Sunday, 26 May 2013

Venice inscribed (ii): Joseph Brodsky

Venice: the cemetery island church of San Michele, seen from Murano
Where else in the world, except in Venice, will you find two of the most controversial poets of the twentieth century, the first from America and the other from Russia, buried almost alongside each other? Here’s Ezra Pound, captured in 1945, extradited to America under threat of execution, then interned for twelve years in a mental institution; and there’s Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize-winner, exiled to Siberia and then effectively expelled from the Soviet Union.

The Protestant cemetery on the isola di San Michele is enclosed behind a high wall and quite different in character from every other part of this island where for centuries Venetians have buried their dead. Anne Stevenson describes the approach to it in her poem ‘At the Grave of Ezra Pound’:

We passed through the aisle of bambini,
(White stones with coloured photographs,
Flowers in tender urns,
The pebbles washed, the graves shut and tidy)

And found the poet from Crawfordsville
In a dank, shady plot,
EZRA POUND, drilled into lichened rock.

I’ve been visiting Venice regularly since 1998, though my first visit was in 1972. That was the year Ezra Pound died. I’d had an invitation to meet Pound earlier that year; but, shortly before I was due to go, Olga Rudge (his long-time, long-suffering partner and protector) wrote to say he was too ill to see me. Olga was a musician and his muse. His Cantos end with a fragment acknowledging his admiration for, and his debt to, her:

Her name was Courage
& is written Olga

 She outlived the poet by many years – dying in 1996 at the age of 100 - and now lies beside him.

There have been several accounts of Olga’s last years in Venice. John Berendt, in The City of Falling Angels, portrays her as a latter-day Miss Bordereau, the ancient lady in The Aspern Papers who guards the manuscripts of her long-dead lover with obsessive devotion. Berendt updates Henry James’ novella, presenting Miss Rudge as a frail and confused old woman, duped by a scheming American couple into surrendering Pound’s papers which then find their way, dubiously, to Yale.

The grave of Joseph Brodsky
Brodsky, in his Venice essay, Watermarks (1992), admits to mixed feelings about Pound:  as a young man, he says, ‘I had translated quite a bit of him into Russian … I had also liked his “make it new” dictum’ (p, 69). But the Cantos had left Brodsky cold, and as for Pound’s twelve-year incarceration in a mental institution in New York,  ‘in Russian eyes, that was nothing to rave about’. (p.70). So, when Susan Sontag asked him to come with her to meet Olga Rudge, Brodsky agreed, but had no great expectations:

We rang the bell, and the first thing I saw after the little woman with the beady eyes took shape on the threshold was the poet’s bust by Gaudier-Brzeska sitting on the floor of the drawing room. The grip of boredom was sudden but sure. (p.71)

Determined not to enjoy himself, Brodsky likens hearing Olga’s defence of Ezra against the inevitable charges of Fascism and anti-semitism to listening to an old record getting stuck. This ‘diminutive, shipshape lady’, as he describes her, ‘lifted her sharp finger, which slid into an invisible mental groove, and out of her pursed lips came an aria the score of which has been in the public domain at least since 1945 … A record, I thought; her master’s voice.’

The grave of Ezra Pound
As I have explained, I never got to meet Pound, and therefore never met Olga either; but I have tended their grave every time I have visited Venice more times than Brodsky and I think his depiction of Olga here is heartless. Today, Brodsky’s own grave is barely a lizard’s slither away from hers and Ezra’s.

Less heartless, perhaps (but only perhaps), is his account of seeing Auden and friends, one foggy evening, in Florian’s, the cafĂ© in the Piazza San Marco:

On the red plush divans, around a small marbled table with a kremlin of drinks and teapots on it, sat Wystan Auden, with his great love, Chester Kallman, Cecil Day Lewis and his wife, Stephen Spender and his. Wystan was telling some funny story and everybody was laughing. In the middle of the story, a well-built sailor passed by the window; Chester got up, and without so much as a “See you later,” went in hot pursuit. “I looked at Wystan,” Stephen told me years later. “He kept laughing, but a tear ran down his cheek.” (p.133)

Is this Brodsky’s story or Spender’s? This episode actually belongs to the 1950s, and Brodsky himself did not visit Venice until 1972. He never saw the scene he evokes so vividly: I love ‘a Kremlin of drinks’, and the tables in Florian’s are exactly as he says they are. But what he ‘sees’ through the fog and the window is not Auden the cuckold, only Auden’s ghost.

‘Seeing’, however, is what Brodsky does best. ‘One’s eye precedes one’s pen,’ he writes, and his eye and his pen are equally sharp. ‘On the map this city looks like two grilled fish sharing a plate,’ (p.45) he notes, later remarking how the sun ‘sashays over the countless fish scales of the laguna’s lapping ripples’ (p.78). He’s quite right about the fish scales: that’s how Canaletto paints the movement of water. Brodsky sees the city as an eerie orchestra: boats and music, buildings and fish merge, ebb and flow into each other: the gondolas have ‘violin necks’; beneath an ‘octopal chandelier’, a grand piano has ‘a lacquered fin’:

In fact the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. (p.97)

Brodsky’s visits were always in winter. I think, indeed, that the perfect definition of Venice comes in his answer to someone’s question, ‘What is it like there in winter?’ ‘Well,’ he replies, after trying to find the best way to pinpoint the aloof beauty of the city surrounded by sea, ‘it’s like Greta Garbo swimming.’ (p.101).

After reading that, I can forgive Brodsky much.

Adrian Barlow

Books cited:
John Berendt, The City of Falling Angels (2005)
Joseph Brodsky, Watermark, an essay on Venice (1992)
Ezra Pound, The Cantos (new ed. 1999)
Anne Stevenson, Poems 1955-1955 (1995)

Read my previous 'Venice Inscribed' post:

Photographs © the author

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