‘A Blinding Proximity’:
A Personal Portrait of Joseph Brodsky
Time travels at different speeds for different people. I can tell you who time strolls for, who it trots for, who it gallops for, and who it stops cold for.
— William Shakespeare, As You Like It
In the past those whom you love don’t ever die.
— Joseph Brodsky
Paragraph One follows — 1:
In 1996 my former poetry teacher at Columbia University, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, passed away in New York City at the age of 55. I was already living in Japan then. My father had passed away a year earlier. My mother would pass away a year later. It was a grim time.
I make no claim to a special relation with ‘Joseph’ — as he was known to many people. I was one of perhaps hundreds of his students, and he touched my life as he had countless others. In my then young days I had never met anyone like him. I was merely a student of his in the early nineteen-eighties, before his Nobel, before his later heart surgeries, before his early death. I make no claims in what follows, except to reclaim lost moments, or moments that have come filtered through dreams. His was a singular presence in my life for a short time, as teacher, poet, role model, mentor, like the proverbial two ships—I but a rowboat, he a battleship–passing in the proverbial night. But whenever fate drew our vessels near to each other and I wasn’t swamped by the sheer magnitude of his energy, there were encounters left in his wake, unforgettable moments for this writer, the lasting impact of which here I would sketch, as a small offering by way of reminiscences, quotations, and poems in honor of the poet.
Our paths crossed one winter afternoon
At a sunny piazza in Rome, a public square
I was circling to meet my fate, the table
You were sitting at with another poet I
Sat down briefly to, to hear you telling
Off-color jokes that caught this
Americano off guard, a side of you I’d not
Seen before… I left the piazza bouncing in
Confusion, only to meet you again a week
Later on the New York-bound plane,
Another nudge of fate, as we conversed
Between the aisles about, of course, poetry.
The blond waiting expectantly for you
At JFK terminal was, I found out later,
Your future wife and mother of your
Daughter, soon to be fatherless, like so
Many are, though father I would become
In my next life, the one fate pushed me
Towards, as through double doors, to
Where the streets — now without you
In this dream I’m circling back on —
Have no names, where we carry each other.
Few poets have played as central a role in the lives of so many as the Russian-American laureate Joseph Brodsky. Born in Leningrad, Russia in 1940, he was exiled by the Soviet government in 1972 and moved to the U.S., where he would transform himself over the next 24 years into one of Russia’s leading poets of the twentieth century, but also into a great English prose stylist in his own right, as well as an influential teacher.
Friend to many poets and writers of his generation, including Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Susan Sontag, Mark Strand and Les Murray, he excelled as a moral as well as a creative force in his adopted homeland. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, married Maria, a Russian, in 1990, and had a daughter. He died in 1996 at the age of 55.
In his remarkable life Joseph achieved a stardom rare in the literary world, which he won at considerable cost but with considerable accomplishment. He touched the lives of his countless students and fellow poets and readers of poetry everywhere. One could say he had a similar presence and notoriety on the literary scene in late twentieth century America as Welsh bard Dylan Thomas had in the first half of the twentieth century.
Indisputably he was for me one of the greatest human beings who wrote poetry that I had the good fortune to briefly know. In Joseph’s gravitational orbit, his charisma was extravagant, filled with a generosity of soul unmatched in my experience, a mental universe abundant with a life-force and whose, to borrow his phrase, ‘plane of regard’ in proximity to poetry’s gods, served to elevate your own and raised your sights above your quotidian limitations.
Father you refused to be for me, you taught me
there were things I shouldn’t know, was not ready to know,
and a whole world opened up to, and in, me. You taught
me how to grieve, how to shed hot tears and wait things
out in the dark of night. You said: You, pupil with averted
eyes, not knowing me and who I am, you do not shame
yourself. On the contrary, you flower. Let your time and
space be loved into existence, will them forth. Isn’t this
what you’re here for? … O the abstractions you brought to
life, and lived! Your space for the duration more, much
more than place — temple of past present and future. Even
when the best of me was no more than my falling asleep
with pencil poised above a half-filled page, there was
nothing, you said, which one couldn’t imagine, that wasn’t
worthy of Imagination… I crossed your threshold once on
a winter’s evening bearing a staff, a pilgrim’s twined
driftwood, a gift you barely acknowledged, your grumbling
issuing forth as wordless praise, gentle reminder that I had
yet to earn the right of giving such a gift to such as you,
who knew its true worth.
