Sunday, 26 May 2013

Venice inscribed (ii): Joseph Brodsky

Venice: the cemetery island church of San Michele, seen from Murano
Where else in the world, except in Venice, will you find two of the most controversial poets of the twentieth century, the first from America and the other from Russia, buried almost alongside each other? Here’s Ezra Pound, captured in 1945, extradited to America under threat of execution, then interned for twelve years in a mental institution; and there’s Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize-winner, exiled to Siberia and then effectively expelled from the Soviet Union.

The Protestant cemetery on the isola di San Michele is enclosed behind a high wall and quite different in character from every other part of this island where for centuries Venetians have buried their dead. Anne Stevenson describes the approach to it in her poem ‘At the Grave of Ezra Pound’:

We passed through the aisle of bambini,
(White stones with coloured photographs,
Flowers in tender urns,
The pebbles washed, the graves shut and tidy)

And found the poet from Crawfordsville
In a dank, shady plot,
EZRA POUND, drilled into lichened rock.

I’ve been visiting Venice regularly since 1998, though my first visit was in 1972. That was the year Ezra Pound died. I’d had an invitation to meet Pound earlier that year; but, shortly before I was due to go, Olga Rudge (his long-time, long-suffering partner and protector) wrote to say he was too ill to see me. Olga was a musician and his muse. His Cantos end with a fragment acknowledging his admiration for, and his debt to, her:

Her name was Courage
& is written Olga

 She outlived the poet by many years – dying in 1996 at the age of 100 - and now lies beside him.

There have been several accounts of Olga’s last years in Venice. John Berendt, in The City of Falling Angels, portrays her as a latter-day Miss Bordereau, the ancient lady in The Aspern Papers who guards the manuscripts of her long-dead lover with obsessive devotion. Berendt updates Henry James’ novella, presenting Miss Rudge as a frail and confused old woman, duped by a scheming American couple into surrendering Pound’s papers which then find their way, dubiously, to Yale.

The grave of Joseph Brodsky
Brodsky, in his Venice essay, Watermarks (1992), admits to mixed feelings about Pound:  as a young man, he says, ‘I had translated quite a bit of him into Russian … I had also liked his “make it new” dictum’ (p, 69). But the Cantos had left Brodsky cold, and as for Pound’s twelve-year incarceration in a mental institution in New York,  ‘in Russian eyes, that was nothing to rave about’. (p.70). So, when Susan Sontag asked him to come with her to meet Olga Rudge, Brodsky agreed, but had no great expectations:

We rang the bell, and the first thing I saw after the little woman with the beady eyes took shape on the threshold was the poet’s bust by Gaudier-Brzeska sitting on the floor of the drawing room. The grip of boredom was sudden but sure. (p.71)

Determined not to enjoy himself, Brodsky likens hearing Olga’s defence of Ezra against the inevitable charges of Fascism and anti-semitism to listening to an old record getting stuck. This ‘diminutive, shipshape lady’, as he describes her, ‘lifted her sharp finger, which slid into an invisible mental groove, and out of her pursed lips came an aria the score of which has been in the public domain at least since 1945 … A record, I thought; her master’s voice.’

The grave of Ezra Pound
As I have explained, I never got to meet Pound, and therefore never met Olga either; but I have tended their grave every time I have visited Venice more times than Brodsky and I think his depiction of Olga here is heartless. Today, Brodsky’s own grave is barely a lizard’s slither away from hers and Ezra’s.

Less heartless, perhaps (but only perhaps), is his account of seeing Auden and friends, one foggy evening, in Florian’s, the café in the Piazza San Marco:

On the red plush divans, around a small marbled table with a kremlin of drinks and teapots on it, sat Wystan Auden, with his great love, Chester Kallman, Cecil Day Lewis and his wife, Stephen Spender and his. Wystan was telling some funny story and everybody was laughing. In the middle of the story, a well-built sailor passed by the window; Chester got up, and without so much as a “See you later,” went in hot pursuit. “I looked at Wystan,” Stephen told me years later. “He kept laughing, but a tear ran down his cheek.” (p.133)

Is this Brodsky’s story or Spender’s? This episode actually belongs to the 1950s, and Brodsky himself did not visit Venice until 1972. He never saw the scene he evokes so vividly: I love ‘a Kremlin of drinks’, and the tables in Florian’s are exactly as he says they are. But what he ‘sees’ through the fog and the window is not Auden the cuckold, only Auden’s ghost.

‘Seeing’, however, is what Brodsky does best. ‘One’s eye precedes one’s pen,’ he writes, and his eye and his pen are equally sharp. ‘On the map this city looks like two grilled fish sharing a plate,’ (p.45) he notes, later remarking how the sun ‘sashays over the countless fish scales of the laguna’s lapping ripples’ (p.78). He’s quite right about the fish scales: that’s how Canaletto paints the movement of water. Brodsky sees the city as an eerie orchestra: boats and music, buildings and fish merge, ebb and flow into each other: the gondolas have ‘violin necks’; beneath an ‘octopal chandelier’, a grand piano has ‘a lacquered fin’:

In fact the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. (p.97)

Brodsky’s visits were always in winter. I think, indeed, that the perfect definition of Venice comes in his answer to someone’s question, ‘What is it like there in winter?’ ‘Well,’ he replies, after trying to find the best way to pinpoint the aloof beauty of the city surrounded by sea, ‘it’s like Greta Garbo swimming.’ (p.101).

