From Russia With Love


New York: Home

AS HE AGED - and in his last years he aged very fast, as if trying to catch up with or even overtake his own end - a kind of world- weariness (mellowness?) seemed to be replacing the earlier acerbity. Even so, the world was still a wonderful place. Joseph's creativity did not desert him.

Talking of wonderful places, what of Joseph and New York City? This was his home for most of his time in the West, even though from 1981 he taught in the spring at Mount Holyoke College and rented a home in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He was also in the habit of spending Christmas in Venice. The Joseph I knew, however, was the New York Joseph, even though I met him first in London and, at least in the seventies, often saw him there, and even though my first visit to him in America was to Ann Arbor, Michigan when he was poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. I visited him only once in Emily Dickinson country.

New York became his home and he was at home in New York. Or that's how it seemed. The City lets (or encourages?) you to be whatever you are, meaning that, wherever you hail from, it is not really possible to continue being a stranger or foreigner there. Everyone is both outsider and insider. To live in New York is to become a native New Yorker. If Joseph was going to fit anywhere, it was in New York.

But there is something else. The scale of the city, even if it is now matched by other urban conglomerations, still frees one from the need to measure up to one's environment. It is impossible to measure up to New York. Actually, its scale is still unique.

Perhaps it is the only truly twentieth-century city, which would also means that, among cities, it is the one and only true child of the nineteenth-century. What will it be in the twenty-first century? Joseph did not expect to live into the next century anyway, and perhaps in a way didn't want to. The world is, or appears to be changing radically, while he had sweated blood surviving in it as was. After all, even so brave and virtuoso an improvisers as Joseph has his limits. The price of further change might simply have been too great.

For instance, Russia. There was no longer any impediment to his returning. On the contrary, he would have received a hero's welcome. But he was a world citizen, or rather he was a New Yorker. A hero's welcome might have disturbed the equilibrium he had achieved, at who knows what cost. And besides, as he was fond of saying, being outside was the best situation for the artist. Being a New Yorker allowed him to be outside and at the same time to enjoy the horny comforts it offered.

Perhaps he could have slipped into Russia unannounced, as the fiction writer Tatyana Tolstaya suggests, in a novelistically transcribed interview:

"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?" [. . .] Here I was talking, joking, and suddenly I noticed that he wasn't laughing [. .. ] 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 ... "

Wonderful, but too late. After all, one of Joseph's great achievements, as George Kline has pointed out, had been to throw himself into the language and literature of his adopted country. He rejected the path of nostalgia, regret, self-pity,lamentation, the fatal choice (if one can call it that) of so many émigré writers, especially poets. And what now, when he was no longer technically an involuntary exile? He had refused to complain about it, just as he refused to complain about his treatment in Russia, or his lack of a formal education. On the contrary, he had valued exile to the arctic region as liberating. And the education in question was a Soviet one, though when he said that the "earlier you get off track the better", he may not have been referring exclusively to the Soviet system.

Furthermore, his own generation, as he acknowledged, was what mattered to him. He kept up, to a remarkable extent, with what was being written by his younger contemporaries, but his real sympathies were with those of his own generation. Although, with the unanticipated collapse or abdication of the Soviet imperial power, he came to see many of his friends again, he had both intellectually and emotionally bade them" farewell" (proshchaite), not "good-bye" (do svidanie, "see you again "). In a sense, the reunions must have been posthumous affairs. So, when he was shown photos, taken shortly before his departure from the Soviet Union, he suddenly became serious, solemn, grim: "One's affinity is for the generation to which one belongs ... Theirs is the tragedy ... " Not of those who emigrated or, like himself, were given little choice other than to leave. And as for himself, well, he had exchanged oppression for freedom and all kinds of material advantage. He had no patience with talk of exile. Perhaps the dissolution of the Soviet State, its transformation, rather than opening the way for his return, simply confirmed his Americanness ...