(Oct. 1, 2001)
I was part of the crowd who arrived at Columbia on account of Joseph. His reputation preceded him. I’d read The New York Times profile of the famous Russian émigré poet the year before. If determination to study with the master had set my course, trepidation steered me to his classroom on that fateful first day, when I sat in the back and took everything in: the man stunningly at ease with himself, who took no quarter, whose mental depths were as capacious as they were intimidating. In his presence you either tread water or sank. He would seldom throw you a lifeline. You had to swim to the lighthouse of whatever poem was under discussion or soon be gulping for breath.
Meanwhile the air he breathed was different from that of the rest of us, his tobacco-stained lungs pumping oxygen into the heart — his amazing heart — that would one day give out on him despite his doctor’s warnings. Vehement in his likes and dislikes, fierce in his opinions, he suffered no fools. If you braved his sentinel-like mind with its hawk’s gaze long enough, you might stand a chance. But only if worshipping at the altar of culture and literature was your thing.
Joseph, you came shimmering and changing
In my dream, long after you had died.
There you were, offering words at my bedside.
What you said to me I’m still re-arranging
In my head, trying to listen to your counsel,
The one your new body offered my soul.
Joseph, if I say your name enough
You will come back to life
And maybe I can too.
Joseph, I loved the man you were
To show others who they could be.
Joseph, I knew May 24 was the day you were born
And when I told you, you asked how I knew.
I was too afraid to say
That I wanted to be born like you,
In a distant country where everyone lives his Divine Comedy.
Joseph, Dante, you told me, already made his film
And what a blockbuster too! Everybody sees
What they want to see, except for you,
Who followed in his footsteps
All the way to forgiveness and back.
Joseph, the healing bliss of music refuses to repeat itself.
I’ve learned it’s no longer scary to be real.
(Oct. 8, 2004)
I’ve started over and
will grow—thanks be
to my son and wife—a new man
neither doubting the Dantean way nor
outstripping it in its usefulness to me, always
keying on what language is
saying through me, having no mind
not to hear how language puts words in
my mind slyly, spryly putting ideas in
my head I didn’t know I had.
Who, I wonder, would have thought language up
like a prayer inside of chaos? Who has the words to speak
and time and space enough to birth
the self hidden within one’s self?
I now know to live emptily in the world,
Joseph, is a full-time job.
(Dec. 19, 2007)
In the 1984 American film ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ the late actor Robin Williams plays a member of a Russian circus troupe who while visiting New York City decides to defect from Russia in the name of ‘freedom’. Indeed the nineteen-eighties was the era of Reaganomics, and ‘freedom’ was its bellwether word. Russian communism, in America’s crosshairs during the Cold War, would soon fall to triumphalist American capitalism, in which one believed one had the freedom to be and achieve anything. Amid these tensions came the now nearly legendary story — in the world of letters at least — of Joseph Brodsky and his involuntary exile from the Soviet Union.
In 1963 — to briefly pick up the story here — Brodsky was arrested, put in a mental institution twice, and charged with ‘social parasitism’ by the Soviet authorities. The trial that followed in 1964 in Leningrad would establish his fame in the West, for it helped spread the notoriety of the young protégé of Anna Akhmatova, the queen of Russian poetry at the time. At the trial he was accused of not fulfilling his duty to work for the so-called good of the motherland. In a now famous exchange, the trial judge asked Brodsky ‘Who has recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?’ The 24-year old Brodsky replied; ‘No one. Who enrolled me in ranks of the human race?’
The trial was widely reported in the Western press, and though he was sentenced to five years hard labor in a farm village, he only served 18 months of his term, in part because of Western pressure. Later, in 1972 the authorities, who were either continuing to lock up political dissenters in psychiatric institutions or sending them into exile, ‘invited’ Brodsky to emigrate to Israel. After refusing their ‘invitation,’ he had his apartment broken into, his papers confiscated, and was put on a plane for Vienna, Austria, never to return to Russia. In Austria he would be met by W.H. Auden, who took the young Soviet poet under his wing, and with the help of others, secured him an initial teaching post at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And the rest is history.
With his dizzying reputation at such a young age preceding him, then, Joseph would go on in typical American fashion to re-make himself in the U.S, in his case from a Russian émigré dissident poet into an influential university teacher, an accomplished English essayist, a Nobel Prize-winner and an American poet laureate.
I thought you had died,
I told him in my dream.
And he looked surprised
(I watched his eyebrows rise).
How busy he looked,
talking as night fell — now
to the old man from
Eastern Europe, now
on the phone to the elderly
female translator who
had questions to ask, now
sitting at the café table
with the young writer holding
in his hands a book
whose title I could see
(but not now), the look
on his face reflecting
the seriousness on Joseph’s, the delight
to discuss this or that during this
Greenwich Village tete-a-tete.
