Title piece for Joseph Brodsky Was Joseph Brodsky publsihed by Levan Kavleli Publishing in 2012.
Read review by Judith Roche.
Purchase the book from bedouin books.
JOSEPH BRODSKY WAS JOSEPH BRODSKY
a quixotic reminiscence
I should probably begin by stating my credentials for writing a memoir which is not private, an article which is not scholarly, about Joseph Brodsky.
I was Joseph’s teaching assistant for two years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the start of the 1970s. In the course of that time, we became what I would call fitful friends.
I would not presume to say I ever really understood Joseph. He was a great poet, and a Russian, two classes of people that have always struck me as far more inscrutable than the Asian peoples singled out by cliché.
I was often intimidated or awed by Joseph, and felt that was as it should be—in the presence of genius, ones clumsy tongue is apt to wag more slowly. I was also often irritated. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that- but the claims on the writer of public honesty go deep. (I take it as axiomatic that private honesty, self honesty, is oxymoronic.)
I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and had some familiarity with the Slavicists there, having translated Jiri Orten (one of the world’s greatest virtually unsung poets- a Jew killed young in the holocaust; his words, deathless, are still awaiting life/publication) and later-to-be Nobel prize winner Jaroslav Seifert from Czech, with the help of Ladislav Matejka, himself a Czech ex-pat.
Ladislav eventually went on to Yale, and I lost touch with him. I lost touch with Joseph when he left, as well. Someone should write a play about “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Academic.” I do not think it will be me.
Back to Joseph.
I’m not sure why I was chosen to be his assistant. I didn’t get any money for the job, I remember that. I considered it payment enough to be in the precincts of Joseph Brodsky: I had somehow gotten hold of a few poems in bad translation. His thoughts and images seemed to burn through the awkward wording like strong sunlight coming from another planet. Well- even now, I find it difficult to write about Joseph without waxing poetic.
I think the fact that I knew who Joseph was, and had done some translating from a Slavic language, that I was willing, that I was married to a faculty member in the English Department- perhaps all these factors together led the powers that be to assign me the task. They needed somebody right away, and they needed someone who would actually teach the class for a few weeks, until Joseph could manage to make his way to Ann Arbor.
So, the class started. I introduced myself to the students, and handled the restive unhappiness that greeted my announcement. I understood their feelings. If I had been expecting Joseph Brodsky, and Lyn Coffin showed up, I would not have been a happy camper.
Eventually, Joseph arrived, and took over the reins. I can’t remember our first conversations. I can’t remember much of anything about anything these days.
For me, remembrances are like strings of bright beads- I remember moments, flashes- I get probably highly-polished (therefore, in some sense, probably false, at least highly-embellished) glimpses of the past.
The first thing I remember about “life with Joseph” was telling him about what we had done in the class so far, and asking if he had any questions. He looked at me searchingly and said, “How old are you?” He thought I was much younger, apparently. People did in those days. Ah, you see how it is- Once again, here I stand at the front of the class. I want to tell you about me, but you’re only interested in him. Understandable, if discouraging.
So, a couple of incidents I remember from the early days of class. One of the first poets we read was Cavafy. Joseph loved Cavafy, as what modern poet could not- The class members were grad (maybe an undergrad here and there?) students in Comparative Literature. If memory serves me at all, there were only about ten of them by the time Joseph arrived. (To be fair to myself, there were not all that many more when I arrived like a bad fairy on that first day of class, delivering the news that, for a while, I was it.)
The time of Joseph in Ann Arbor was one of the many heydays of the “Coddle the Students” approach. If a student said something wrong, most professors- well, at least most of the untenured faculty, most of the untenured literary faculty- tried to find a way to make the student’s opinion correct. After all, the reasoning went, we were teaching literature, not science. We certainly didn’t want to be seen as tromping on student egos or finding fault with their opinions- Most of us, after all, were pathetically grateful if a student had any opinion at all. Best not to quibble over right and wrong. There were not a lot of hands waving in the air, after all. And it was nice to feel ones speaking responded to.
