I have had to suffer many a Commencement Address, I don't know in what state of mind you hear them but torpor is, usually, my default setting. Presumably bushy-tailed expectation should be the ideal. Either way, the students at Williams College in 1984 may have been a little discomfited by Joseph Brodsky's opening words:
"No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what's known as Evil."
Well, I would have sat up sharply at that point; and would certainly have still been awake by the end, when he is arguing for a very careful reading indeed of the biblical exhortation to turn the other cheek:
"In post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation's resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face."
His evocations of life in Soviet Russia should be compulsory reading. He evokes not so much horrors as the quotidian, grinding strictures and what it's like when it gets to -25 degrees in St. Petersburg, and the glass is still dropping.
Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born in St. Petersburg on May 24, 1940 he was arrested in 1964 and charged with the crime of "social parasitism".
Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who listed you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who listed me in the ranks of humanity?
Judge: Did you study this?
Judge: To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it . . . comes from God.
For his “crimes,” Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile with obligation for physical work; he served 18 months in the Archangelsk region. His sentence was commuted in 1965. Brodsky emigrated to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union.
“A language is a more ancient and inevitable thing than any state.”
In 1987, Joseph Brodsky was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.” After I read Watermark I thought this a fitting description.
It was the brilliant first sentence of Watermark that enticed me in…
“Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two…
The book is only one hundred thirty pages, comprised of forty-eight chapters, each recalling a specific episode from Joseph Brodsky’s many visits to this ephemeral city. But what this book lacked in length, it more than made up for in poignancy and enchantment.
“Every traveler knows this fix: this mixture of fatigue and apprehension. It’s the time of staring down clock faces and timetables, of scrutinizing varicose marble under your feet, of inhaling ammonia and that dull smell elicited on cold winter nights by locomotives’ cast iron. I did all this…
…I felt I’d stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air… The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters away. It was very quiet. A few dimly lit boats now and then prowled about, disturbing with their propellers the reflection of a large neon Cinzano trying to settle on the black oilcloth of the water’s surface. Long before it succeeded, the silence would be restored.”
It is a beautiful, confessional meditation on the relation between water and land, between light and dark, between past and present, between the living and the inanimate, dreams and achievements.
“It all felt like arriving in the provinces, in some unknown, insignificant spot—possibly one’s own birthplace—after years of absence. In no small degree did this sensation owe to my own anonymity, to the incongruity of a lone figure on the steps of the stazione: an easy target for oblivion…
…The winter light in this city! It has the extraordinary property of enhancing your eye’s power of resolution to the point of microscopic precision—the pupil, especially when it is of the gray or mustard-and-honey variety, humbles any Hasselblad lens and develops your subsequent memories to a National Geographic sharpness.”
I liked this paragraph about finding an interest in someone based on their reading tastes-
“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence. After all, we were a bookish crowd, and at a certain age, if you believe in literature, you think everyone shares or should share your conviction and taste.”
Joseph Brodsky died in New York City on January 28, 1996. For Brodsky, as Watermark attests, Venice was where his heart was forged, and where Brodsky’s spirit endures: he was buried at Isola di San Michele cemetery in Venice.
“Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language”