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…

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