Post Road Magazine #8

Reminiscence: Joseph Brodsky -Sven Birkets

I knew Joseph Brodsky, not well by some standards, but with such exaggerated eagerness on my part that his influence remains, even now, eight years after his death, enormous. I don't mean his literary influence—though his effect there was considerable—but what might be called his tutelary presence. The man had an intensity such as I'd never encountered before. Nor have I since. In his presence literature and writing finally mattered as I knew they should, and this mattering redeemed all the slights and rudenesses that he inflicted as he made his way through our midst. I know that there are many who won't grant that absolution, but they also very likely missed out on the full force of his personality.

In 1973, when Brodsky came to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was in my last year at the University of Michigan. He was a major news item before he even arrived, a dissident hero. This was the young poet who had stood up to the Soviet State, proclaiming the sovereign right of the poet to speak his vision, and winning the adoration of literati the world over. Released from a sentence of hard labor (a concession to pressure from international writers and intellectuals), freed to emigrate to Israel, Brodsky changed his itinerary when he got to Vienna. He ended up accepting an offer extended by Carl Proffer, a professor and editor of the journal Ardis, to come to Michigan as poet-in-residence.

Brodsky's first public reading was a very big event in the Ann Arbor community. My girlfriend and I, I remember, felt lucky to have gotten our seats at the far rear of Rackham Auditorium. The poet was much introduced and much applauded. Ann Arbor's own poetic eminence, Donald Hall, was up on stage to offer the translations. And when Brodsky finally took the lectern and declaimed—he consulted no text—the effect was electrifying. Since, of course, it has become part of Brodsky lore—the incantatory magic of his Russian “performances”—but then it was new to all of us. The young poet with the long red hair and tragic features—a sharply beaked nose, a wide, downwardly-grimacing mouth—sang out his lines in a keening fury that brought down the house.

In the five or six years Brodsky spent in Ann Arbor, he never succumbed to the relentless community domestication, generally achieved there, as everywhere, through departmental interactions and punishing rounds of social activity; he never lost his fierce exoticism. He was not a local force, to be comprehended in the usual terms, but an international force. He flew to New York and London on weekends. He would be spotted in some local bar with his friend Mikhail Baryshnikov or the poet Anthony Hecht or some stunning woman said to be an Italian actress or a distant relation of Count Leo Tolstoy. He was known to be a ladies' man. As for his teaching, those who knew said that his classes were impenetrable, not least because his English in those first months was a language adjacent to the one the rest of us spoke. Moreover, word was out that he suffered fools not at all.

When I left town in 1975 I had not yet read Brodsky's poems (his first English collection had recently been published). When I returned two years later, deeply depressed over a failed relationship, I knew the work cold. The poet's suffering was the only balm I could find that season, and when I saw him coming toward me on the street or buying a newspaper at the bookstore I was working in, I felt we had to become friends. Once, overheated with lonely admiration—desperation—I put a note under his office door, praising his work and alluding to my own suffering, suggesting that if he wanted to get a drink sometime he should stop by the bookstore. He appeared the very next day, but when I saw him waiting by the counter I was seized with fear and could not get myself to come down from the mezzanine to introduce myself.

When I did, a few months later, finally speak to Brodsky, it was in that very same spot in the bookstore. Only now I was working across the street, managing a used and rare bookshop. I had come into Borders for a Sunday paper when I saw the poet standing by the register, gesticulating, trying to explain something to the clerk. I listened in and thought I understood. He was looking for The Education of Henry Adams, which was out of print. I knew that we had copy on the shelves in the other store and, butting into their stalled exchange, I indicated that he should follow me. The gods were on my side. I got him the book and we began—haltingly—to talk. I ended up inviting him to have coffee in my apartment just down the street. There the two of us chain-smoked and played the “have you read?” game for longer than seemed possible. He trumped me at every turn, of course, and I worried he would think me ignorant. But he seemed happy enough to be with someone who even recognized the names of writers like Milosz, Pavese, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva.

At this time, back in the mid-1970s, Brodsky still had the air of an enfant terrible. Impatient, aggressive, chain-smoking cigarettes, he liked creating dispute for its own sake. Suggest white and he would insist black. Admit an admiration—unless it was for one of his idols—like Auden or Lowell or Milosz—and he would overturn the opinion. “Minor,” he would say of some eminence I mentioned. Or: “The man is an idiot.” At first I did not understand the workings of this compulsion, and as we talked, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, I grew despondent. Here was my chance to meet the poet I had admired for so long, and I could say nothing right. Yet for all that, he seemed in no hurry to leave.

I would like to say that by the end of that long afternoon we had become friends, intimates, but that would not be true. I was, I think, too young and callow; I did not offer enough ground for real exchange. Instead, Brodsky assumed a fond, almost paternal role with me, teasing, chiding, offering suggestions about books. A limit was set. I did not feel that I was getting close to the turbulent soul that wrote the poems.

