Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

Poet Tomas Venclova in the TLS: “All will end well, but I will not see it.”

Friday, February 2nd, 2018
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A “historical optimist” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

My review of  Lithuanian poet, essayist, and freedom fighter Tomas Venclova‘s Magnetic North, “No Pigeons in the Attic,” is featured in this week’s Times Literary Supplement here. Readers of the Book Haven will recognize the name of the eminent European intellectual, although it is, in general, too little recognized on this side of the Atlantic. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places. Magnetic North is a book-length Q&A with translator Ellen Hinsey, recapping his life, his art, and his nation’s turbulent history.

A few excerpts from my piece:

He rejects the romantic notion that a poet’s work only thrives in his or her homeland. “It would be absurd to maintain that a writer needs permanent contact with his or her native soil and withers when deprived of it”, he says, citing Marina Tsvetaeva, Nabokov and Brodsky among the dislocated Russians; Mickiewicz, Norwid, Miłosz and Gombrowicz among the Poles. He finds something fortunate even in exile, and seems to enjoy the role of lucid observer: “As a rule, one sees the general contours of the country’s development more clearly if one is not embroiled in local squabbles. For  an ‘outsider,’ these contours are projected on the larger screen of history”. But his international wanderings have not eroded his love of country – he has written three books on Vilnius, one of them the most commercially successful of his long career. He likens his beloved capital to a European Jerusalem. “I once said that these heterogeneous, asymmetric, and extraordinary buildings kept us from forgetting the very idea of civilization”, he recalls. “I still believe this.”

***

Lithuanian, the native tongue of 3 million people, continues to fascinate and sustain him, as it is “not only archaic, but rich and sonorous, virtually on a par with the Greek of Homer and Aeschylus. To me, as a poet, this has been rewarding”. He likens its rough phonetics to feldspar, adding that it has retained an archaic vocabulary and grammatical structure akin to preclassical Latin of the third century BC. And, Venclova points out, while it is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic, it is the only one of them that  is still alive. It nearly was not so. In the nineteenth century, it was in serious decline, like Gaelic or Welsh. Venclova compares it to the former, another archaic language that embodies an ancient past. Neighbouring Poland views Lithuania the way the English view Scotland, as wild and untamed, with “more primeval forests and a valiant but not-too-civilized people”.

***

And the historical winner is…

Venclova has described himself as an “historical optimist”, which he characterizes thus: “All will end well, but I will not see it”. He views with dismay the growing nationalism that is threatening the cosmopolitanism he embraces. He notes that everyone in the twentieth century was a “loser” – Franz Joseph, Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Churchill, even Mahatma Gandhi. All except for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, an obscure Serbian nationalist: “The only winner was Gavrilo Princip, since his mentality has survived – indeed, it has resolutely endured”.

 Read the rest here.  As for the title,  “No Pigeons in the Attic,” well … read the article.

Postscript on 2/21: And some nice feedback in the TLS letters column, as tweeted:

Joseph Brodsky on Anna Akhmatova: “Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards.”

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018
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“You do not know what you were forgiven.”

A link for a radio discussion of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – the interview is with the Irish journalist Mary Russell, one of her many fans, and it aired on RTE Europe here.

Akhmatova’s protégé was Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was drawn to her circle in 1961, a few years before she died. He speaks for a few moments at the beginning of the clip, but to my ear the timber isn’t quite right, a bit tinny (and Russell calls him “Joe Brodsky,” which jars, because no one ever did).

He speaks about Akhmatova this way:

“She’s the kind of poet whose lines you unwittingly mumble to yourself, especially when you’re in trouble. I remember several times, when I would be sick in hospital, surgery, this and that, et cetera et cetera. I would find myself mumbling, completely unrelated to the situation, a few of her lines. Well, they are very memorable.”

