At the time Joseph Brodsky and I met and walked the streets of Venice until dawn, his passion for the city was still young. The dissident-poet had been expelled from his Russian homeland just six years earlier, in He and I had met only briefly the previous day, so I was surprised when he invited me to take a seat across from him. My face, he said, reminded him of a friend from his native Leningrad—now again called St.
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At the time Joseph Brodsky and I met and walked the streets of Venice until dawn, his passion for the city was still young. The dissident-poet had been expelled from his Russian homeland just six years earlier, in He and I had met only briefly the previous day, so I was surprised when he invited me to take a seat across from him.
My face, he said, reminded him of a friend from his native Leningrad—now again called St. Petersburg—a violinist whose name meant nothing to me. His face looks very much like yours. I miss him. Discover Venice anew, from its rich history and many cultural quirks to its delightful, present-day customs and excursions. There was no hunger this night. We ate mounds of pasta, washed down with red wine.
Brodsky eventually signaled to the waiter and paid for his meal in cash. He got up and asked me in English if I wanted to join him fora stroll. He resumed talking as soon as we stepped outside, in a language both poetic and abstruse, sometimes speaking in Russian and quickly translating into English.
He did not like to hear them complain, after deploring the oppression and confinement of the Soviet system, that freedom offers too many possibilities, many of them disappointing.
He also noted, somewhat vaguely, that time is the key to all things. Or tamed time. Or fenced it in. Or caged it. We walked through the sleeping town, rarely seeing another passerby. Brodsky was in a good mood except when we passed a church closed down for the night.
Then he grumbled like an alcoholic who could not find a tavern open for business. He declared himself hypnotized by the swirling colors of the marble facades and the stone pavers that imitated water, and he emitted a deep sigh every time we looked down from a bridge. For most of our stroll, the poet—who would be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature—was onstage, delivering monologues. But I had the impression that he was looking for a challenge rather than an endorsement.
Some of his comments sounded like a rough draft for a poem or an essay. And he poured out words as effortlessly as a fish swims. Brodsky paused, searching for an explanation. His comment did not involve sex, he said, before changing the subject. Brodsky was disappointed that he could not visit. That inch—ah, much less!
In , he posed a question to me: What happens to our reflections in the water? Starting in , Brodsky flew to Venice for nearly every one of his year-end breaks from teaching literature at American colleges. He vowed never to visit in summer, preferring instead the frigid dampness of Venice in winter. He defended his right to be himself against those who expected conformity and were often hostile to outsiders. Brodsky rejected suggestions that he be buried back home in Russia.
And yet, at the time of his death by heart attack in , he had left no clear instructions about exactly where he should be interred. Again he would be an outsider: As a Jew, Brodsky could not join his compatriots in the Eastern Orthodox section of the cemetery.
But a place in the Protestant section was secured. Several dozen people showed up for the ceremony. An alternate burial spot a little farther from Pound was found. Among the many flowers arriving from friends and admirers was a giant, horseshoe-shaped wreath of yellow roses from President Boris Yeltsin.
I often recall how in we waited for the dawn to make its entrance. The light ricocheted between the waves and the immaculate symmetries of pink marble commissioned by the doges long ago. The poet raised his arms high and bowed, wordlessly saluting the city he had conquered. Equal parts extended autobiographical essay and prose poem, Brodsky's book turns his eye to the seductive and enigmatic city of Venice. Forty-eight chapters recall a specific episode from one of his many visits there.
Anyhow, I would never come here in summer, not even at gunpoint. I take heat very poorly; the unmitigated emissions of hydrocarbons and armpits still worse. I guess I am one of those who prefer choice to flux, and stone is always a choice. Clothes are perhaps our only approximation of the choice made by marble.
This is, I suppose, an extreme view, but I am a Northerner. In the abstract season life seems more real than at any other, even in the Adriatic, because in winter everything is harder, more stark. Or else take this as propaganda for Venetian boutiques, which do extremely brisk business in low temperatures.
Yet no traveler comes here without a spare sweater, jacket, skirt, shirt, slacks, or blouse, since Venice is the sort of city where both the stranger and the native know in advance that one will be on display. No, bipeds go ape about shopping and dressing up in Venice for reasons not exactly practical; they do so because the city, as it were, challenges them. We all harbor all sorts of misgivings about the flaws in our appearance, anatomy, about the imperfection of our very features.
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Mah Jong Quest. Subscribe Top Menu Current Issue. This article is a selection from our Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Venice Issue Discover Venice anew, from its rich history and many cultural quirks to its delightful, present-day customs and excursions. Watermark Equal parts extended autobiographical essay and prose poem, Brodsky's book turns his eye to the seductive and enigmatic city of Venice.
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I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is. In any case, I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it. Hence my sentiment for water, for its folds, wrinkles, and ripples, and — as I am a Northerner — for its grayness. I am not looking for a naked maiden riding on a shell; I am looking for either a cloud or the crest of a wave hitting the shore at midnight. That, to me, is time coming out of water, and I stare at the lace-like pattern it puts on the shore, not with a gypsy-like knowing, but with tenderness and with gratitude.
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Watermark: An Essay on Venice by Joseph Brodsky – review