Or rather, his New- Yorkerness. New York, as he put it, "reduces you to a size". It is a gigantic impediment to gigantism. And yet, at the same time, it is human. The scale of its monumentality is human. It was also a "Mondrian city". Who, familiar or besotted with New York, does not know what he meant by that? The perpendicularity and horizontality; windows, facades, facets ...

Anyway, it was his city; that is, he made it his. And he was right about it. In this place, you were not greater than yourself; you were "reduced to a size" (curious that use of the indefinite article), the right size, your own human size. It's not true that you were dwarfed by those canyons; they are clearly the product of human labour, an index to human industry. And strangely heartening, too, even now, nearly a century on ...

But now I am waxing sentimental. Thinking about the city now, at age sixty-one, it seems to me not a bad place to die in. I remember being told by Ted Hughes, ten or twenty years ago already, that we had reached the age when the Indian princes abandoned their worldly concerns and retired to the forests. Perhaps New York is the equivalent for urban man? As if one’s death there would be less unbearably personal, with that crush of people which somehow leaves you uncrushed, so you feel, even in your isolation, part of a far greater organism, an organism in that it doesn't (quite) self-destruct. There's one positive effect being "reduced to a size". Joseph, having been deprived of what, as a Jew, he possibly never quite possessed, Russia, having "quit the country that bore and nursed him" and having been forgot - ten by so many - first you have to be known by so many -, having suffered catastrophic loss, however much he insisted that he had left the worse for the better, was now threatened with the early loss of his life. Under these circumstances, New York, perhaps, fitted the bill.

I am waiting for Joseph in Washington Square. It looked like rain before, but it hasn't rained yet. I am watching the skateboarders, the jugglers, the children, the clochards, the mothers, the gangs of youths. Nobody pays any attention to me, and I suddenly feel blissfully unselfconscious. Joseph arrives late. He shuffles over, grinning wryly. He seems in no hurry and doesn't apologize. There is a stillness about him. Suddenly I feel, by contrast, tense, anxious.

We stroll into the Village, towards one of his favourite restaurants. And now it is raining or drizzling. He has to call Maria. He uses a street phone. At the same time, he conveys to me that nothing has changed ...


On Joseph Brodsky

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 millennium'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 Bosphorus, 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 ... 1 thought it was God."
All right then. Prison, exile.

Neither country nor churchyard will I choose
I'll return to Vasilevsky Island to die,

he promised in a youthful poem.

In the dark I won't find your deep blue facade
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 1 got back to Moscow 1 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 onto the stage. I felt like a complete idiot. Yes, I had seen 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 an-other 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 a Skidmore, he arrived exhausted from the three-hour drive, white as sheet-in a kind of condition that makes you want to call 9II. 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 reckoning 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 good-bye, 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 United States 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 [he 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 `
émigré’s double fate.

And two girls-sisters from unlived 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 a lot of fanfare, no white horses and excited crowds, why 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, 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 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 wasn't laughing-there was a sort of childlike expression helplessness on his face, a strange sort of dreaminess. His seemed to be looking through objects, through the edge 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 dispell 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."


Tatyana Tolstaya 


Reading in Iowa City, Iowa

SOME YEARS ago, Joseph came to Iowa City, the University of Iowa where I directed the Translation Workshop, to give a reading; I was to read the English translation. At the end, he was asked a number of (mostly loaded) questions, including one (alluded to earlier) about Solzhenitsyn. "And the legend which had been built around him?" His answer managed to be both artfully diplomatic and truthful: "Well, let's put it this way. I'm awfully proud that I'm writing in the same language as he does." (Note, again, how he expresses this sentiment in terms of language.) He continued, in his eccentrically pedagogical manner, forceful, even acerbic, but at the same time disarming, without any personal animus: "As for legend ... you shouldn't worry or care about legend, you should read the work. And what kind of legend? He has his biography ... and he has his words. "For Joseph a writer's words were his biography, literally!