The young writer had one
eye bulging wider
than the other (what could
that have meant, I wondered)
as all around us the night
grew ever darker, ever darker.
(Sept. 16, 2006)
Once, Joseph kindly read a sheaf of my early poems. He returned them to me a week later with lines edited and comments written across the pages. For decades I preserved those drafts like precious objects until one morning, in a fit of pique, I discarded them and, to me, other just as valuable papers, leaving a pile of manuscripts on the curb for the garbage-collector to haul away.
Joseph advised me on different occasions while I was working at the New York Center for Visual History, my first job after graduating from Columbia. I was helping put together a proposal for NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) funding to make a film adaptation of a Dante’s Comedy. He said that a ’film’ of The Comedy had already been realized or produced by the poet’s imagination, and that rather than write a filmscript I should write instead about my own personal journey with the poet Dante. I thought then that Joseph was partly right, of course, but it was an idea whose time had, for me at least, not yet come.
Who are your people?
The Russian poet asked
Me while sitting in a café
In the West Village. He
Was smoking non-stop
And spoke with a thick Russian accent
Oh the hell with my ‘people’,
I replied. Let’s talk Dante…
My name jumped
Off a cliff
And I saw it
Vanish between the waves
Dad, when we saw him, used to tell
And re-tell us stories
Of our family name: So-and-so
Did this and
That, a distinguished line
Of ancestors going
Back to the Mayflower
And / further back, to / Machiavelli
I danced through hoops
For the hope
I saw behind
My name the flame
And I in its light was not blinded
Before I saw continuing
The extensive and concentric
Circles closest to me
Like vegetable and herb beds
With small cold frames
Made of rosebud boughs
And farther away
The open spaces of what seemed berry bushes followed by
Fruit trees and shade
Of fiddlehead ferns and hazels and
Farthest away, Father,
The long term
Living now in a land
I rudimentarily speak, my name
Washing against the shore
Of forgetting and
Remembering in a not so divine
The here and now and
The echoes of
Supple and residing
In the ground growing
Like mushrooms sprouting
After a rain
Dante himself, I would learn later, studied indoors
Reading his books so much
That, eventually, when he would go outside
Under the night sky, he couldn’t see
Any stars, saw nothing but blackness
Shadowed by a white mist.
Be yourself, his Comedy says, a deep looker
Of outwardness being mirrored
Inwardly… until you can say:
Freedom I am done reading.
(July 1, 2013)
In The Paris Review interview of 1979, Joseph is being asked about the logistics of poem-making, and one reply, I think, is particularly instructive of the poet’s mind at work, here quoted from the published interview:
Paris Review: What do you think happens psychically when you’ve brought the poem to a sort of dead point, to get beyond which you would have to go in a direction that you can’t yet imagine?
Brodsky: The thing is that you can always go on, even when you have the most terrific ending. For the poet the credo or doctrine is not the point of arrival but is, on the contrary, the point of departure for the metaphysical journey. For instance, you write a poem about the crucifixion. You have decided to go ten stanzas — and yet it’s the third stanza and you’ve already dealt with the crucifixion. You have to go beyond that and add something — to develop it into something which is not there yet. Basically what I’m saying is that the poetic notion of infinity is far greater, and it’s almost self-propelled by the form. Once in a conversation with Tony Hecht at Breadloaf we were talking about the usage of the Bible, and he said, ‘Joseph, wouldn’t you agree that what a poet does is to try to make more sense out of these things?’ And that’s what it is — there’s more sense, ya? In the works of the better poets you get the sensation that they’re not talking to people anymore, or to some seraphical creature. What they’re doing is simply talking back to the language itself — as beauty, sensuality, wisdom, irony — those aspects of language of which the poet is a clear mirror. Poetry is not an art or a branch of art, it’s something more. If what distinguishes us from other species is speech, then poetry, which is the supreme linguistic operation, is our anthropological, indeed genetic, goal. Anyone who regards poetry as an entertainment, as a ‘read’, commits an anthropological crime, in the first place, against himself. (italics mine)
Drunk at the Roppongi Russian restaurant
last night, to offer a toast to a long-gone
famous Russian poet, boasting to the waitress
he was my teacher decades ago; then home to
Facebook to find his photo (among my Likes)
staring out at me… that’s when I realized the dead
not only can dance, they can boogie.
Time is on your side, he once assured me.
