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
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…