So (I’m getting to it)- this young woman in one of the first classes not so much taught as guided by and prodded at by Joseph- spoke up about a Cavafy poem. I remember (because I loved and continue to love the poem) that it was “Myres: Alexandria, a.d. 340) on page 155 of our text. (The Complete Poems of Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven, with an introduction by W.H. Auden, who was one of Joseph’s favorite poets- but more on that later.) Joseph read the poem aloud- he was always reading poems aloud: it really startled the students, used to poems existing only in the thick atmosphere of paper.
“Myres” ends with the line, “I left quickly before the memory of Myres should be/ snatched away, should be altered by their Christianity.” Of course, immediately before that comes the line, “I had the vague feeling/ that Myres … was united, a Christian,/ with his own people, /and I was becoming/ a stranger….” Well, one is tempted to go on quoting Cavafy for an extended period- a temptation to which Joseph himself often surrendered- but getting back to the young woman student– After Joseph had read “Myres,” and asked for comment (the students that semester got more and more reticent- I thought it eminently understandable), the student in question raised her hand and said a bunch of things I’ve mercifully obliterated from my mind.
The gist of her ramblings had to do with Cavafy’s being a Christian, and how one could see his Christianity in the poem. Awkward words to that effect.
I remember the look on Joseph’s face- It was one of the first times I saw this look, so to speak, “dawn” on his countenance. It was certainly far from the last.
It was a look compounded of astonishment and, I would say, something like horror- with a little dressing of contempt or derision. He allowed the young woman to finish and then said without moving (he could be almost sibylline in some of his pronouncements) something on this order: “One can say many things about Cavafy. He is, after all, a great poet, and contains multitudes. You, however, have just said the One thing that Should Not and Cannot Be Said. In the case (one of Joseph’s favorite expressions was “in the case’) I am not clear- You are totally and completely wrong. You couldn’t be wronger.”
The silence in the room was charged.
I thought for a moment the young woman was going to bolt, but no… Her face flushed, she endured the rest of the class without once raising her gaze from the Cavafy text. (At least, in my memory.)
That is one in-class moment. Another came shortly after that.
Brodsky asked the students who they thought should get the Nobel Prize in Literature. (His candidate was Milosz, who did go on to get it.) Someone- fortunately, a male student- Joseph was always easier on the guys- suggested Borges. And Joseph said two things I will never forget- “Well, first of all, I don’t think they give prizes for blindness. Second of all, Spanish isn’t really a language.”
Charged silences were common in Brodsky’s classrooms.
The last of the trinity of classroom moments I remember was this- The assignment (this was in the middle of the semester) had been to read Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Brodsky read some passages aloud, and asked for comment. There was none. (As I say, charged silences were common.) The students reluctance- no, make that fear– was palpable. And Joseph surprised us by being charitable– indulgent, even. He seemed to be in a remarkably good mood. “Come on,” he said (or something to that effect.) “Let’s talk about the poem.”
The students visibly relaxed a little, and began to make comment.
After several moments of animated but cloudy student discourse, the look dawned again.
“Wait,” said Joseph, in his old Old Testament voice. “You do know who Auden was? And of all ten students in Comparative Literature, not one raised his/her hand to indicate any knowledge at all.”
Joseph shook his head. American students, native speakers of English, who didn’t know Auden. One could see that the extent of American barbarism was dawning on him, again.
“Lyn,” Joseph said, speaking wearily, as if from a great depth- “Tell them something about Auden.” So I told them something about Auden (probably trembling in my boots lest I make an error- Joseph’s mind was like a steel trap for all things poetic,)
And the conversation went on, not much more smoothly than before. I do not think we had gotten much past “He became his admirers” (I tried to find Auden just now on my bookshelf, and couldn’t- I can see Joseph shaking his head) when the look came back, now intensified.
“Is it possible,” Joseph asked, in a tone which made clear he had already proceeded to the wrong side of the question, and was speaking rhetorically (i.e., sarcastically) “you so-called English-speaking students of Comparative Literature don’t know W. B. Yeats? Is it possible?”
And I realized- up to now, we had studied Greeks and Poles and Lithuanians. Now we were launching upon the English speakers. And Joseph expected us, all of us, all speakers of the English language, to know their poetic heritage. And they (we) didn’t.