Why, then, do we try to kill it?
(Oct. 23, 2010)
In her 2002 book Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, Cynthia Haven gives a glimpse of Joseph the teacher through the eyes of author and editor James Marcus (recently appointed editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine):
James Marcus, while attending Columbia University, heard rumors of a student in the previous term whose work Brodsky had ridiculed so mercilessly that she burst into tears in class. In a short reminiscence posted on amazon.com, Marcus recalls Brodsky’s first day of class: Brodsky, wearing a corduroy jacket, had ‘thinning reddish hair and the sort of pale skin, stippled with freckles, that seemed never to have been out in the sun…’ He lit a cigarette–the first of many. ‘Throughout the seminar he would bum cigarettes from the few addicts in the class, tearing the filters off with his teeth before applying a match.’ Brodsky explained his worldview to his students: ‘Poetry, in his estimation, was the glue of civilization, and language the repository of time itself.’ Later in the semester, after assigning a short page for class, he warned them, ‘Assume that this may be the last thing you write … Don’t forget, you could get hit by a car after you hand it in. Keep that thought in mind.’ While it may have been ‘grandiose nuttiness’ from anyone else, Marcus concludes that Brodsky was merely extending his own ‘high seriousness about writing to his students’ — few of whom deserved it.
Outside the window the neighbor’s rooftop
Dove-bedecked antennae hums
In the ear as I recall the nocturnal
Visit by you, offering to me a poem,
‘At a Time of War’ that upon waking
I search for. But
The journey is far, Joseph, and away
The wave-soaked, sea-borne spirit
You brought to life, where strife reins
In thoughts of craft’s continuing
Past a noonday chill and no angels
Gather to sing of or lament
The battles to come. I ought
To be grateful the road has led
Here. War-cries abound, yet I won’t
Be around when somebody or
Other wins, hands down. Victory
Is not a space I dwell in. Defeat,
Like loss, I’m at home in. Let
Words furnish the emptiness.
Or not. Either way, I’ll welcome
You there in the longing’s quiet.
The poet doesn’t need a mountain
To stand on, nor ceremony. The hill
I’m at the foot of is your name
Reaching the sun, shadowless
As no memory is, no matter how fond.
Clinical valor in a time of war
Is the caveat of art. Yours — art
And valor — keep breaking
The mind from its cave free.
(Aug. 5, 2011)
It is said that Brodsky’s reputation as poet has suffered somewhat in the years since his death, at least in America. Joseph, however, was much more than his poetry. He was an unstoppable force, a passionate advocate for the dignity of the poetic vocation. He was also a great reciter of poems, in the tradition of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg or Patti Smith.
Joseph Brodsky is at a large outdoor gathering. He is speaking to a friend in both English and German. Then he sees me coming down the road and suddenly speaks to me. He asks if he could have some of my coffee. I willingly share with him what I have. I tell him, ‘Say when.’ After pouring most of my coffee into his cup, I have to leave the gathering and get more coffee back at the house. Upon entering the house, I see my father-in-law sitting in the stairway; he’s papering a wall. He’s very old, and when I enter he turns to me and says, in a very gentle voice, ‘Is that Papa?’(dream 12.7.14)
To quote Philip Roth, writing of his own teacher, but applying as well to Joseph: ‘Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.’
You wake up with tears ready to stream
down your cheeks without knowing why.
Then you read, after putting aside the memory
of your distraught dream, a remembrance of
a deceased former teacher and great influential
poet, and tears well up for real this time.
Not for missing the man you have no right
to call an acquaintance, but a mentor and role-
model, yes, a hero even, with his absence
from the world constituting a poetic injustice
of the most heartless kind. But should you get
the chance to go, you swear you will visit his
grave at the old cemetery in Venice and light
a candle for the light, the very great light he was.
(Oct. 30, 2015)
The last time I saw Joseph or talked to him was when I visited his Morton Street apartment in the Village, in Manhattan, in late spring of 1989. I would soon be leaving New York permanently, but I had sent Joseph a manuscript of poems written in the heat of a year when I had married and had a child, and during which I had birthed poems which he later advised I keep locked in a drawer. (That manuscript would be the early version of my first poetry book, published in Japan in 2002.) There was little time left, so my wife and I with our four-month old son went to see him. After I rang the doorbell he courteously greeted us on the front stoop, apologizing for not being able to invite us inside on account of his entertaining a guest. But I introduced Joseph to my wife and son, after which we said our farewells and turned to leave, and soon thereafter we moved that summer to Japan, where I have lived ever since.