Archive for May 23rd, 2011

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
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The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:


Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?