    On another visit to Iowa, in 1987, Joseph flew in at around noon and at once asked me what I was doing that day. I told him that I was scheduled to talk to an obligatory comparative literature class about translation. "Let's do it together", he said. Consequently I entered the classroom, with its small contingent of graduate students, accompanied by that year's Nobel Laureate.

    Joseph indicated that he would just listen, but soon he was engaging me in a dialogue, except it was more monologue than dialogue. Finally, he was directly answering questions put to him by the energized students. I wish I could remember what was said, but, alas, even the gist of it escapes me now. I did not debate with him, even though our views on the translation of verse form differed radically. Instead, I believe that I nudged him a little, trying - not very sincerely or hopefully, though perhaps in a spirit of hospitality and camaraderie - to find common ground. After the class, I walked back with him to his hotel, as he said he wanted to rest before the reading. On the way, the conversation, at my instigation, turned to Zbigniew Herbert, the Polish poet so greatly admired by Milosz and, I presumed, by Brodsky, and indeed translated by the former into English and by the latter into Russian. Arguably, Herbert was the preeminent European poet of his remarkable generation. He was living in Paris and apparently was not in good health. "Why hasn't Zbigniew been awarded the Nobel Prize? Can't something be done about it", I blurted out - recklessly, tactlessly, presumptuously. The subtext was: Surely you, Joseph Brodsky, could use your influence, etc. Joseph came to a standstill: "Of course, he should have it. But nobody knows how that happens. It's a kind of accident." He locked eyes with me. "You're looking at an accident right now!" This was not false modesty on his part, but doubtless he was being more than a little disingenuous. Nevertheless, I believe that, at a certain level, he did think of his laureateship as a kind of accident. Paradoxically, while he aimed as high as may be, he was not in the business of rivalling or challenging the great. They remained, in a sense, beyond him, this perception of destiny and of a hierarchy surely being among his saving graces.

    In a far deeper sense, though, they were not in the least beyond him, nor was he uncompetitive, but it did not (nor could it) suit his public or even private persona to display this.

     Brodsky certainly considered himself to be - and it is increasingly clear that he was - in the grand line that included Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetayeva. Even I sensed this, despite my ambivalence about his poetry. Indeed, the continuity embodied in his work accounts, in part, for my uncertainty: I have tended to rebel against grand traditions. But perhaps this is to exaggerate. At times I hear the music, at other times the man, even if, as a rule, I do not hear them both together ... But take, for instance, this (the last three stanzas of "Nature Morte" in George Kline's splendid version in the Penguin Selected Poems):    

Mary now speaks to Christ:
"Are you my son? - or God?
You are nailed to the cross.
Where lies my homeward road?

How can I close my eyes,
uncertain and afraid?
Are you dead? - or alive?
Are you my son? - or God?

Christ speaks to her in turn:
"Whether dead or alive,
Woman, it's all the same-
son or God, I am thine."

It is true that, as I listen to or read the English, I hear the Russian too, in Joseph's rendition. I even see Joseph, his hands straining the pockets of his jacket, his jaw jutting, as though his eye had just been caught by something and he were staring at it, scrutinizing it, while continuing to mouth the poem, almost absent- mindedly, that is, while the poem continues to be mouthed by him. His voice rises symphonically: Syn ili Bog (Son or God), "God" already (oddly?) on the turn towards an abrupt descent; and then the pause and a resonant drop, a full octave: Ya tvoi (I am thine). And the poet, with an almost embarrassed or reluctant nod, and a quick, pained smile, departs his poem.