From that time on, though, we did stay in contact. Brodsky would suddenly show up in the bookstore, searching for some book of poems. On several occasions, too, he handed me the typescript of some essay he was working on for the New York Review of Books, asking if I would check over his English. The task would invariably keep me at my desk for hours, for the fact is that brilliant and inflammatory as his insights were, the prose at this stage was a bramble patch—English deployed as if it were an inflected language.

Once, I remember, I stayed up much of the night, recasting sentence by sentence his discussion of the Greek poet Cavafy, finally typing the whole thing over afresh. When I handed the piece to him the next day, he quickly glanced down the page, smiled his wicked sultan smile, and put the whole bundle in an envelope to mail. I never found out what he thought of my deeply deliberated interventions.

At the end of the summer—1976—I asked Brodsky if I could audit his modern poetry seminar in the fall. He greeted my question with a conspiratorial laugh, as if by letting me attend he was putting something over on the system. And so, come September, I left my bookstore perch two afternoons a week, crossing campus to a sterile brick building where I joined a small group of nervous others around an enormous conference table.

If we were nervous, it was because our instructor made us so. Whatever extracurricular connection I had with Brodsky counted for nothing at all. There was only the poem and the dynamics of the encounter.

Brodsky was at one and the same time the worst and the most vital and compelling teacher I've ever had. Worst because he did nothing, absolutely nothing, to make our confrontation with a difficult body of poetry pleasant or conventionally instructive. In part this was owing to his inexperience—he had never taught before coming to Ann Arbor—and in part to the fact that his English was even yet a work in progress. But mainly it was an expression of who he was and what he believed about poetry. Poetry was not something to be “gotten,” mastered and regurgitated in paraphrase. It was not some thing one notched on the belt of attainments. It was, rather, a struggle waged in fear and trembling, an encounter with the very stuff of language that might put our core assumptions about existence into jeopardy. Brodsky would bring his students—us—into the arena, but he would not fight our battles for us. It could feel almost sadistic. All of us, at times, felt utterly exposed, not only in our ignorance, or the blandness of our assumptions about poetry, but in our way of reading the world.

“What do you think of this one?” he might begin, pointing to some poem we were to have read by Mandelstam, or Akhmatova, or Montale . . . Brodsky's tone on these occasions carried—I don't think I imagined this—a slightly bored, contemptuous edge, but also, to quote Auden (his favorite) quoting Serge Diaghilev, a sense of “astonish me.” He made each of us want to say the brilliant thing, to earn that rarest of accolades: “Terrific!” But anxiety was usually more powerful. The question would be posed and the room would grow silent—a deep, sedimentary silence.

Somehow we all pushed on, even managed to forge a certain prison-cell camaraderie—one that, oddly, included Brodsky himself. Which is not to say that he relaxed one bit his vigilance, his insistence on adequate response to what we were reading. But he somehow, bored sighs notwithstanding, made himself a part of our collective grappling inadequacy. How did he manage it?

Class after class, Brodsky would arrive in the room late, after we had all begun to fidget. He would be fingering an unlit cigarette, conveying thereby that he would much rather be alone somewhere, smoking it, than in our midst. And then, almost invariably, he would heave up from his depths a shuddering, groaning sigh. But there was humor in it. For a moment later his beaked tragedy-mask expression would loosen. He would look slowly around the room and, taking us all in, smile, as though to communicate that at some level he knew what it must be like for us, as though to forgive us for our blandness.

But then it would start again, the relentless kneading of the language. A line from Mandelstam, a question, silence. Only when that silence had become unendurable would he lead us into the thickets of sound and association, with asides on the logic of poetic images, abbreviated lessons on the ethics of utterance, on the metaphysics of nouns, of rhymes . . .

Time passed. I left Ann Arbor and moved to Boston to seek my way as a writer. Brodsky moved to New York, which would remain his center of operations for the rest of his life. Once every few months I would screw up my courage and call his number. Our phone conversations were difficult, at least from my side. I always felt flat, uninteresting. I had no gossip to retail, did not move in those circles; I had no strident views to advance. I had begun writing essays on my own but I did not dare to inflict them on him. My best bet, I knew, was to offer praise. So I usually waited to make my calls until Brodsky had published some new essay or poem. Leading with a compliment seemed to work. Nor was Brodsky the kind to rebuff any kind words. “Ya,” he would say, laughing, “it was pretty good, I must say.” In person, his response to praise would be to put his hands together like paws and make a happy panting sound.

I don't know exactly when Brodsky began to suffer heart problems, but I do remember, in the late 1970s, there were long spells of worry among his friends. Word was that he'd had a heart attack, major by-pass surgery. I didn't get many of the details. I only knew that calling had become even more difficult, for now there was every chance that he would be in one of his dark moods. No conversational gambit worked then, not even praise. Offer up some compliment and he would often sigh impatiently and mutter something like, “It doesn't matter in the slightest.” Whereupon long silence would follow. Brodsky, neither then nor ever, felt any responsibility for the niceties. If dead air was what was available, then dead air it would be.