Then Akhmatova’s own voice breaks in, reading a few lines in Russian, before he continues: “She was simply, physically, visibly, beautiful. Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards – you know those eyes, ya? Tremendous nose. She was one of the most beautiful women of the century, I think. Tremendous head. Just … absolutely majestic.”

Russell describes her hours of on the train from Leningrad to Komarova, where Akhmatova is buried. Deep snow in countryside. Accompanying her, a woman who had attended the funeral in 1966. They walked through the darkening, forest to the cemetery. She brought flowers, and found the grave already covered with bunch of fresh, red carnations. (It reminds me of my own trek to Pasternak‘s austere, snow-swept dacha outside Moscow – I mentioned it here.)

But which lines did he mumble to himself? I wondered. Perhaps he gives a hint when he reads this 1919 poem, in Russian (it’s better in Russian, trust me):

Has this century been worse than those that went before?
Surely so, that in a fog of fear and grief
It has probed the blackest sore,
And yet has failed to bring relief.

In the west the setting sun still blazes,
And city roofs are gleaming in its light,
But here Death scrawls crosses on the houses,
And calls the ravens, and the ravens fly.

I’m not fond of this online translation, but too many of my books are still in boxes to hunt for something better. Perhaps Solomon Volkov cuts to the heart of the matter when in Conversations with Joseph Brodsky:

“We did not go to her for praise, or literary recognition, or any kind of approval for our work. […] We went to see her because she set our souls in motion, because in her presence you seem to move on from the emotional and spiritual – oh, I don’t know what you call it – level you were on. You rejected the language you spoke every day for the language she used. Of course, we discussed literature, and we gossiped, and we ran out for vodka, listened to Mozart, and mocked the government. Looking back, though, what I hear and see is not this; in my consciousness surfaces one line from the same ‘Sweetbriar in Blossom’: “You do not know what you were forgiven.” This line tears itself away rather than bursting out of the context because it is uttered by the voice of the soul, for the forgiver is always greater than the offense and whoever inflicts it. This line, seemingly addressed to one person, is in fact addressed to the whole world. It is the soul’s response to existence. It is this, and not the ways of verse-making, that we learned from her.”

“I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.”

Friday, December 22nd, 2017
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Beginning on a High C: Marina Tsvetaeva in 1914.

Too few Americans know the oeuvre of Muscovite poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) – partly, I think it’s because of the translations. How can one translate her? Where other poems end, hers begin. And her poems typically begin “at the far right – i.e., highest – end of the octave, on high C.”

Those are the words of her admirer, poet Joseph Brodsky, who wrote, “Tsvetaeva is a poet of extremes only in the sense that for her an ‘extreme’ is not so much the end of the known world as the beginning of the unknowable one.”

He continues: “Tsvetaeva is an extremely candid poet, quite possibly the most candid in the history of Russian poetry. She makes no secret of anything, least of all of her aesthetic and philosophical credos, which are scattered about her verse and prose with the frequency of a first person singular pronoun.”

So here are a few of those aphorisms, which have been gathered from her diaries and notebooks from about 1917 to 1922, over at the Paris Review:

I should be drinking you from a mug, but I’m drinking you in drops, which make me cough.

You don’t want people to know that you love a certain person? Then say: “I adore him!” But some people know what this means.

Kinship by blood is coarse and strong, kinship by choice—is fine. And what is fine can tear.

Betrayal already points to love. You can’t betray an acquaintance.

And this one is especially intriguing:

The heart: it is a musical, rather than a physical organ.

There! What a naughty thing I’ve been! I’ve used up six of the ten “aesthetic and philosophical credos” on this post. Find the rest over at the Paris Review here.

Great news! Rome revokes Ovid’s exile!

Friday, December 15th, 2017
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Come back, Ovid! All is forgiven! Whatever you did!

According to a report from ANSA,  the Rome city council yesterday revoked the Emperor Augustus‘s direct order exiling the poet from the city. It’s a little late: the poet died 2,000 years ago, in the year 17 or 18 A.D. He was between 58 and 60 years old.

