Joseph Brodsky, the great poet-exile, never revisited his beloved Petersburg. But as Rachel Polonsky remembers, he recited Auden in Cambridgeby Rachel Polonsky / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are cities one won’t see again,” Brodsky wrote in his great poem of exile, December in Florence. He might have gone back to Petersburg when the “renamed city” of his birth had been renamed back again. He once said he would return to Russia on condition that everything he had written was published there. If that hasn’t happened yet, it is not for lack of love. It is the fact that Brodsky never did go back to Petersburg-the city he loved and which loved him-that haunts Tatyana Tolstoya’s tender eulogy in the New York Review of Books. When she suggested to him once that he return incognito, a “childlike expression of helplessness, a strange sort of dreaminess,” came over his face. In his exile from Russia, Brodsky became another secular saint, a martyr-poet like Pushkin or Mandelstam. “How would he be received in Russia?” an interviewer once asked Bella Akhmadulina, another Russian poet of his generation. “It makes me weak all over to think of it,” she replied. “He would be received with devotion. With utter adoration.” This was a love which was spoken of in kitchens, in whispers. I remember Leningrad friends telling me, in grief, of the night they had burned their samizdat copy of Brodsky, fearing their flat might be searched. I was mutely embarrassed. I did not tell them the story of my one brief meeting with their beloved poet. Brodsky loved many cities. Cambridge was not one of them. He had once suffered a near-fatal heart-attack there. He came back to Cambridge one sullen, chilly afternoon in 1985 to give a lecture. As I drove him, in my tutor’s car, from the railway station, he looked out at the city and sniffed. “Cambridge. Memento mori. A memento more or less…” (He could never resist a pun.) As we walked towards the lecture hall, he turned and looked at me for the first time. “Find me a copy of Auden’s September 1, 1939. I forgot the poem. I need it for this talk.” I ran into the English faculty library, to the Auden shelf, grabbed the Collected Works, and breathlessly entered the large lecture hall. A dozen people were scattered across the back rows, ill at ease, with their coats on. Brodsky was pacing back and forth on the stage. I presented the book. He handed it back. “No, the poem isn’t in there. You should know that. I’ll have to remember it.” I retreated with Auden to a seat. Brodsky asked for a cigarette, ripped off the filter-Russianising it-and began to recite in his characteristic incantatory beat, pounding through the trimeters of Auden’s 99 line poem without faltering. In time, the west gave Brodsky all the plaudits it had to offer: academic affiliations, prizes-Guggenheim, MacArthur, Nobel-space in the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books for his latest poems in his own translations. We knew he was a real poet, so we took his poetry on trust, although in English he never quite convinced.”Sophisticated razzmatazz,” John Bayley called Brodsky’s English style. The texture of his Russian was somehow smoothed into an “international gloss” when he translated into his adopted tongue. But the English prose was revelatory. The essays in Less Than One are the best-lit windows on the hidden trove of Russian poetry that exist. When Brodsky talked about the Russian language, he talked of mothers, cradles, childhood, home. He called Petersburg “the cradle of Russian poetry,” where “iambic beat is as natural as cobble stones.” He felt his exile as a “linguistic event;” he was made to “retreat into his mother tongue.” After exile in 1972, Brodsky went on writing Russian poetry in foreign cities: Florence, Venice, Rome, London, New York. It was as if, says Bella Akhmadulina, he “procreated Russian poetry inside himself;” he did not need to hear the language around him. Then, in 1977, Brodsky bought himself an English typewriter and began to write in English. For love of Auden. Brodsky’s love affair with Auden’s mother tongue began in 1964 when he was exiled from Leningrad to a small village in the far north. A friend sent him an anthology of English poetry which, by chance, opened at WH Auden’s elegy In Memory of WB Yeats. For Brodsky, poetry came out of rubbish. When congratulated on a clever image, a good rhyme, Brodsky would say that all he had done was to fish out something that was always there. “Senility” has always rhymed with “chilly tea.” Rhymes are the “loose ends” in language. Brodsky’s life was an interweaving of the loose ends of Russian and Anglo-American culture into a pattern with beauty and sense. In his essay An Immodest Proposal, Brodsky has a vision of culture among the leftover ends and scraps: “Books find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it’s worth.” For what it’s worth.