A student who rarely spoke raised his hand, seeing a chance, I think, to shine. “Wasn’t Yeats Irish?” he said. Joseph groaned.
“Lyn,” he said, “Tell them something about Yeats.”
Those are the classroom incidents I remember most clearly. Out of class, I remember a few things. I remember Joseph’s asking me to be part of a reading with Tomas Wenclova. Wenclova (a really nice man, very unassuming, and a terrific poet despite that) read the Lithuanian originals, Joseph Russian translations, I American renderings. (Not mine.) I remember how struck I was by the varying tonalities: Wenclova’s voice transcribed a hilly terrain. With Joseph, we got to the mountains- a fervent, almost savage up and down- not just mountains, but holy mountains- not just imposing men, but prophets! And then I read- and my voice sounded in my own ears like dishwater. Of course, the feminine register was a shock after Joseph’s testosteronic forcefulness, but it was more (and in this case, more is less) than that- My American modality spoke of flat plains, and dust bowls, the “foul bag and bone shop of the heart,” to quote a poet mentioned above. (Multiple choice test to follow.)
Then there was the doctor. I will tell this incident with a mute on; I think that’s only fair, given that Joseph is not here to present his side of things. (Nor would he deign to, if given the chance- He had more important things on his mind than the trivia of daily life.) Joseph was an inveterate smoker and drinker and lover of women. Quel (Maybe it should be Quelle) surprise!
As we got to be something like friends (Joseph liked visiting me and my husband- My husband was smart, well-versed in English poetry, ironic- and six feet six inches tall. Joseph used to say something to the effect that he loved having someone to really look up to.) Joseph confided to me that he was concerned about his health. We all were, all us lovers of literature in Ann Arbor- Joseph smoked like a Russian smokestack, drank like a Russian fish, and… and did not get nearly enough shut-eye. (Part of what made him a great poet?) As a result, he coughed a lot, and his breathing wasn’t the greatest. So- when he told me about his concerns, I suggested a trip to the doctor. Reasonable enough.
Then ensued a long debate (but friendly- I would have withdrawn in the face of Josephian displeasure- I was, after all, motivated by my concern and respect and admiration of him, my evaluation of him as self-destructive by inches and ounces)-
Joseph, it seemed, was afraid of doctors. I said I knew a really friendly, smart one, who liked poetry. (Amazingly, I did.) Joseph said he refused to wait, and American medicine was built on a culture of waiting. I said I would see if I could get him the first appointment. It would have to be early. I said it would be. Very early. Fine. He didn’t have a car and didn’t want to take a taxi. I would drive him. It would be expensive. I thought the university would provide the monies. And on and on.
Finally he agreed to this chauffeur-driven crack of dawn (I think it was just before 8) appointment to have his heart and lungs checked. (He was very afraid of cancer, as who among those of middling age living in America are not?)
So, I got up at 6 or 6:30, gulped a cup of lukewarm tea, drove over to Joseph’s, picked him up, took him to the hospital, guided him to the doctor’s office, ran interference with the receptionist, blah blah blah.
And in an amazingly short period of time, perhaps half an hour or forty-five minutes, Joseph had been seen. The doctor made recommendations which I wouldn’t divulge even if I could remember them, and I can’t- and we were on our way. Essentially, Joseph had been reassured that there was nothing horribly the matter with him.
“Well,” said Joseph, driving home. “I have to say I’m really glad I got myself to do this.”
Perhaps you can imagine my reaction.
The last times I had significant interactions with Joseph had to do with the publication of my book of Akhmatova translations- I don’t read Russian, but had worked with interlinear translations, and Serge Shishkoff, a native speaker teaching at the University, brilliant and kind. First of all, I asked Joseph if he would write a letter recommending me and the translations. “Well,” said Joseph. “Let’s do this. Here—” and he signed his name at the bottom of two or three sheets of paper. “Write what you like,” he said.
So I did.
I wrote something brief about my translations “being poems in their own right and doing something like justice to the originals.” I added, “One can think of no higher praise than that.” I showed Joseph the three-sentence letter I had (literally) written in his (i.e., over his) name, and he said it was fine.
By that time, Joseph was moving on, leaving Ann Arbor for NewYork, where he would live until he died. I had a contract from W.W. Norton in my hand for my Akhmatova translations, predicated on the book’s bearing an introduction by Joseph Brodsky.