The motion came from the ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S), which said it wanted to “repair the serious wrong suffered” by Publius Ovidius Naso, the the author of the Metamophoses and the Art of Love.

Ovid, one of the three canonical Roman poets along with Virgil and Horace, was exiled to a remote Black Sea town, Tomis, in today’s Romania, in 8 AD, in one of the mysteries of literary history. [Ettore Ferrari’s statue of Ovid in modernday Constanta at right.]

Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.

According to a local website, the council unanimously approved the motion, which calls for “necessary measures” to be adopted to repeal the exile order, Repubblica reported. However, only the M5S took part in Thursday afternoon’s vote.

Rome’s deputy mayor and councillor for culture Luca Bergamo said the decision was “an important symbol because it’s about the fundamental right of artists to express themselves freely in a society in which the freedom of artistic expression is more and more repressed”.

Ovid has previously been acquitted by a court in Sulmona, the Abruzzo town where he was born, which passed its verdict onto Rome authorities.

Ovid wrote several poetry collections describing the pain of banishment. I wrote a little about this in my 2011 Kenyon Review piece about two other exiles, Nobel poets Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz:

According to a legend, Ovid wrote poetry in the language of the Gatae during his long exile on the Black Sea coast. “Brodsky would be an heir to that tradition, although his exile was not as dramatic as that of the Roman poet” (242), [Irena] Gross writes. She suggests Ovid may have been a literary “genotype” for Brodsky (285).

The pattern of Ovid, exiled for nobody knows what, may have absorbed Brodsky even earlier than generally supposed. I remember the poet in a melancholy mood in 1975. He asked me if I had read Ovid’s Tristia. I hadn’t, but got the book from the University of Michigan library, eager to please him. It’s still with me, with its sedate green cover and dog-eared edges, with exiled Ovid keening:

I am a Roman poet—forgive me, my Muses, forgive me—
 And I am forced to say many things in Sarmatian speech.
(Book vii, 11. 55-56)

Partying with Walcott, Heaney, Brodsky: “I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar.”

Friday, December 1st, 2017
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Could he have found a big enough jar?

I never met Nobel poet Derek Walcott – but Sven Birkerts did, and he writes a marvelous, ebullient essay about Walcott and his sidekicks and fellow Nobel poet laureates, Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky, “Long Tables, Open Bottles, and Smoke” over at Lithub.

Sven Birkerts met the Caribbean poet in 1981 at Boston University. Walcott was allowing non-students to audit his poetry seminar, and Birkerts jumped at the opportunity. It sounds a lot like Joseph Brodsky’s class back in Ann Arbor, except for the locale with its associations:

“We met in #222, the same second-floor room on Bay State road where Robert Lowell had taught his now-legendary seminar that included, among others, young poets George Starbuck, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Derek was pleased by the association and often invoked his old mentor “Cal.” Our class, which I audited for two years, had a loose free-associational format, like nothing I’d experienced—at least not before I met Joseph back in Ann Arbor. Was this how poets did it? It seemed radical and right, such a change from the syllabus-driven proceedings I’d known as an undergrad. In these sessions, a poem would be passed around—a ballad, something by Thomas Hardy or Elizabeth Bishop, say—like a specimen we could study, or, more flatteringly, like a melody handed off to a group of musicians to see what might happen. Meanings were not at issue—not in any conventional way. The conversations turned on rhythm, rhyme, cadence: the elements we came to see as primary to meaning.”

