The Knight in the Panther Skin

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BOOK ONE
The Story of Rostevan, King of Arabia

32 1/1
Once there ruled in Arabia, Rostevan, a king by God’s grace
Thriving, majestic, generous- modest though in the highest place.
So just and merciful, many vassals did his service embrace.
Himself a fearless warrior, a peerless speaker, never base.

33 1/2
Rostevan had one child, a daughter, to the world a shining light,
Like unto the stars she was, or a moon that makes the heavens bright.
Whoever looked on her was bereft of his heart and soul and sight.
It needs a wise man to praise her with words both masterful and right.

34 1/3
The name of this daughter was Tinatin, let it be known to all!
When she’d grown to be a woman, her beauty held the sun in thrall.
One day the king, in highest spirits, to his viziers sent a call,
And he spoke graciously to them when they’d assembled in his hall.

35 1/4
He said: “I need your wisest counsel on a matter I’ll declare:
Every rose will fade and wither, no matter though it once was fair.
The dry rose falls within the garden, a new rose arises there.
The sun has set for us, the night is dark. Why should we not despair?

36 1/5
“I grow cold. Old age is like a sickness, a raging plague in me.
It’s the sorrow of the world. Only a few tomorrows we’ll see.
Of what worth is a light when it’s becoming darkness by degree?
So let us crown my daughter now. No sun is worthier than she.”

37 1/6
The viziers said, “King, why do you insist that you are old so soon?
For though it’s true our rose has faded, we all know it as a boon.
It still excels in scent and color though its day is far past noon.
What kind of star dares offer challenge even to a waning moon?

38 1/7
“Oh, king, please don’t speak thus to us: your rose is not faded today.
Bad counsel from you is better than the good another might say.
It is right to do whatever will make your heartache go away.
It is best to give the kingdom to her who holds the sun in sway.

39 1/8
Although a woman, she is a sovereign, ordained by God’s decree.
We are not flattering you; but even in your absence agree.
Like her radiance, her deeds are as bright as the sunshine to see.
Lion’s whelps are equally lions, though female or male they be.

40 1/9
Avtandil was a general, the commander-in-chief’s own son.
Tall and slim as a cypress he was– his presence, the moon and sun
His visage was as pure as the clearest crystal; beard he had none.
By Tinatin’s luxurious lashes he found himself undone.

41 1/10
He kept his love-madness hidden, lodged deep within him like a dart.
Whenever he couldn’t see her, though, his rose’s fading would start;
Whenever he saw her, fire leapt up, his wound more sharply would smart.
Love alone should be blamed– Love with the power to break a man’s heart. (http://amzn.to/1PVppHV)

What Do You Do When a Student Threatens Murder?

What Do You Do When A Student Threatens Murder?

Dear Readers,

This is not a “Reflective Essay” in terms of its being measured or balanced. This is a Reflective Essay because it attempts to put down on the page some of the thoughts, ideas, and observations I’ve had since the above poem first came into my hands on April 17, 2006, and began to haunt me. (It haunts me to this day.) The writing will necessarily be raw and perhaps a little jumbled.

Two months ago, one of my Renton co-teachers put the following prompt on the board because she thought it would lead to some good Creative Writing: “Write about a time when you broke up with someone. What feelings did this inspire in you?” She told me privately that she had just gone through a breakup herself, and wanted to see how her students handled such things.

I did not think the writing prompt was a good idea, since it asked for a lot of negative emoting, without tying it to any narrative specifics. I was afraid to tell the teacher this, however. She was clearly in a vulnerable space and I did not want to further upset her or delay the start of class.

The class we co-taught was a difficult one. At the start of the year, it had been a “grab-bag” course, a “dumping ground” for athletes and English-as-a-second-language students whose writing was, so far as anyone knew, of dubious merit. The class started out being huge (36/37/38) but by the time The Poem was written, the class had returned to a “normal” size.  The class had little cohesion. There were respectful, even obedient students, mostly Asian, who hardly ever spoke up in class. There was a clique of mostly African-American students, who had a large ‘tude on their mutual shoulders. Several of them had been featured in the local papers, were virtually guaranteed for college admission (they’d been told) on the basis of their basketball abilities.

