So Forth

Susan Shapiro reviews "So Forth" by Joseph Brodsky.

Published October 24, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

This final, posthumous book of poetry by Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize winner and former poet laureate of the U.S., is by far his most intimate and confessional. This is Brodsky's third collection in English -- he published seven earlier books in the Soviet Union, from where he immigrated to this country as an involuntary exile in 1972. While his self-translations are uneven and at times overly academic, a deeply personal tone takes hold in "So Forth" and nearly sweeps the reader away with its expertly evoked sadness and nostalgia.

The best of these poems, which first appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, and The New Republic, show Auden's influence in their simplicity of language, their rhymes and their infusion of deceptively innocent emotion. In the graceful, lovely poem "A Song," Brodsky says: "I wish you were here, dear,/ I wish you were here. I wish I knew no astronomy/ when stars appear./ When the moon skims the water/ that sighs and shifts in its slumber./ I wish it were still a quarter/ to dial your number." The poem acquires new meaning and poignancy when you realize, in the last stanza, that the "you" has died.

"So Forth," which Brodsky dedicates to "my wife and daughter," includes a bewitching dream poem called "In Memory of My Father: Australia," in which the ghost of a father who died in a crematorium says simply: "Looks like I've lost my slippers." The poem ends: "better these snatches of voice, this patchwork/ monologue of a recluse trying to play a genie/ for the first time since you formed a cloud above a chimney." Though it could be interpreted as anyone's father, the direct address and longing for a family connection are undeniably close and moving.

In this collection's most gentle and moving poem, "To My Daughter," Brodsky seems to anticipate his death while saying goodbye to his baby girl. He writes, "On the whole, bear in mind that I'll be around. Or rather,/ that an inanimate object might be your father ... / you may still remember a silhouette, a contour/ while I'll lose even that, along with the other luggage./ Hence, these somewhat wooden lines in our common language." Of course, these lines aren't wooden at all -- they show a newfound warmth and accessibility. They're the work of a gifted poet who learned to transcend all political and language barriers and speak in the universal language of heart and mind.

By Susan Shapiro

Writing professor Susan Shapiro is the bestselling author/coauthor of “Unhooked,” “Lighting Up,” and most recently "American Shield." She’s working on a new essay collection about sex, love and addiction.

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