And the parties were unforgettable:

A judicious, sardonic rejoinder…

What a delight it was to see these three utterly distinctive looking individuals together at a party! And it seems, looking back, that there were parties all the time. Long tables, open bottles, and smoke. God, how people smoked in 1981—Joseph with his L&M’s (“Wystan smoked these”), Derek with filterless Pall Malls, Seamus with his Dunhills. And everyone gathered around them doing the same. If the reader now expects accounts of high literary seriousness, however, she will be disappointed. These gatherings were about play. They were exercises in comic brinksmanship. Who would pull off the night’s best line, the funniest story; which of the three would most quickly reduce the other two to convulsions? Those of us lucky enough to be at the table barely got a word in. If we had any function, it was to keep things going, to prompt. A question, a compliment—it didn’t matter, anything could be a trigger. Joseph was usually first out of the box with some dark jibe, which would inevitably set Derek into volatile contortions, releasing his extraordinary laugh, a full-body explosion. It would then fall to Seamus to offer the judicious sardonic rejoinder. I wished I could have brought it all home in a jar. My stomach hurt from laughing. I lay in bed, my head spinning from combined excesses, but also with the feeling that the world was, as Frost had it, “the right place for love.”

A full-body explosion

So much life – and all three are dead now. One poet mentioned in the article is most happily alive. I was pleased that Walcott loved Adam Zagajewski‘s “Going to Lvov,” and in a paragraph that makes me envious (I would not have put it this way, but I wish I had), he writes: “Derek’s reasons for adoring it are immediately clear. Zagajewski is writing directly in what I think of as the key of Walcott—and Brodsky—moving forward by the same logic of transformations, assuming the same coded equivalences between the things of the world and the words with which they are transmitted. Here the poet plays with such likeness directly, joining in our minds the visual punctuation of the Russian ‘soft sign’ and the sibilance that calls up the movement of water.”

And I couldn’t agree with him more when he reaches this conclusion: “These, I think, were the best years—before the Nobel Prizes. Say what you will, the feeling in a room changes when a certified Nobelist is present, never mind two or three. There is, of course, the overt or conspicuously concealed regard of the non-Nobelists present; and then the deft but still obvious efforts of the laureates not to be acting as eminences. It’s true, of course, that the poets were already known and honored before then, but somehow their earlier celebrity energized much more than it constrained.”

Read the whole exuberant essay here. Oh, and before I forget, check out his two-hour conversation on technology, books, and life over at the “Virtual Memories Show” here. Sample quote: “When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov: “Water is his church, Brodsky’s church.”

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
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“I remember his voice, I remember the way he read.” Screenshot from Brodsky/Baryshnikov

We’ve written before about Mikhail Baryshnikov’s acclaimed Brodsky/Baryshnikov show, which blends the renowned dancer’s movements with the poetry of his friend, the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky. (I hear rumors that the show, which debuted in the dancer’s native Riga, is coming to Berkeley, but so far it’s not showing up on any websites so far.)

However, we missed Neil Munshi’s Financial Times of London’s article, “Poetry and motion: Mikhail Baryshnikov on Joseph Brodsky”, which describes the two Russians’ long camaraderie. An excerpt:

“He loved to be by the embankment, because it reminded him of Leningrad, with the water and perspective,” Baryshnikov says. “In his poetry, there are so many poems about water, from the north to Venice, to the Hudson, to the Caribbean. He really worked on a metaphysical level about the water: the proximity, and the colour, and the essence of it. Water is his church, Brodsky’s church, because he grew up [with the] Neva River.” Baryshnikov has referred to Brodsky as his “university”, the man who gave him the higher education his dancing prevented him from receiving. Brodsky introduced him to not just the work of writers but to the writers themselves.

Screenshot from Brodsky/Baryshnikov

“He said that he was surprised how much poetry I know, which was a total exaggeration. He was trying to pay me a compliment, I don’t know why. But I would rather sit and listen to his conversations with Derek Walcott, and maybe half of it, I couldn’t understand. Or with Stephen Spender, or Czeslaw Milosz. He’d just talk about politics with Susan Sontag,” he says. Baryshnikov moved on to reading “Walcott from St Lucia, and Seamus Heaney in Ireland, or Louise Glück, in the States, or Mark Strand”.