Daniel Weissbort: From Russia With Love


Two Jews

Sunday, 21 April, 1996

AN INVOLUNTARY exile, Joseph was a kosmopolit, more avid for world culture than he was curious about Christianity. The Jew- as-writer, it seems to me, is committed to language as such, to the living language. He does not write for the future, even if his writing is "ahead of its time". Nor does he write out of reverence for the past: past and future can take care of themselves. Joseph, of course, was engaged in something else as well, making the two languages more equal, adding, subtracting, but above all mixing. Even before he became a wanderer, Joseph was a transgressor. As a translator, in the wider sense, he crossed and recrossed frontiers. "All poets are Yids", said Tsvetayeva.
     Joseph dispensed with the supposed privileges of victimhood. Jewishness, inescapably identified with persecution, was not likely to appeal to him. He made light of exile, stressing the gains both material and spiritual or intellectual, minimizing the losses. He was clearly scornful of those intellectuals who gathered periodically to discuss such issues, insisting that while the delegates talked, under the auspices of this or that foundation, others were suffering on a scale and to a degree that rendered their complaints laughable, even contemptible. He was not a whiner, and he was quite intolerant of the pervasive "culture of complaint". Naturally, this did nothing for his popularity among fellow exiles. In short, if he made a career, he did not actively make it out of the sufferings he had endured as a Jew or as the victim of a regime that still had totalitarian aspirations.

There are some similarities between us. He left a son and two daughters (one of them born the year of his departure, whom he never saw); I left a son and two daughters. The pain of those separations virtually defined my existence.
    Was he family, as Jill maintained? In that mysterious and at the same time artless way that family is family, perhaps. Which somehow distanced me also from his circle of literary friends and acquaintances, the poets, the publishers, the colleagues, even if, as an occasional translator of his work, I too had professional dealings with him.
    But did Joseph feel that way about me? At the very least, he was ambivalent about my work as a translator, and yet he stuck by me, as in a way I stuck by him as a poet, although I was ambivalent about his poetry. Joseph's views, in particular his insistence on the primacy of form, made him less than tolerant of what he regarded as slapdash practice, associating this with cultural ignorance, irresponsibility, or worse; it is hardly an exaggeration to say that for him, "crimes" against language were almost tantamount to crimes against humanity. And yet, it seems, he forgave me my crimes or sins; surprisingly tolerant, even tender, he held out the prospect of redemption and tried to lead me onto the paths of righteousness! He did not remain neutral, as he might have done, but urged me to continue translating his work, although of course under guidance.
    I resisted. That is, in order to preserve rhymes, I was not prepared deliberately to sacrifice literal accuracy. I railed at Joseph, trying to convince him that, in any case, as a non-native speaker, he could not possibly hear my off-rhymes, my assonances, and that it was perverse of him to insist on strict formal imitation, when this must lead to distortions, preposterous rhyming and, finally, despite all his efforts, major alterations in sense, tone, etc. It infuriated and frustrated me that he refused to be moved by these arguments, which seemed incontrovertible. He would not acknowledge his indebtedness to his anglophone translators, nor honor their sensibility as native speakers. Surely he must realize that you could translate only into your native tongue, especially when it came to poetry. He should chose his translators with care, and be ready to provide them with contextual and linguistic information, but he should not second-guess them or try to manipulate them. On the contrary, he should be guided by them. They, after all, were responsible for the final version. The translation was not - could not be - identical with the original, just as English did not mesh perfectly with the Russian, however much translators of Russian might wish it did. The translation was a derivative text, but it also represented the poem's further life, or one of its several possible further lives. But for it to live in another language it had also to be another poem; in the final analysis, whether he liked it or not, it had also to be the translator's poem.
    Joseph would not be budged. He heard me out, evidently unimpressed by what I had to say, merely repeating from time to time that English was richer in rhyme than was supposed. That is, he seemed stubborn or, one might say, pig-headed, except I could not help feeling a certain compassion for him in this predicament. On the other hand, it was also as if he were just waiting for me to come around, convinced that eventually I must. Under the circumstances, it surprised me that he continued to encourage my forays into Russian poetry, as translator and editor. We could hardly have been more at odds, and yet he behaved (and I behaved) as though this were not so. In a way, it wasn't.
    Complain as I may (and as I did) I would not have wanted to be other than a stranger in America where a different English was spoken, and before that to have been an Englishman who, with his immigrant family, was not echt English. I was, or thought of myself as being, between languages. This made me acutely aware of the provisionally of language, which was a kind of advantage. Language was distinct, apart. For that reason (paradoxically?) its dimensions too were more acutely sensed. This sometimes had the effect of reducing or more sharply focusing existence itself.
    Joseph spoke of language as directing consciousness. For instance: "Reading him [Dostoevsky] simply makes one realize that stream of consciousness springs not from consciousness but from a word which alters or redirects one's consciousness" ("The Power of the Elements", Less Than One), or: "A poet's biography is in his vowels and sibilants, in his meters, rhymes and metaphors [ ... ]. With poets, the choice of words is invariably more telling than the story line; that's why the best of them dread the thought of their biographies being written" ("The Sound of the Tide", Less Than One). (That "the best of them" is rather desperate.) So, presumably, he would have taken a dim view of what I have been saying here. Still, I am not inclined to ignore what he would certainly have regarded as irrelevantly biographical. Languages as something out there, in that one finds oneself between them, is quite a seductive notion. Joseph, though, combined this alienating or hyper-linguistic awareness, a form of self-consciousness really, with a genial determination to know his language(s) literally inside out. A Jew, he was also quite adamant about being a Russian, at least insofar as the Russian language belonged to him and he to it (" From Russian with Love"). I envied him and was a little suspicious of this devotion to the Russian language, if not to Mother Russia, since I did not really feel that way about English. As a Jew, Joseph was able to objectify his apartness from the language. It was this, I dare say, that allowed him to be so entirely devoted to it. One might almost call it romantic love, in that the beloved was unattainable.