After reading that, I can forgive Brodsky much.

Adrian Barlow

Books cited:
John Berendt, The City of Falling Angels (2005)
Joseph Brodsky, Watermark, an essay on Venice (1992)
Ezra Pound, The Cantos (new ed. 1999)
Anne Stevenson, Poems 1955-1955 (1995)

Read my previous 'Venice Inscribed' post:

Photographs © the author

Friday, 10 May 2013

‘The door wherein I went’: 1963 and me

‘Was 1963 the start of modern life?’ asked the Guardian newspaper this week in a special issue entitled Pop, Sex and Civil Rights and marking the fiftieth anniversary of what Philip Larkin called scathingly Annus Mirabilis. But there was nothing scathing about the Guardian’s approach to perhaps the most hyped twelve months of the twentieth century. Its aim was to bring historical perspective to bear on a single year mythologized in a way usually reserved for whole decades: the naughty nineties, the roaring twenties or that ‘low, dishonest decade’ the 1930s. Perhaps only MCMXIV (to quote the title of another Larkin poem) challenges 1963 as the defining, world-changing year of the last century.

The Guardian offered a helpful timeline – from the death of Hugh Gaitskell to independence for Kenya – and, after an introduction by Tariq Ali (who didn’t make headlines himself until 1968), had essays on Sex, Civil Rights, Pop and Feminism. I’ve read this special issue avidly: Profumo and Macmillan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King, all present and correct. How many of the Guardian’s readers, I wonder, actually experienced that year, or could answer truthfully the question, ‘Do you remember where you were when you heard Kennedy had been assassinated?’

‘I remember, I remember’ (quoting a Larkin title for the third and last time). As it happens, 1963 was a life-changing year for me too. In January, in the coldest winter since 1947 (which I don’t remember) I left my beloved home in the Fens – the huge, beautiful and freezing rectory of Tydd St. Mary – for the last time. I have written about Tydd before, but it’s only now I realize how strange it was to be leaving one home, spending a term away at boarding school and coming home again, but to a new home – Windlesham in Betjemanesque Surrey. Such translations can be instances of what Robert Herrick called ‘Times trans-shifting’, and this one was.

The Summer of ’63 was hot and steamy. The Profumo Affair was headline news, and reading the papers I stumbled through a lexical field full of strange terms: compromising positions, reefers, call girls, Rachmanism. I learned to laugh at the gentle satire of Flanders and Swann: ‘Nil combustibus profumo’: ‘no smoke without fire’;  ‘O tempora, o mores!’ ‘O Times, O Daily Mirror!’  The sharper satire of That Was The Week That Was was as yet beyond me – and after my bedtime, anyway.

But what makes 1963 a decisive year in my life was changing school. I was by then just 14. I would already have said English was my favourite subject, but within weeks, even days, my experience of reading and writing was changed utterly. At prep school, the poet we were invited to use as a model for our own versifying was John Drinkwater, and indeed for us modern poetry had ended somewhere just before the Georgians: ‘Sea Fever’, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘The Golden Road to Samarkand’ marked the limit of my poetic landscape. (I had, it’s true, learned ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat’ when I was eight, but six years later I still had no idea who TS Eliot was, or what else he had written. Yet after three weeks at St. John’s Leatherhead, I already had a part (as I’ve previously explained) in the school play Murder in the Cathedral.

And in our English lessons, a new world beckoned. One of the first poems I encountered was Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. I already knew Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – it had hung in a classroom of my prep school – but the idea that in a poem you could write about an executioner’s horse scratching its innocent behind, and about a ‘dog going on with its doggy life’ was a revelation. Suddenly, too, I ‘got’ what Auden meant by

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen….

Excitedly, clumsily, compulsively, I started trying to write poems myself. I was urged on by my teacher – and by Ted Hughes. Every week we listened to Hughes talking on the BBC about ‘Poetry in the Making’ , programmes later published by Faber, in 1967.  With ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘Pike’, those two still-extraordinary poems, Hughes explained the patience needed to let a poem fill the page. I didn’t know then, of course, that it was only a few months since Sylvia Plath had made supper for her children and then placed her head in the kitchen oven (an event recorded in the Guardian’s timeline). I’ve wondered since if making these programmes, sometimes using Plath’s poetry to illustrate a point, was therapy or purgatory for Hughes. Both, perhaps.

It wasn’t only poetry that defined how my world changed in 1963. Before the end of my first term, I had started to read novels from the school library that would have scandalized my father but which helped me to understand how fiction works. Of these, the most powerful was John Fowles’ The Collector, itself published in 1963 (so a brave purchase by the librarian). I still believe that this novel was as disturbing in its way as Look Back in Anger had been in the theatre seven years earlier. I learned much about fiction and about life from Fowles’ story of Miranda, a young art student in love with her teacher but abducted and imprisoned by a man she comes to think of as Caliban. I was reading it in bed one evening in November, hoping the prefect would be late turning out our dormitory lights. But he wasn’t. He came most prompt upon his hour, stood in the doorway with his hand on the light switch, said cheerily, ‘Goodnight, all!’ then paused, called over his shoulder, ‘By the way, someone’s just shot Kennedy’ – and turned out the light.

 Adrian Barlow