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Customer Review

on 28 November 2002
Buy this book for the excellent new translations. While there can be no substitute for reading a major poet in his own language, the efforts by Melissa Green, Seamus Heaney, Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott and Richard Wilbur are arguably as good as translation of poetry ever gets.

Bilingual editions are not to everyone's taste, but in this case the format seems to work really well: even the perceived volume of the two versions of each poem is virtually the same most of the time (which is notoriously difficult to achieve between Russian and English), with nearly ideal alignment of the corresponding lines at opposing pages. Those unable to read what is printed on the left-hand side can still marvel at the beauty of Cyrillic and try to figure out the rhyme scheme of the original by checking the endings...

Why on earth did they have to include an interview with the author? Worse still, much of the conversation there rotates around the nativity poems themselves. It is never a good idea to provoke poets into discussing their own work rationally; as for publishing the transcript under the same cover with the poems in question, this cannot but take away some of the magic.

Editor's Note at the back mentions that "Christmas" and "Nativity" are the same word in Russian. Quite. But can this ambiguity alone justify inclusion of 'Speech over spilled Milk' in this book? The only relation between that poem and the theme of the collection is that Christmas is mentioned in the first line (though it turns into New Year later on). 'Speech over Spilled Milk' is a fine poem, important for appreciating early Brodsky and beautifully translated, but here it sticks out like a sore thumb: both the subject and the style are completely out of place, and its size (nearly a quarter of the whole volume!) violates the rhythm of the piece-to-piece flow which is vital in a small book of poetry. I would probably also drop 'Lagoon', on the same basis as 'Speech...' and also because the recurring image of a ship there doesn't mix well with the desert landscape implied by the overall concept of the collection.

Purely chronological arrangement of poems is generally reserved for comprehensive editions with an academic flavour to them. Nevertheless, it doesn't look unnatural in this book of a very different kind. Besides, this way it is easier to notice that the nativity poems that made it into the book were written over a period of precisely 33 years. Very appropriate; I wonder whether it was intentional.

Sadly, I spotted a few inaccuracies on the first reading. M.V. is printed instead of M.B. in the dedication of '25.XII.1993'. Easy to understand how this happened (the initials got transliterated twice), much more difficult to forgive. Another unpleasant oversight is "Brodsky, Joseph, 1940-" in the Library of Congress Data. The author died 6 years ago; they should have noticed by now. There are also misplaced stanzas in the translation of 'Lullaby' and a misunderstood passage about a villager in the translation of "With riverbanks of frozen chocolate, a city...", p.69 (to be fair, the syntax of the original gets really convoluted at that point).

As far as the look and feel of the hardback edition is concerned, the publishers couldn't have done a better job. It is as books used to be: a visual feast and a sheer pleasure to handle. Tastefully and sparingly illustrated with superb period photographs of snow-covered Leningrad.
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