The Self Projected


ON THE OTHER hand, when Joseph left Russia, when he read for the first time in the West, at that poetry festival in London, he may well have been quite surprised at the enthusiasm of the audience. It is conceivable, even likely, that he had no inkling of what to expect. Of course, though still young, he was not new to the game. He had been translated, had become the object of what were in effect cultural pilgrimages, had been pilloried by the state, was close to the last of the great ones, Akhmatova. And then there were his readings in Russia (remember Etkind's description, cited above). I suppose he was already a cult figure, whatever that may mean, or well on his way to becoming one. So he was surely aware of the hallucinatory effect of his performances. Even so, there was no telling whether this would turn out to be exportable. Traumatized as Joseph evidently was, that first reading at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at once set him on the path. He gave reading after reading. He did not let the sound fade, or himself go out of fashion, be lost sight of. He kept himself, the sound of himself, current. In one respect, this can be seen as a triumph of the will to survive, though he may also have needed constant exposure of this sort to compensate for the loss of a native audience. And in any case, as we have seen, he regarded it as his particular mission - though he might have balked at putting it so grandly - to bring Russian to English. And beyond that, of course, was the larger mission, on behalf of Poetry itself. And there must have been a price to pay, that of privacy, of the seclusion most artists need. Still, he also had the invaluable knack of being just himself. And periodically, as at Christmas when he went to Venice, he became a "nobody in a raincoat".
    Or do I exaggerate? Was he, in fact, misled? Did he misunderstand the interest his person or presence aroused? Perhaps it was more a matter of curiosity. He had become a sort of institution, America's Poet-in-Exile. And as for his odd English, well, away with it, who cared really. It had seemed to me, from the start, that Joseph was a great improviser. He had not quite anticipated the reception he received, but he adjusted readily enough to it. And as for his style of reading, well, as noted, he claimed it was simply the way poetry was read in Russia. But even his disingenuousness worked to his advantage. So, perhaps it was all a kind of improvisation. He relied on the challenge of live situations, on his wit and his wits, on language itself. Joseph had faith. He adopted a casual manner, even though the delivery of the poetry was quite the opposite to casual. He resisted being turned into a monu
ment, an institution, although he himself raised monuments to those he regarded as his mentors: Tsvetayeva, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Frost, Auden.

