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On Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996)

Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

When the last things are taken out of a house, a strange, resonant echo settles in, your voice bounces off the walls and returns to you. There’s the din of loneliness, a draft of emptiness, a loss of orientation and a nauseating sense of freedom: everything’s allowed and nothing matters, there’s no response other than the weakly rhymed tap of your own footsteps. This is how Russian literature feels now: just four years short of millenium’s end, it has lost the greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and can expect no other. Joseph Brodsky has left us, and our house is empty. He left Russia itself over two decades ago, became an American citizen, loved America, wrote essays and poems in English. But Russia is a tenacious country: try as you may to break free, she will hold you to the last.

In Russia, when a person dies, the custom is to drape the mirrors in the house with black muslin—an old custom, whose meaning has been forgotten or distorted. As a child I heard that this was done so that the deceased, who is said to wander his house for nine days saying his farewells to friends and family, won’t be frightened when he can’t find his reflection in the mirror. During his unjustly short but endlessly rich life Joseph was reflected in so many people, destinies, books, and cities that during these sad days, when he walks unseen among us, one wants to drape mourning veils over all the mirrors he loved: the great rivers washing the shores of Manhattan, the Bosporus, the canals of Amsterdam, the waters of Venice, which he sang, the arterial net of Petersburg (a hundred islands—how many rivers?), the city of his birth, beloved and cruel, the prototype of all future cities.

There, still a boy, he was judged for being a poet, and by definition a loafer. It seems that he was the only writer in Russia to whom they applied that recently invented, barbaric law—which punished for the lack of desire to make money. Of course, that was not the point—with their animal instinct they already sensed full well just who stood before them. They dismissed all the documents recording the kopecks Joseph received for translating poetry.

Who appointed you a poet?” they screamed at him.

I thought…. I thought it was God.”

All right then. Prison, exile.

Neither country nor churchyard will I choose
I’ll come to Vasilevsky Island to die,

he promised in a youthful poem.

In the dark I won’t find your deep blue façade
I’ll fall on the asphalt between the crossed lines.

I think that the reason he didn’t want to return to Russia even for a day was so that this incautious prophecy would not come to be. A student of—among others—Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, he knew their poetic superstitiousness, knew the conversation they had during their one and only meeting. “How could you write that…. Don’t you know that a poet’s words always come true?” one of them reproached. “And how could you write that…?” the other was amazed. And what they foretold did indeed come to pass.

I met him in 1988 during a short trip to the United States, and when I got back to Moscow I was immediately invited to an evening devoted to Brodsky. An old friend read his poetry, then there was a performance of some music that was dedicated to him. It was almost impossible to get close to the concert hall, passersby were grabbed and begged to sell “just one extra ticket.” The hall was guarded by mounted police—you might have thought that a rock concert was in the offing. To my utter horror I suddenly realized that they were counting on me: I was the first person they knew who had seen the poet after so many years of exile. What could I say? What can you say about a man with whom you’ve spent a mere two hours? I resisted, but they pushed me on stage. I felt like a complete idiot. Yes, I saw Brodsky. Yes, alive. He’s sick. He smokes. We drank coffee. There was no sugar in the house. (The audience grew agitated: Are the Americans neglecting our poet? Why didn’t he have any sugar?) Well, what else? Well, Baryshnikov dropped by, brought some firewood, they lit a fire. (More agitation in the hall: Is our poet freezing to death over there?) What floor does he live on? What does he eat? What is he writing? Does he write by hand or use a typewriter? What books does he have? Does he know that we love him? Will he come? Will he come? Will he come?

Joseph, will you come to Russia?”

Probably. I don’t know. Maybe. Not this year. I should go. I won’t go. No one needs me there.”

Don’t be coy! They won’t leave you alone. They’ll carry you through the streets—airplane and all. There’ll be such a crowd they’ll break through customs at Sheremetevo airport and carry you to Moscow in their arms. Or to Petersburg. On a white horse, if you like.”

That’s precisely why I don’t want to. And I don’t need anyone there.”

It’s not true! What about all those little old ladies of the intelligentsia, your readers, all the librarians, museum staff, pensioners, communal apartment dwellers who are afraid to go out into the communal kitchen with their chipped teakettle? The ones who stand in the back rows at philharmonic concerts, next to the columns, where the tickets are cheaper? Don’t you want to let them get a look at you from afar, your real readers? Why are you punishing them?”

It was an unfair blow. Tactless and unfair. He either joked his way out of it: “I’d rather go see my favorite Dutch.” “I love Italians, I’ll go to Italy.” “The Poles are wonderful. They’ve invited me.” Or would grow angry: “They wouldn’t let me go to my father’s funeral! My mother died without me—I asked—and they refused!”

Did he want to go home? I think that at the beginning, at least, he wanted to very much, but he couldn’t. He was afraid of the past, of memories, reminders, unearthed graves, was afraid of his weakness, afraid of destroying what he had done with his past in his poetry, afraid of looking back at the past—like Orpheus looked back at Eurydice—and losing it forever. He couldn’t fail to understand that his true reader was there, he knew that he was a Russian poet, although he convinced himself—and himself alone—that he was an English-language poet. He has a poem about a hawk (“A Hawk’s Cry in Autumn”) in the hills of Massachusetts who flies so high that the rush of rising air won’t let him descend back to earth, and the hawk perishes there, at those heights, where there are neither birds nor people, nor any air to breathe.

