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This article is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

'The Art of Estrangement' Jeffrey Wainwright

Towards the end of 'In a Room and a Half', the final essay in Less than One (Viking, £15.95), Joseph Brodsky describes the weekly phone calls which were the only contact with his parents he was able to have since his exile from the Soviet Union in 1972.

We couldn't say much during those exchanges, we had to be either reticent or oblique and euphemistic. It was mostly about the weather or health, no names, a great deal of dietetic advice. The main thing was hearing each other's voice, assuring ourselves in this animal way of our respective existences. It was mostly non-semantic, and small wonder that I remember no particulars except Father's reply on the third day of my mother's being in the hospital. "How is Masya?" I asked, "Well, Masya is no more, you know," he said. The "you know" was there because on this occasion, too, he tried to be euphemistic.

Euphemism, as here, can possess great tenderness and delicacy through its obliqueness. It is its own kind of exposure. But these essays all work to dissolve euphemism for modes more exactly descriptive of what he intends to say. Brodsky is as forthright and unqualified about the importance of the writers, mainly poets, whom he chooses to write about, as about the significance of poetry itself, as about the exercise of Soviet state power. He writes this memorial essay for his parents in English, deliberately, 'because I want ...

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