Joseph had no training as a teacher. And not only did he not possess a so-called further degree, he had no degree at all. Nevertheless, in '74 or '75, having been invited to teach a poetry course at Iowa, I visited him in Amherst, seeking his advice. The very idea of teaching, for which I too had no training, petrified me. I simply could not visualize myself in front of a class, for three or four months. How did I get myself into this!
    We met for dinner, in the home of a mutual friend, Stavros Deligiorgis, who had been directing the Translation Workshop in Iowa, but was at this time a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts. I remember next to nothing of the evening and nothing of Emily Dickinson's home town; when I went there, a few years later, to give a talk at Amherst College, it might as well have been for the first time. But what does remain is Joseph's attempt to fill me with confidence. It went something like this: "There's nothing to worry about! As a European, you already have a huge advantage: you know things, this comes with the territory after all. So, all you have to do is talk. Anything you say will be news to them!" This advice turned out to be well founded. Plus my own realization that validating students is the key to "teaching". Though he validated me, Joseph apparently was not always so gentle with his students. Indeed, I am told that he was often quite scornful or sarcastic. However, he usually got maybe because he wasn't mean, though probably not everybody would agree with this.

It distresses me that I cannot remember his actual words. Joseph remembered his poems. Did he, like an actor, deliberately memorize them for readings, or were they already in his memory, retrievable at any time? I think the latter. They were there, together with many other poems, by other poets, Russian and English; Mark Strand recalls how at their first meeting Joseph recited a poem of his (Strand's) which Strand himself had forgotten. He remembered poems as sound, metrically, accenting the English ones in a Russian manner. Obviously, there is a difference between remembering verse and remembering spoken words, but I am still upset by my own very poor memory. Generally what I have at my disposal is an imperfect or approximate translation. And not just imperfect, incomplete, but often incorrect as well: in faulty English, or in a kind of translatorese; or even worse, a kind of pre-English, so that translating myself, as it were, is as frustrating as translating the poetry of others!

To be fair (or fairer) to myself, at least in Amherst, I may also have been embarrassed or uncomfortable with what he was saying. He seemed to be advocating what amounted to a kind of con. Instead of really applying myself, all I had to do was be European. And wasn't it invidious to suggest that young Americans were so ignorant, so impressionable and simple-minded really that we crafty Europeans could easily hold their attention simply by bulls hitting ? I felt it was dishonourable to concur with this - I was a Brit in the US, not a Russian political exile; perhaps he could be excused - but I raised no objections at the time. His assumption that, like him, I must have the wherewithal to instruct and entertain was flattering. And anyway, hadn't I rather invited this complicity by sharing my anxieties with him?

To sum up. From exile to commanding presence, despite his relative youth. Nothing could stop Brodsky. What if he had removed himself, become a recluse, like J. D. Salinger or Henry Roth? This was not an option. He made use of his renommée to do what had not been done before, to translate himself, to make the American "scene" move over for him. And he found friends, supporters, as well as admirers. I do not believe that his poetry alone, however brilliant, created the opening. Something to do with his actual presence, what he projected as a man, his fate or destiny, was responsible, even if he continued to insist that this destiny, Nobel prize and all, was an accident. And his poetry was more than the poems or even the sum of the poems. It represented and still does a kind of conjunction or collision of prosodies.

Joseph's poetry, I had from the start responded to his reading. It occurs to me that, although I might not initially have taken toI may have tried to find reasons not to do so, to resolve this apparent contradiction, to align myself, my responses, with what I thought, or thought I thought. But I failed. Joseph was extremely inventive, but his imagery often seemed contrived, fanciful. The conceits might entertain or impress, but I could not visualize them; they had no sensorial presence for me. At the same time, Joseph seemed to equate rhyme and metre with virtue, with ultimate worth. Incidentally, he also wrote about Mandelstam: "For him, a poem began with a sound, with a sonorous molded shape or form." Of course, many poets
(Housman, Eliot, for instance) have similarly tried to explain what happens when a poem is coming into existence; but somehow I had not thought of Brodsky as being in that company.