So could he have returned? Why did I and others bother him with all these questions about returning? We wanted him to feel, to know how much he was loved—we ourselves loved him so much! And I still don’t know whether he wanted all this convincing or whether it troubled his troubled heart. “Joseph, you are invited to speak at the college. February or September?” “February, of course. September—I should live so long.” And, tearing yet another filter off yet another cigarette, he’d tell another grisly joke. “The husband says to his wife: ‘The doctor told me that this is the end. I won’t live till morning. Let’s drink champagne and make love one last time.’ His wife replies: ‘That’s all very well and fine for you—you don’t have to get up in the morning!’ ”

Did we have to treat him like a “sick person”—talk about the weather and walk on tiptoe? When he came to speak at Skidmore, he arrived exhausted from the three-hour drive, white as sheet—in a kind of condition that makes you want to call 911. But he drank a glass of wine, smoked half a pack of cigarettes, made brilliant conversation, read his poems, and then more poems, poems, poems—smoked and recited by heart both his own and others’ poems, smoked some more, and read some more. By that time, his audience had grown pale from his un-American smoke, and he was in top form—his cheeks grew rosy, his eyes sparkled, and he read on and on. And when by all counts he should have gone to bed with a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue, he wanted to talk and went off to the hospitable hosts, the publishers of Salmagundi, Bob and Peggy Boyers. And he talked, and drank and smoked and laughed, and at midnight when his hosts had paled and my husband and I drove him back to the guest house, his energy surged as ours waned. “What charming people, but I think we exhausted them. So now we can really talk!” “Really,” i.e., the Russian way. And we sat up till three in the morning in the empty living room of the guest house, talking about everything—because Joseph was interested in everything. We rummaged in the drawers in search of a corkscrew for another bottle of red wine, filling the quiet American lodging with clouds of forbidden smoke; we combed the kitchen in search of leftover food from the reception (“We should have hidden the lo mein…. And there was some delicious chicken left…we should have stolen it.”) When we finally said goodbye my husband and I were barely alive and Joseph was still going strong.

He had an extraordinary tenderness for all his Petersburg friends, generously extolling their virtues, some of which they did not possess. When it came to human loyalty, you couldn’t trust his assessments—everyone was a genius, a Mozart, one of the best poets of the twentieth century. Quite in keeping with the Russian tradition, for him a human bond was higher than justice, and love higher than truth. Young writers and poets from Russia inundated him with their manuscripts—whenever I would leave Moscow for the US my poetic acquaintances would bring their collections and stick them in my suitcase: “It isn’t very heavy. The main thing is, show it to Brodsky. Just ask him to read it. I don’t need anything else—just let him read it!” And he read and remembered, and told people that the poems were good and gave interviews praising the fortunate, and they kept sending their publications. And their heads turned, some said things like: “Really, there are two genuine poets in Russia: Brodsky and myself.” He created the false impression of a kind of old patriarch—but if only a certain young writer whom I won’t name could have heard how Brodsky groaned and moaned after obediently reading a story whose plot was built around delight in moral sordidness. “Well, all right, I realize that after this one can continue writing. But how can he go on living?”

He didn’t go to Russia. But Russia came to him. Everyone came to convince themselves that he really and truly existed, that he was alive and writing—this strange Russian poet who did not want to set foot on Russian soil. He was published in Russian in newspapers, magazines, single volumes, multiple volumes, he was quoted, referred to, studied, and published as he wished and as he didn’t, he was picked apart, used, and turned into a myth. Once a poll was held on a Moscow street: “What are your hopes for the future in connection with the parliamentary elections?” A carpenter answered: “I could care less about the parliament and politics. I just want to live a private life, like Brodsky.”

He wanted to live, and not to die—neither on Vasilevsky Island, nor on the island of Manhattan. He was happy, he had a family he loved, poetry, friends, readers, students. He wanted to run away from his doctors to Mount Holyoke, where he taught—then, he thought, they couldn’t catch him. He wanted to elude his own prophecy: “I will fall on the asphalt between the crossed lines.” He fell on the floor of his study on another island, under the crossed Russian-American lines of an emigré’s double fate.

And two girls—sisters from un- lived years
running out on the island, wave to the boy.

And indeed he left two girls behind—his wife and daughter.

Do you know, Joseph, if you don’t want to come back with a lot of fanfare, no white horses and excited crowds, why don’t you just go to Petersburg incognito?” “Incognito?” Suddenly he wasn’t angry and didn’t joke, but listened very attentively. “Yes, you know, paste on a mustache or something. Just don’t tell anyone—not a soul. You’ll go, get on a trolley, ride down Nevsky Prospect, walk along the streets—free and unrecognized. There’s a crowd, everyone’s always pushing and jostling. You’ll buy some ice cream. Who’ll recognize you? If you feel like it you’ll call your friends from a phone booth—you can say you’re calling from America, or if you like you can just knock on a friend’s door: ‘Here I am Just dropped by. I missed you.’ ”

Here I was, talking, joking, and suddenly I noticed that he wasn’t laughing—there was a sort of childlike expression of helplessness on his face, a strange sort of dreaminess. His eyes seemed to be looking through objects, through the edges of things—on to the other side of time. He sat quietly, and I felt awkward, as if I were barging in where I wasn’t invited. To dispel the feeling, I said in a pathetically hearty voice: “It’s a wonderful idea, isn’t it?”

He looked through me and murmured: “Wonderful… Wonderful…”

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

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