He had promised to write said introduction before he left, but had not done so. To say he was a procrastinator perhaps does not convey the full extent of the situation. Joseph promised a lot. He always, eventually, delivered. But sometimes later was so later it was no better than never.
So- the book went into galleys. No introduction.
I wrote and called. Joseph (offhandedly) promised and promised. Norton began making threatening noises. The book would be pulled unless Joseph delivered. I was desperate, so I did a wild and desperate thing.
I went to the library and read all the introductions I could find in English that Joseph had previously written- paying special attention to what he said about Russian writers. Using his own words, and twisting them to fit Akhmatova, then weaving them into a more or less coherent Introduction, I wrote Brodsky’s Introduction for him. (I justified myself on the basis of Joseph’s having not been true to his word and b) those sheets of paper he had given me with his signature at the bottom. To be sure, a whole introduction was perhaps not what he had envisioned- But, then, neither had I.)
Anyway, I wrote the Introduction and sent it out, then waited with bated breath for Norton’s response. (Maybe, I told myself, as I mused about the stressful situation- Maybe when Joseph finds out, he’ll think it’s funny or a good “up yours” to the academic establishment. I could not quite push myself into being sanguine about his reaction but, like Scarlet, I would think about that tomorrow, after the book was published. Maybe the “fake” introduction would become a classic, taught in classes of Russian literature.)
Norton’s reaction came swiftly. They LOVED the Introduction. Their letter (written by someone who knew the lay of Brodsky land) said he and the other Norton people thought it was the best piece of prose Brodsky had ever written. (Inwardly, I complimented myself- It was, I noted, a truly loving tribute– condensed, vintage Brodsky.)
And so the book went ahead, with not a word from Brodsky. And I kid you not- about one hour before I was going to go to the post office and send back the by now corrected and recorrected galleys of the whole book- a package arrived on my doorstep from Brodsky. It was his Introduction. The note read, “Sorry, I’m late with this” (or something to that effect.) It was signed, I remember, “Citizen Joe.”
What to do? I immediately sent the new Introduction to Norton. Joseph, I said, had written another Introduction, and he wanted that to be used for the book. Norton read the new Introduction and objected. The first Introduction, they said, was by far the better.
“I agree,” I told them, (I actually did) “but Joseph Brodsky is Joseph Brodsky. And he wants the second Introduction. He would be really unhappy if the first Introduction were used.” (Truer words were never spoken.)
Finally, to my astonishment and immense relief, Norton agreed. The book was published with Joseph’s “real” Introduction.
My last contact with Joseph was not a terribly happy one- A year or so after the book came out, guilt assailed me, and curiosity. (Those two so often come together.) I wondered what Joseph’s reaction to my masquerade would be.
We weren’t really in the same circle any more. I didn’t hear from him. I was hurt. I thought I might get a (hopefully amused) reaction. I sent him the Introduction I had pastiched together. I don’t know whether he ever wrote me back or not. I don’t think so. I think I heard from a mutual acquaintance that Joseph was not amused.
I will close with my favorite memory of Joseph, of a time with Joseph. He and I gave a reading at Guild House, a small, friendly venue, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. (I have the framed poster in my bathroom.) I do not know the year, since the poster is mute on that macro point.
It had all been arranged. I would read some of my own poems, then Joseph would read his poems in Russian, and I would read the English translations—Russian, English, Russian, English- like that. I can’t tell you who the translator was for the English versions of Brodsky’s poems. Joseph liked to ask a lot of people to translate from the original or, if they didn’t know Russian, from an interlinear rendering. Then he would cobble together a translation, add something of his own or take a little out- and publish it as his own. (I remember years later recognizing “my” lines in one of his published books. I was not amused, either.) It didn’t really, I suppose, hurt any one of his collaborators- but it was a lot of work for no glory and no thanks.
Anyway- so there we were at Guild House that night. I read first as we’d agreed (saving the best to last), then we had an intermission. At the intermission, Joseph informed me that he’d asked a male graduate student to read aloud the English versions. This was something of a blow to me, as I had been practicing my delivery, and was looking forward to speaking those wonderful poems aloud.