 Is Russian Translatable?

WHEN I NOW say that perhaps he was right about translation, do I really mean it? He believed (naively, many thought) that the reason for there being so much free-verse translation of texts that were formal in the original was that translators, for the most part, were not up to the task, not dedicated or skilled enough. As Alan Myers, one of Joseph's earlier translators reminded me, Joseph once claimed, in an interview, that translating poetry was like doing a crossword puzzle. In other words, I suppose that it was a matter of verbal dexterity and patience (read dedication). There is surely more than a little truth in this, at least as regards the neophyte translator. Before he has exhaustively explored all possibilities, his obligations cannot be said to have been fully carried out. Joseph's standards may have been absolute - and translation is not an absolute or scientific business - but even if they seem unreasonable or simplistic, they are at least salutary.
    Well, was he right? And did his own translations into English constitute, as he evidently thought or hoped, a kind of proof of his rightness? For me, the question is now an open one. Possibly the problem lay as much in Joseph's combativeness, which was understandable, given his dependence on translation. Under normal circumstances (i.e. had he not been coerced into leaving his native land), translation surely would have played a less important part in his life and artistic development. He would not have been obliged to stake out territory for himself between languages, a kind of medial marginality.

I didn't know that a new collection of Brodsky's own poetry was due from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Joseph himself having read the proofs shortly before his death. I wonder whether the distinction between poems written in English and poems translated by the author into English will be clear. Increasingly it has not been clear to me, although he still uses the formula: "Translated by the Author". I suspect, though, that having for so long entrusted the translation of his poetry to others, even if under close supervision, he was engaged on a long-term (alas, short term, as it turned out) experiment - that may be putting it too circumspectly - in applying his own ideas about translation, bypassing the often recalcitrant translators. Thus, he was bringing his poems, in translation, syntactically and acoustically (metrically, rhythmically, above all), closer to his own Russian. I wonder if he was, at the same time, bringing his Russian closer to their potential English translation. After all, he had inhabited an English-speaking world for twenty-six of his fifty-five years. Russian was still the mother tongue, but English, given his reverence for its literary tradition and for some of its writers, was far more than just a second language.
    In a review-essay on a new translation of the celebrated elegies on the death of his daughter by the Renaissance Polish poet Jan Kochanowski (New York Review of Books, 15 February, 1996), Czeslaw Milosz, whom Joseph regarded as one of the preeminent poets of our time, re-iterated his belief that Russian poetry was "hardly translatable because of its particular features - strongly rhymed singsong verses among them". He added: "Modern Polish poetry does a little better because, in contrast to Russian, the Polish language benefits from abandoning both meter and rhyme, so that equivalents in English can more easily be found." He also believed, however, that the situation had improved somewhat, as a result of the increasing collaboration between poets in English and poets in the source language. The review in question is of a collaborative translation by Stanislaw Baranczak (Polish poet, essayist and Shakespeare translator, also the translator of Brodsky into Polish) and Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel Laureate.
    While I may have some doubts, in general, about "tandem translations", it would be foolish to argue with Milosz, when he speaks from experience, the experience of co-translating his own poetry with the American poets Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky. I wonder whether Joseph, who quite often collaborated with American poet friends, and who had hoped that Richard Wilbur, certainly a master of formal verse translation, would commit himself to translating more than one or two poems, was convinced of the efficacy of this method. When Wilbur turned out an impeccably crafted version of a Brodsky poem, however flattering this may be, was it Brodsky? No doubt partly due to his being so productive - he could not expect his illustrious poet friends to keep pace or to translate more than the occasional poem - he continued to work with lesser known, more malleable translators; under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that he increasingly resorted to translation of his own poetry, while continuing to consult his poet friends. After George Kline, Joseph never again had his personal translator. He may not