“One of the first books Joseph gave me was a book of Mark Strand,” Baryshnikov says. “He said, ‘Mouse, have this.’ And I said, ‘Joseph, I don’t speak a word of English.’ It was at the very beginning. He said, ‘You will, and very soon, and we will read this man.’ And he was absolutely right.”  And there was always Brodsky. Baryshnikov keeps a full collection of his friend’s work in all of his homes and offices. “I always travel with one or two [of Brodsky’s] books. And some of them are still too difficult for me. I’m not pretending that I know his work inside-out at all,” he says. “I remember his voice, I remember the way he read. Sometimes he asked me to read. He said, ‘I want to hear a different voice, can you read this?’ Sometimes, I was lucky to be the first person to whom he read.”

Read the whole thing here.

Early days: Joseph Brodsky in Ann Arbor in the 1970s.

Want to communicate with the dead? A dead man tells us how. (Plus some kind words for the Book Haven!)

Saturday, September 16th, 2017
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Words of praise for the Book Haven from Rhys Tranter over at his lively and excellent website:

One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

Preach it. (Photo: The Granger Collection)

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

Then he included the words of James Baldwin I had cited: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

There’s so much to be said beyond Baldwin’s insightful words, however. We’ve said it before here and here, for example. Here’s a passage from James Marcus‘s interview with the late Susan Sontag on the subject:

“Education of the heart”

“Reading should be an education of the heart,” she says, correcting and amplifying her initial statement. “Of course a novel can still have plenty of ideas. We need to discard that romantic cliché about the head versus the heart, which is an absurdity. In real life, intellect and passion are never separated that way, so why shouldn’t you be moved by a book? Why shouldn’t you cry, and be haunted by the characters? Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

“Perhaps some people don’t want to be taken out of themselves,” I suggest.

“Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape,” she allows. “But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

“a form of moral insurance”

Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward StendhalDickensDostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”

It also prevents us Gary Saul Morson what I call the “Downton Abbey Syndrome”: “the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”

“converse with the dead, the absent, the unborn”

According to Abraham Lincoln:  “Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it – great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions.”

Protection against propaganda returns us to Rhys Tranter again, in his post this week:, which has takes on the more ominous side of a society that no longer cultivates emotional standards and discrimination, this time in the words of Thomas Merton: “[In] an evolved society there are no innocent victims of propaganda. Propaganda succeeds because men want it to succeed. It works on minds because those minds want to be worked on. Its conclusions bring apparent light and satisfaction because that is the kind of satisfaction that people are longing for. It leads them to actions for which they are already half prepared: all they ask is that these actions be justified. If war propaganda succeeds it is because people want war, and only need a few good reasons to justify their own desire.”

Brodsky Among Us in English, and “the only form of moral insurance that a society has.”

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017
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Marat Grinberg writes about Ellendea Proffer Teasley’Brodsky Among Us over at Commentary. The article was published in June, but it was easy to overlook during this eventful summer. Also easy to overlook: Brodsky Among Us, which I wrote about for The Nationis now in English, published by Academic Studies Press (on Amazon here).

“The publisher Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s memoir of the poet, which became a sensation when it was first published in Russian three years ago, provides a penetrating and at times deeply moving account of both the myth and the man behind the work,” writes Grinberg. “She renders the Brodsky she knew not just as a great poet and deeply imperfect human being, but also as a political thinker who was uncompromising and unforgiving in his beliefs.”

“Proffer writes of Brodsky’s ‘determination to live as if he were free in the eleven-time-zone prison that is the Soviet Union.’ She emphasizes that his opposition to the Soviet power was presented in starkly moral terms: ‘A man who does not think for himself,’ she writes, ‘a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure himself.’”

The Commentary article, in a magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945, takes on the Nobel poet’s Jewishness, a subject he himself didn’t dwell on, to put it mildly. An excerpt:

Proffer and the poet in Petersburg.

