for Joseph Brodsky
On the bright road to Rome, beyond Mantua,
there were reeds of rice, and I heard, in the wind’s elation,
the brown dogs of Latin panting alongside the car,
their shadows sliding on the verge in smooth translation,
past fields fenced by poplars, stone farms in character,
nouns from a schoolboy’s text, Vergilian, Horatian,
phrases from Ovid passing in a green blur
heading towards perspectives of noseless busts
open-mouthed ruins and roofless corridors
of Caesars whose second mantle is now the dust’s,
and this voice that rustles out of the reeds is yours.
To every line there is a time and a season.
You refreshed forms and stanzas, these cropped fields are
your stubble grating my cheeks with departure,
grey irises, your corn-wisps of hair blowing away,
say you haven’t vanished, you’re still in Italy.
Yeah. Very still. God. Still as the turning fields
of Lombardy, still as the white wastes of that prison
like pages erased by a regime. Though his landscape heals
the exile you shared with Naso, poetry is still treason
because it is truth. Your poplars spin in the sun.
Whir of a pigeon’s wings outside a wooden window,
the flutter of a fresh soul discarding the exhausted heart.
Sun touches the bell-towers. Clangour of the cinquecento,
at wave-slapped landingsvaporettos warp and depart
leaving the traveller’s shadow on the swaying stage
who looks at the glints of water that his ferry makes
like a comb through blonde hair that plaits after its passage,
or book covers enclosing the foam of their final page,
or whatever the whiteness that blinds me with its flakes
erasing pines and conifers. Joseph, why am I writing this
when you cannot read it? The windows of a book spine open
on a courtyard where every cupola is a practice
for your soul encircling the coined water of Venice
like a slate pigeon and the light hurts like rain.
Sunday. The bells of the campaniles’ deranged tolling
for you who felt this stone-laced city healed our sins
like the lion whose iron paw keeps our orb from rolling
under guardian wings. Craft with the necks of violins
and girls with the necks of gondolas were your province.
How ordained, on your birthday, to talk of you to Venice.
These days, in book stores I drift towards Biography,
my hand gliding over names with a pigeon’s opening claws.
The cupolas enclose their parentheses over the sea
beyond the lagoon. Off the ferry, your shade turns the corners
of a book, and stands at the end of perspective, waiting for me.
In this landscape of vines and hills you carried a theme
that travels across your raked stanzas, sweating the grapes
and blurring their provinces: the slow Northern anthem
of fog, the country without borders, clouds whose shapes
change angrily when we begin to associate them
with substantial echoes, holes where eternity gapes
in a small blue door. All solid things await them,
the tree into kindling, the kindling to hearth-smoke,
the dove in the echo of its flight, the rhyme its echo,
the horizon’s hyphen that fades, the twigs’ handiwork
on a blank page and what smothers their cyrillics; snow,
the white field that a raven crosses with its black caw,
they are a distant geography and not only now,
you were always in them, the fog whose pliant paw
obscures the globe; you were always happier
with the cold and uncertain edges, not blinding sunlight
on water, in this ferry sidling up to the pier
when a traveller puts out the last spark of a cigarette
under his heel, and whose loved face will disappear
into a coin that the fog’s fingers rub together.
The foam out on the sparkling strait muttering Montale
in grey salt, a slate sea, and beyond it flecked lilac
and indigo hills, then the sight of cactus in Italy
and palms, names glittering on the edge of the Adriatic.
Your echo comes between the rocks, chuckling in fissures
when the exploding surf subsides, and these lines are a net
for racing sprats, or a catch of rainbow fishes,
the scarlet snapper, the parrot fish, argentine mullet
and the universal rank smell of poetry, cobalt sea
and self-surprised palms at the airport, I smell it,
weeds like hair swaying in water, mica in Sicily,
a smell older and fresher than the Norman cathedrals,
or restored aqueducts, the raw hands of fishermen
their anchor of dialect, and phrases drying on walls
based in moss. These are its origins, verse, they remain
with the repeated lines of waves and their crests, oars
and scansion, flocks and one horizon, boats with keels
wedged into sand, your own island or Quasimodo’s
or Montale’s lines wriggling like a basket of eels,
I am going down to the shallow edge to begin again,
Joseph, with a first line, with an old net, the same expedition,
I will study the opening horizon, the scansion’s strokes of the rain,
to dissolve in a fiction greater than our lives, the sea, the sun.
My colonnade of cedars between whose arches the ocean
drones the pages of its missal, each trunk a letter
embroidered like a breviary with fruits and vines,
down which I continue to hear an echoing architecture
of stanzas with St. Petersburg’s profile, the lines
of an amplified cantor, his tonsured devotion.
Prose is the squire of conduct, poetry the knight
who leans into the flaming dragon with a pen’s lance,
is almost unhorsed like a picador, but tilts straight
in the saddle. Crouched over paper with the same stance,
a cloud in its conduct repeats your hair-thinning shape.
A conduct whose metre and poise were modelled on Wystan’s,
a poetry whose profile was Roman and open, the bust
of a minor Caesar preferring a province of distance
to the roar of arenas, a duty obscured by dust.
I am lifted above the surf’s missal, the columned cedars
to look down on my digit of sorrow, your stone, I have drifted
over books of cemeteries to the Atlantic where shores
shrivel, I am an eagle bearing you towards Russia,
holding in my claws the acorn of your heart that restores
you past the Black Sea of Publius Naso
to the roots of a beech-tree, I am lifted with grief and praise, so
that your speck widens with elation, a dot that soars.
Now evening after evening after evening,
August will rustle from the conifers, an orange light
will seep through the stones of the causeway, shadows
lie parallel as oars across the long hull of asphalt,
the heads of burnished horses shake in parched meadows
and prose hesitates on the verge of metre. The vault
increases, its ceiling crossed by bats or swallows,
the heart climbs lilac hills in the light’s declension,
and grace dims the eyes of a man nearing his own house.
The trees close their doors, and the surf demands attention.
Evening is an engraving, a silhouette’s medallion
darkens loved ones in their profile, like yours
whose poetry transforms reader into poet. The lion
of the headland darkens like St. Mark’s, metaphors
breed and flit in the cave of the mind, and one hears
in the waves’ incantation and the August conifers,
and reads the ornate cyrillics of gesturing fronds
as the silent council of cumuli begins convening
over an Atlantic whose light is as calm as a pond’s
and lamps bud like fruit in the village, above roofs, and the hive
of constellations appears, evening after evening,
your voice, through the dark reeds of lines that shine with life.
August 8, 1996