have wanted one. The purpose of the operation was to get the poems into English with minimal loss, not to be loyal to translators. Since Joseph took over more and more, it became less important to work through a single translator in order to achieve consistency. Indeed, it was perhaps preferable for him to collaborate with Russianists, who produced, as Alan Myers put it to me, polufabrikaty or half-finished products, working drafts in English for Joseph to revise and complete. When a Walcott had a hand in things, however, it was presumably a matter of bringing an auto-translation into contact (or conflict?) with another's poetic sensibility. Granted, this is a form of collaboration, but I imagine that Milosz, in commending collaborations between poets from the source and target languages, had something different in mind.
         And what of the Polish poet's observation about the quasi-untranslatability of Russian? Milosz is quite matter-of-fact about it, but is he right? "Strong rhymed singsong verses." Joseph maintained that least of all could these be represented by free-verse. I wonder, therefore, how he reacted to Milosz's contention that "the Polish language benefits [my italics] from abandoning both rhyme and meter." As far as I know, he never commented on it. Given his interest both in Milosz and in Polish poetry, it is hard to believe that he never saw the review.
    Nabokov at once springs to mind. Of course, he goes much further. Recently, a Russian graduate student, a philologist by training, consulted me about her proposed thesis, which was an inquiry into the celebrated inadequacy of English translations of Pushkin's masterpiece "Eugene Onegin". I dug out my copy of Nabokov's Partisan Review essay, "Problems of Translation: 'Onegin' in English" - it had been one of the hand-outs I used in a translation-history class, as well as in the translation work- shop - which preceded the publication, in I964, of his four-volume magnum opus on Onegin, which of course includes his own polemically literalistic rendering. "The clumsiest literal translation", Nabokov fulminates, taking issue with the Ciceronian tradition of sense-for-sense as against word-for-word, "is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase ... The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language, has only one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text. The term 'literal translation' is tautological since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation or a parody. " (18).  He seeks to show that this is particularly true of Russian, listing no fewer than six characteristics (to Milosz's one) of Russian language and prosody that cannot be rendered in English: (1) There are far more rhymes, both masculine and feminine, in Russian. "If in Russian and French", he remarks jocularly, "the feminine rhyme (e.g.) is a glamorous lady friend, her English counterpart is either an old maid or a drunken hussy from Limerick." Joseph vigorously rejected such notions. I put it to him once, and he reprimanded me mildly, though had I cited Nabokov - I cannot recall ever doing so - I suspect that he would have been less kind to the latter's shade than he was to me. Brodsky, as we have seen, held that the alleged paucity of full rhymes in English was simply an excuse, a cover-up for inferior skills or workmanship. Rhyming might require greater ingenuity in English, but that precisely was the challenge. He did not accept that the greater ingenuity required would tend to make the rhyme intrusive in English, and that it was  unreasonable to try to modify the impact by using slant-rhymes. But to  continue (2) Russian words, no matter how long have only one stress, whereas poly-syllabic English words often have secondary stresses or two stresses; (3) Russian is considerably more polysyllabic than English; (4) in Russian, all syllables are pronounced, without the elisions and slurs that occur in English verse; (5) inversion of trochaic words, common in English iambics, is rare in Russian verse; (6) as against that, Russian iambic tetrameters contain more modulated lines than regular ones, the reverse being true in English poetry. This, in the latter case, may lead to monotony, not unknown for instance with such a poet as Byron. Nabokov concludes that, "shorn of its primary verbal existence, the original text will not be able to soar and to sing; but it can be very nicely dissected and mounted, and scientifically studied in all its organic details." By which he meant that "the absolutely literal sense, with no emasculation and no padding" could be conveyed, with the help of exhaustive commentary. He does grant that, "in regard to mere meter", the characteristic English iambic is perfectly able to accommodate the Russian without loss of literal accuracy. Nabokov's recommendations are cogent. And after all, he is not some hack, but unquestionably a master (even if, actually, a minor poet) of the Russian language, as well as of the (or of his) English ...





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