Proffer implicitly links Brodsky’s Jewishness to this resistance to the “evil structure.” It is a primary subject of their first encounter, which she describes thus: “Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child, his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson.” The “Jewish accent” had to do with Brodsky’s inability to roll his “r”s, which, while by no means unique to Jews, was a mark of the Jew in the largely anti-Semitic Soviet environment. Brodsky bought into the prejudice and at the same time wore it with pride, making it his own.

Jewishness is an ongoing theme in Brodsky’s early poetry of the 1960s, in which he speaks of a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Leningrad and imagines his future “Jewish gravestone.” His “Isaac and Abraham” is a beautiful, tortured and complex midrash on the binding of Isaac. Brodsky transplants the biblical patriarchs onto the Soviet landscape, making the relationship between Abraham and Isaac symbolic of the rift between Russian-Jewish fathers and sons, who are burdened by the loss of Judaism as well as historical traumas both near and distant. The poem reveals Brodsky’s familiarity with Hebrew scripture as well as the kabbalah. In his later poetry, the explicit Jewishness all but disappears in accordance with his goal to become the greatest Russian poet of his era and instead becomes a powerful undercurrent.

The article makes a less persuasive case for Brodsky-as-conservative. He couldn’t be packaged that readily into any “isms.” Grinberg concludes: “A paradoxical thinker, Joseph Brodsky could combine an understanding that ‘man is a little bit corrupt, almost by definition’ with a wholehearted belief in American exceptionalism. Literature, and especially poetry, was for him both ‘the greatest… teacher of human subtlety’ and ‘the only form of moral insurance that a society has.’”
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Read the whole thing here.
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Joseph Brodsky the Artist – now at Hoover Archives

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017
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Brodsky’s sketch of his parents in Leningrad. (Hoover Institution Library & Archives)

 

Last fall, Lora Soroka, archivist extraordinaire at the Hoover Institution’s Library & Archives, told me to come quick, quick, quick to the Hoover Pavilion. She had a surprise for me. Hoover had just acquired an important collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky papers, which had been gathered by his close friend, Diana Myers, the wife of one of the poet’s translators, Alan Myers. It was not only a surprise, it was a wonder – letters, notes, photos, manuscripts, but perhaps most surprising of all, five self-portraits, a landscape, a still life, drawings in ink and chalk, and inevitably doodles.

Brodsky illustrated almost everything he wrote, often with self-portraits in the margin, or cats, which Yuri Leving of Dalhousie University, in an unpublished manuscript, Joseph Brodsky the Artist, called “acts as a metonymic self-representation of the exiled writer, easing the pathos of the message and translating it into a comic register.”  When I spoke to John Wronoski of Lame Duck Books about the collection, the man who is an expert on modern European literature and who has appraised many Brodsky archives said it was “totally exciting”— the letters alone, he said, would be “jewels in any collection.”

I wrote about the Brodsky papers at Hoover here, but I have a longer article up at the current Hoover Digest, “Brodsky and His Muses.” An excerpt:
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In 1962, the high-voltage poet met a dark-haired artist, a woman of silences. He was almost twenty-two, she was nearly two years older. The rest was destiny. Their love, suffering, and final separation forged a poetic identity for the young poet, who would go on to face trial, internal exile, forced labor, psychiatric prisons, and eventually exile.

For decades after the liaison ended, Brodsky immortalized Marina Basmanova in a series of poems eventually published as New Stanzas to Augusta. And what did she give him? A son. But surely a less-observed aspect of the liaison is this: she fostered the poet as artist.

Basmanova lit the fire, but the kindling had been prepared by others. His father was a photographer, and Brodsky learned early how to compose an image in a viewfinder, to develop a “camera eye.” His own photographs show the influence of the father on the son. Moreover, the classical architectural lines of his hometown, the former and future Petersburg, imprinted themselves on his aesthetics almost from birth and found expression in almost everything he wrote. Brodsky certainly would have known of Pushkin’s similar habit of illustrating what he wrote. His parents particularly prized the drawings of Pushkin, and pored over Pushkin albums—which also must have made an impression on the future poet who had been compared to Pushkin for his restless daemon and poetic equilibristics.

