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Mallarm'e and Brodsky: letters and poems of two `orphic' poets

SELECTED LETTERS OF ST'EPHANE MALLARM'E Edited and translated by Rosemary Lloyd

Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 238 pp. $27.50

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by Joseph Brodsky

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 174 pp. $14.95

ST'EPHANE MALLARM'E's letters reveal not only his dedication to the art of poetry but his gift for friendship. His addressees include painters - Claude Monet - as well as writers - 'Emile Zola, Andr'e Gide. Some of the most affecting letters are to his wife and daughter. Writing in the afterglow of a successful lecture at Cambridge University, he said: ``If ever I missed you, my poor absent ones, it was yesterday evening.''

Attacking the conventions of the romantic artist, Mallarm'e wrote to a friend: ``As for the stupid belief that a family prevents one from working, it's quite the opposite. On the contrary, it's only in the family that you find the monastery, with monastic hours, but a worldly freedom.''

As a poet, Mallarm'e changed the metaphor from monastic to the early days of modern science. He wrote: ``I've always dreamed and tried something different, with the patience of an alchemist, ready to sacrifice to poetry all vanity and all satisfaction, as in the past one burned one's furniture and the beams of the roof, to feed the furnace of the Great Work.'' For Mallarm'e, ``the book'' was a sacred object.

Mallarm'e defined the poet's responsibility somewhat obscurely as ``the orphic explanation of the Earth.'' Orpheus was a poet who went to Hades to bring back his wife, Euridice, but lost her when he broke his promise not to look at her before they got home. Still, his `` magic'' verses gave life to the very stones. The ambiguity of the term ``orphic'' points to the source of Mallarm'e's concept of his work, a prolonged crisis, metaphysical as well as emotional, that left him exhausted but in possession of an impersonal point of view as an artist.

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Skeptics have scoffed at Mallarm'e's sense of duty, which embraced family, friends, and Earth, but these letters reveal duty as another way of signing his name.

``To Urania,'' Joseph Brodsky's new book of poems, is full of oracles: ``Time is the flesh of the silent cosmos,'' ``Loneliness cubes a man at random,'' and ``The bulk of the visible world consists of living types.'' These poems are thick with nouns carried along by a variety of meters. Like an ancient song book (Brodsky translates a Sumerian text from the 10th millennium), ``To Urania'' has archaic strengths. Brodsky's muse Urania is older than Clio, the muse of history. But, with ``the infinite quay rendering life myopic,'' the poems are spiked with sudden, surreal clarities. The title poem, which turns on a vision of pastoral life in ``blueberry-laden forests,'' rushes into the east, toward ``steam dreadnoughts or cruisers, and the expanse grows blue like lace underwear.''

Brodsky's perspectives are historical, geographical, and analogical. In two superb poems that qualify his Uranian point of view, he writes from the perspective of hawk and fly.

``To Urania'' is a midlife book. Brodsky confronts himself as the ``standard stranger.'' He hides himself ``in perspective.'' He defines ``mastery'' as ``ability/ to not take fright at the procedure of/ nonbeing - as another form of one's/ own absence, having drawn it straight from life.'' Russian in exile (he helps translate his poems into English), Brodsky is a central poet. I throw back to him his lines on winter: ``I cherish your bitter flavor of cranberries, tangerine crescents on faience saucers....''

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