But, as I would later explain to Norton, Joseph Brodsky was Joseph Brodsky- I, of course, agreed, with what I hoped passed for gracious acceptance.
And then came the moment… I suppose it was a “you had to be there” moment. But it was like this- there was Joseph, me, my husband, a small but enthusiastic crowd. In the crowd, were several beautiful young women who seemed to have a special and specific interest in Joseph that, shall we say, did not extend itself to Russian, or poetry. There was the male graduate student, a little flustered and red in the face- Joseph had, I assume, “tapped” him for the honor shortly before the reading- even during the intermission.
Joseph read the first of his poems. The male graduate student got up. The line (as well I knew, having rehearsed it at home) was supposed to be, “I reach into the drawer for a shirt/ and the whole day’s shot.” (Joseph loved to salt and pepper his verse with the slang-detritus of common speech.)
Instead, the graduate student said in a loud, not very poetic voice, “I reach into the drawer for a skirt, and the whole day’s shot.” Perhaps coincidentally, several of the beautiful young women in the audience blushed at that, and somebody started to laugh. This was a local audience. Brodsky had been in Ann Arbor for perhaps six months. Word had gotten around. Pretty soon, the small room was convulsed with merriment.
Joseph didn’t seem to mind, but the graduate student had the look of one on the guillotine.
So there you have it- my memories of Joseph Brodsky, undependable and fitful as they are. Somewhere in my files, I have his reading list. All I remember at the moment is that it featured Walter Benjamin.
I would like to close (poet that I am- have to get a poem in by hook or by crook- Are you listening, Joseph- Hook or by crook, that’s for you) with three of the poems I wrote in Joseph’s honor during those turbulent, halcyonic days I was his assistant in Ann Arbor.
One I quote because it has to do with the quality of his speaking (and is short)-
pursued through the snow
by consonants like Russian wolves
I will quote my second (and, for the purposes of this article, my penultimate) poem to Brodsky in its entirety, though it is a page long. It is based on, and so far as I know, is entirely true to, one of the reminiscences Brodsky shared with us in that long ago class on Comparative Literature, and I tried (quixotically) to stay faithful to his way of speaking:
Brodsky’s Two Memories of Prison
The first prison was built around a large
courtyard and they used that yard to stack
Siberian timber: the whole area was,
to employ the Americanism, under-developed, and
lumber was its only resource. We prisoners
existed to cut lumber, but so many of us
(I don’t mean to be facetious, just truthful)
were so busy dying, we didn’t have much—
what’s the idiom?—heart for the job.
They conferred and decided upon
a Socialistic Competition. So I said,
And what if I refuse to enter the lists?
Simple, they said. Then you don’t eat.
The morning came as it always does, even
in prison, and we began: I had a short, rough axe
that suited me, and red woolen mittens,
a child’s mittens because of my small hands.
I worked like—not like a maniac, as you would say—
like an automaton. Lunchtime came and went and still
I worked. When it grew too dark to see, they made me stop.
It was more comfortable for them that way….
Another time, another courtyard, another prison—
Archangelsk, I think—We, just off the train, were
camping in the courtyard, doing whatever it is prisoners
mostly do—It isn’t waiting, exactly, though it looks like it.
One of us must have gotten too close to the wire:
a guard shot him, climbed down from his tower,
turned the man over as a bureaucrat turns over a form,
a piece of paper, checked his neck for signs of life, found
none. That would have been it except the prisoner’s watch
caught the guard’s attention. He lifted the watch hand to
his ear, and listened. What he heard must have been
satisfactory, because he took the watch.
I will close with a sort of haiku, a poetic epitaph I wrote for Joseph and showed to him. Epitaphs were a favorite topic of my discussions with Joseph- death-obsessed as we both were. He loved the epitaph Yeats wrote for Yeats, I remember- “Cast a cold eye/ on life on death/ Horseman, pass by.” (I didn’t and still don’t care for it.)
I seem to remember (or like to think) the following did manage to amuse him:
Here lies Joseph Brodsky
from the Russian
You had to know him to know him. I count myself as greatly fortunate for having had that privilege.
Brodsky, too, has become his admirers.