On his last day in Russia, June 1972. (Photo: Lev Poliakov)

The great poet Anna Akhmatova took note of her protégé’s drawings in a1965 letter: “When I see them, I always think of Picassos illustrations to the Metamorphoses,” she wrote, recalling the Spanish artist’s deft black lines and the classical motifs that intrigued both Brodsky and Picasso. Other Brodsky drawings have been compared with the work of the French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, another painter he admired. 

In America years later, in 1981, Brodsky acknowledged his debt of gratitude to the great love of his early years in “Seven Strophes”:

I was practically blind. 
You, appearing, then hiding,
gave me my sight and heightened it.
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 Read the whole Hoover Digest article here.
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Joseph Brodsky celebrated in Russia via his friends, Carl and Ellendea Proffer

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017
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Carl, Ellendea, Brodsky copy

Carl and Ellendea Proffer with Joseph Brodsky in Ann Arbor, circa 1974.

Today would have been Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 77th birthday. We’ll celebrate with a note from his friend, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, co-founder of Ardis Books with her late husband, Prof. Carl Proffer of University of Michigan. Ellendea has just returned from another triumphant tour of Russia, where she is being treated like a goddess. The Proffers ran a publishing house that published the best of Russian literature when the Soviet houses did not. Now Russians are turning to her to learn a chunk of their own literary history. She is speaking to standing-room-only gatherings.

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Ellendea speaking at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

A few months ago she made a tour for Brodsky Among Us, newly published by Corpus. Now she is on tour for the publication of Carl Proffer‘s 1983 Widows of Russianewly translated and published in Russia – and selling very, very well. The book describes the Proffers’ meetings in Soviet-era Russia with the great literary widows of Russia, including Lily Brik and Nadezhda Mandelstam. It also includes Carl’s unfinished memoir of Joseph Brodsky (he died of cancer in 1984). His book being widely quoted on the internet. While others have written about Madame Mandelstam and Madame Brik and others since Carl’s memoir, she tells them, “Read it, to see the character of the man who was so important to your culure.”

Her message: “Do not make idols of people.” In today’s Russia, she told me, Joseph Brodsky is providing a model in how to resist censorship, and even outright oppression. Of course she speaks Russian fluently.

Here’s another bit of good news: Ellendea’s Brodsky Among Usa runaway bestseller in Russia, is in English at last. Here is a blurb on the back cover from an excellent article in The Nation“Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir [Brodsky Among Us] offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it, as a poet and a person. . . Brodsky Among Us appears to have been written in a single exhalation of memory; it is frank, personal, loving, and addictive: a minor masterpiece of memoir, and an important world-historical record.”  (Let me dissemble no more, gentle reader, it is Humble Moi who wrote the Nation article. You can read the whole thing here.)

I opened the English edition at random, and ran across this passage:

On Joseph Brodsky’s first morning in the United States I came downstairs to find a bewildered poet. He held his head with both hands and said: “Everything is surreal.”

It was surreal for me as well. Here he was in our little townhouse decorated in seventies style—wall-to-wall carpet, a “Mediterranean” couch, and my mother-in-law’s dining set, now used as a conference table.

brodsky-among-us“I got up this morning,” he said, humor mixing with alienation, “and I see Ian sitting on the kitchen counter. He puts bread in a metal box. Then the toast pops up by itself. I don’t understand anything.”

He had arrived at Detroit airport the day before, straight from London and his first meetings with famous British poets. And now he was here in Ann Arbor, which in no way corresponded to his imaginings; he really was like that literary frog who woke up and found he was in the Gobi Desert. Like many émigrés, he had imagined this country to be like his minus all the bad things. Nothing could have prepared him for the strangeness of this town, and the place he would occupy in it.

