In her mosaic of memories, Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (Baskerville, $25.95), Ludmila Shtern quotes an old man who lingered in a doorway to listen as the 22-year-old Brodsky read to his friends: "I don't understand poetry," said this man, whom Shtern called Uncle Grisha. "I've only had four years of school. But the issue isn't the poetry, it's the thoughts . . . your Joseph spoke so many thoughts last night, most of them wouldn't have even occurred to another person even if they lived to be a hundred. And the way he read, it was as though he was praying." It is this kind of insight - - along with poetry quotations, bits and pieces from Brodsky's letters and conversations, fragments of unpublished, joking occasional verse, an excerpt from his trial transcript, and descriptions of Brodsky among his friends in the Soviet Union and adjusting to exile in America -- that makes this book worth reading.
As youngsters, Brodsky, Shtern and their friends had no hope of seeing their work published. They put together slim books for each other, dashed off light-hearted tributes to celebrate birthdays, and once created a magazine dedicated to Pasik, Shtern's mother's kitten. (Brodsky contributed an ode.) We learn about Brodsky's relationship with the enigmatic Marina Basmanova, with whom he had a son who was not even given his name. Shtern quotes some of the poems Brodsky wrote about Marina and describes his anxiety when, many years later, he awaited a visit from his son in New York, afterward remarking only, "Our relationship didn't work out."
Brodsky was clearly a prickly friend. In Russia, he dropped in on Shtern's family often and called to read her his poems while he was in the throes of composition. By the time she immigrated to the United States, he had become a major literary figure here, and she felt that his attitude toward her had changed. At one point, she and her husband joined Brodsky while he was talking to Derek Walcott (later, like Brodsky, to become a Nobel laureate). According to Shtern, Brodsky introduced them by saying, "Derek, here are some typical representatives of the third wave [of Russian immigration]." (But this snub was followed by a penitent phone call and a gift of poetry books.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.