In 1979, I proposed to interview Brodsky for The Paris Review, and got his permission. This was a very big thing for me. I re-read all of the poems and the many essays I had saved from the pages of the New York Review of Books, and then, armed with a tape-recorder and a pile of blank cassettes, I got on the train for New York.

Brodsky let me into his Morton Street apartment—it was my first visit—and proceeded to field a series of telephone calls, some of them international, I noted. I was free to pace around, study his bookshelves, glance at the photographs displayed everywhere on the walls and mantle. On the way to the bathroom, I noted an exercise bike that seemed to be doing duty as a clothes-hanging device.

Finally Brodsky was off the phone and ready to give me his full attention. We sat down in his living room, facing each other across a low coffee table, and I turned the tape-recorder on. As always, Brodsky smoked furiously, every so often ripping the filter off his cigarette, the better to get at the tobacco. He answered my questions seriously, professionally; he was able to set aside the darker joking tonality of our usual interchanges. We sat for at least two hours, talking about his Leningrad childhood, his literary influences, various cities, admired writers. At some point we switched from coffee to beer, and I could feel both of us relaxing perceptibly.

During those two hours I felt that I got a kind of sidelong glimpse of Brodsky's New York life. The phone calls—he took them, but kept them short, announcing, when he hung up, “That was Mark Strand,” and “That was Bob Silvers.” He liked it that I was impressed. At other points various neighbors made themselves known, calling in to him as they crossed the back courtyard, or even just knocking and walking right in, as his close friend and upstairs neighbor Masha did.

I felt caught up in a wonderful turbulence, the literary life as I'd always imagined it might be lived. There was a typewriter, an old manual, serving as a kind of paperweight on a desk brimming with page-proofs. “I've missed every conceivable deadline,” said Brodsky. Stacks and stacks of review copies were piled up near the front door. At the center of all this chaos, looking by turns agitated, sorrowful and wryly cunning—his expressions shifting with each new question—sat the poet. I felt so monochromatic beside him, so unevolved.

Every five minutes or so, whether he was finished with it or not, Brodsky flung another lit cigarette into the enormous fireplace at his side. I could see that the casualness of the action gave him satisfaction. “I would like to die in Venice,” he said at one point near the end of our conversation. More and more, I'd noticed, he came around to last things. Or, to pull a Brodskean inversion, first things. “There is only one subject that matters to me,” he said, a few minutes later, “and that is time and what it does to a man.”

I saw Brodsky on a number of occasions after that interview, but never in quite so sustained or focused a way.

Once, I remember, I was in New York for some reason and we were having a cup of coffee in a cafeteria. Brodsky watched with rapt expression as a fat young waitress leaned into an enormous wall refrigerator, finally emerging with a piece on pie on a plate. He turned to me, as serious as I have ever seen him, and observed: “Once you see something like that there is simply no point in going on.” More than anything, I think, Brodsky loved these mergings of the banal and the metaphysical. They were the stuff of his most inspired improvisations, and when he struck off what he believed was “a good one” he would laugh with unaffectedly boyish glee.

A few years later—we had not seen each other for at least a year—I was at some reception and saw Brodsky coming toward me across the room. I smiled and stepped forward to say hello. Scarcely cracking a smile, he reached into my shirt pocket, extracted a cigarette, ripped off the filter, and walked away. “Kisses,” he called over his shoulder. That was that.

Dozens of little encounters and little stories, but they all add up to the same thing. Brodsky, now a Nobel Prize winner, was getting very famous and very busy. He was also, steadily, losing his health. Others who knew him in these years have admitted the same thing. That the man emanated such energy and contrary aliveness that it was very hard to think of him as having a weak heart.

Still, I remember how for a long time I used to torment myself with the thought that one day the phone would ring and it would be someone telling me that Brodsky—Joseph—had died.

Which is very nearly what happened. My wife and I had gone out for dinner, leaving our children with their babysitter. When we got home, among the evening's many incidentals, as reported by our seven-year-old daughter, was the message that a friend had called to say something about someone named Joseph.

“How did he sound?”

“Kind of serious,” she said.

And that was it. I called my friend and confirmed what I feared. Brodsky had died of a massive heart attack—at home in New York, not in Venice as he had once wished (though he is now buried in Venice). Then I lay in bed for a long time trying to find ways to think about this new fact. Hardest was the idea of absence—that a soul so crowded and intent could be taken away. All that knowing and supposing and seeing of things. Logically, I thought, this should leave more room for the rest of us. But I knew, sure as I ever knew anything, that the opposite was true •

Sven Birkerts is the author, most recently, of My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He edits the journal Agni and is at work at a series of extended “encounters” with influential books.

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