He later said, he came to be glad that his start was in Ann Arbor rather than New York, because he had time to adapt and get his English up to speed. Nonetheless, the early days were difficult for him, his eye could not get used to the scale of a university town of 100,000 (30,000 of them students at the University of Michigan). Soviet Russia was a centralized universe, with only two cities that mattered. America had many centers of power, and some of them looked like this town. He was intelligent enough to understand that he had entered a culture of low-context. The only thing unifying the diverse world of Americans was popular culture, and even that was weaker than centrally-controlled Soviet propaganda.

Ann Arbor would be Joseph’s home base until 1981; he would come back often even after moving away, always warmly welcomed. Joseph complained to Russian friends in the beginning that Ann Arbor was a desert, but actually it was something far, far worse: it was where he was forced to learn many new things, sometimes against his own inclinations. We taught him how to live independently in America—opening a bank account, writing checks, buying food, driving—and it was hard for him, he had no wife or mother to see to these things. All he had was us, and we were both working full-time, so he had to learn quickly.

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Ellendea interviewed at Moscow art museum.

Teaching Joseph how to drive was a Pninian experience, full of risk and comedy. An epic could be written about the number of people who took him for the driving exam (I think he failed the written test five times); he wanted to cheat but Carl wouldn’t let him—then he was ashamed he had wanted to. He had some spectacular accidents (once he jumped a median strip and ended up facing the wrong way), but he managed not to hurt himself or others.

Ann Arbor was the place he came to the full realization that he would not see his country again. Joseph had left his parents behind and now they were hostages, one of the many reasons he indulged in no direct political activity. (His two children—Andrei Basmanov and Anastasia Kuznetsova, the daughter of the ballerina Maria Kuznetsova)—did not have his last name, so they were somewhat safer.) Joseph missed his family, he was used to living in that tiny room carved off from theirs. On the other hand, he felt freer than he ever had in his life. (I recognized him in Bellow’s comment that only in America did the Jewish sons get to leave their parents’ houses.)

brodskyamongusHe was not cut off from his world in Leningrad: friends and scholars ferried letters, money and presents to them and information and letters back. There was always someone going or coming, including us, and there were many friends in Leningrad checking up on his parents and reporting to Joseph by letter and telephone.

It took Joseph about six months to people his Michigan world—Russians found him, American poets found him, interested graduate students and other professors found him; he found the girls himself.

He was almost never alone, but he experienced the loneliness of a man surrounded by people yet aware that the context has changed. That loneliness had a special flavor made up of longing and disgust, and can be seen most prominently in his “Lullabye of Cape Cod.” I know that Joseph had experienced this sort of loneliness before emigration, but the change sharpened the experience.

The fear that loneliness forced up from his subconscious is most searingly expressed in “The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn”; when I read this poem from 1975, I understood that the poet was the hawk who dies because has flown too high for survival: “what am I doing at such a height?” he asks himself.

Later Joseph gave interviews in which he talked about the years in Michigan as the only childhood he ever had.

birthday cakeIt returned me to his own words on the experience, at a commencement address in 1988: “I’m no gypsy; I can’t divine your future, but it’s pretty obvious to any naked eye that you have a lot going for you. …  you’ve been educated at the University of Michigan, in my view the best school in the nation, if only because sixteen years ago it gave a badly needed break to the laziest man on earth, who, on top of that, spoke practically no English – to yours truly. I taught here for some eight years; the language in which I address you today I learned here; some of my former colleagues are still on the payroll, others retired, and still others sleep the eternal sleep int he earth of Ann Arbor that now carries you. Clearly this place is of extraordinary sentimental value for me; and so it will become, in a dozen years or so, for you.”

Happy birthday, Joseph.

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The Proffers with the future Nobel poet, San Francisco, 1972.