as though he is always writing here, now, beside you. Take this, the opening stanza of Homage to Yalta, written in 1969:
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.”
Surely this has never been more, um, well, agreeable?