from the Baltic marshland


Brodsky’s poetry is both addictive and exasperating. Addictive because, never satisfied, the reader keeps going back for more; exasperating because it eludes every attempt to pin it down. What was he saying? Russians like to remind you that the October Revolution was no sudden break with a feudal past, that the previous twenty years had seen significant changes: a new liberalism, industrial advance and so on. Culturally, of course, these years saw extraordinary achievements in music, art and literature that hardly need enumerating. The poets of the ‘Silver Age’ are read, both there and here, more widely than ever before, now that everything is available: Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (a great favourite with Brodsky). There’s a continuity here, a renewal of the tradition. It was Mandelstam who spoke of a ‘nostalgia for world culture’. Brodsky (1940-96), raised in some of the hardest times, shared this nostalgia. When the thaw came, with the worst constraints removed, he was somewhere else. He too was a provincial, or so he claimed, in search of world culture, hence all those poems set abroad (Rome, Paris, London). He insists on his provincialism: ‘I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland.’

more from Derek Mahon at Literary Review here.