The student in question was one I had identified early on as a class leader. James and several others were allowed to listen to headphones during class, with the proviso that they take out the earplugs when someone spoke to them. James had trouble staying in his seat: he moved about at the back of the class; he frequently asked for and got passes to the men’s room, or showed up late with excuses. In an earlier exercise, he and his buddies, working in a small group, responded scatologically to a “skeletal story” exercise and was reprimanded by the teacher. James seemed to hold his having gotten into trouble against me, personally. He rebuffed any attempts to talk to him, and crumpled writing in which I had praised his abilities.

During the “break up” class on April 17, I saw the teacher try to engage James in conversation, to discuss what he had written, but James put his hands over his paper, and wouldn’t let her see. He handed me the paper directly. This was highly unusual for him.

When I got home that night, I read through a bunch of expectable responses- Students’ ex’s were described as “lower than scum;” people said they were sorry they’d ever met their ex’s, that their ex’s were not nearly good enough for them, or way too good; they said they wished they’d never met their ex; they said if their ex were dying of thirst in the dessert, they wouldn’t give them water, and so on. Their writing was full of “tell not show” words—“Despair,” “Grief,” “Anger,” “Frustration.” And then, at the very end of the whole batch of student work, I came to James’s poem.

J**** G*****  4-17-0? Per. 4 Lyn writen

Im a kill you

cut throat now u die

why

die, die, die

Im southside

I’ll kill u witthe gun

keep yo mouth wide

why

cause you should die,

burnt up, no life

cut deeply with sharp knives

you dyeing isliketaken a thousand lives

why

Imcrazy, you made me like this,

pissed at you and the world,

all over you, a dumb ass girl,

with a jerry curl.

sryke.

Its that time, good bye

you are done,

your life is none

 

When I first read the poem, I thought it was directed at me. I thought “keep yo mouth wide” was a reference to his thinking (as I knew he did) that I talked too much in class. “Im southside” I thought referred to the fact that I live in basically whitebread Magnolia, and he lives in a lower class ‘hood in Renton. I thought “you made me like this” referred to me and his other teachers and all the other adults in his life who had let him down, who had failed to help him reach his potential anywhere except basketball.

I read the “dumb ass girl” with a “jerry curl” part over, until I was sure James’s poem was not directed at me. After all, I reminded myself, the topic had been “breaking up.” Also, the teacher had told me one time when I was complaining of James’s class performance and attitude that she thought he needed to be “cut special slack” since he’d just broken up with his girl friend. I calmed down for a moment, then immediately got all worked up again. So the focus for his death threat wasn’t me, but against the statistically most likely target- his ex-girl friend.

I caught myself. This was, after all, poetry. Did we not talk about poetic license? Why was I running so scared? Wasn’t I just knee-jerk over-reacting in a “culture of fear” way to something that was, after all, a very powerful piece of writing?

I went back and read over all the other student responses, hoping for something that looked or felt a little similar, so I could relax a little. But going over the other writing just made me more keenly aware of how different James’s piece was. Nowhere, in any of the other angry, depressed, guilty, resentful, accusatory writing, was there so much as a hint of anybody’s taking action against another person.

I thought for a moment of what made the piece powerful. I thought aimlessly of all the “I” sounds in the poem- the rhyming of die and I and why and knife and life and the concluding “truncated Shakespearean sonnet” couplet—“you are done/ your life is none.” I thought of how a critic might tease apart the Donnean wit of the conclusion. (reminscent of the famous, “I have done/ You have Donne”) I imagined myself as a lecturer explaining, “You see, the victim’s life is no longer hers; it is forfeit. Neither is it the victimizer’s, since it amounts to zero in his eyes. The poet is saying here that the speaker of the poem is saying he will manipulate the physical (by killing his victim), until her physical state is equatable in its nullness to the state of its metaphorical value.”

I sat with the poem for a long time. I thought of putting it away in a drawer and forgetting about it. No one would know. No one would be the wiser. If found out, I would be culpable of nothing more than—Nothing more than— When I have difficult decisions to make, I find a useful strategy is to apply “worst case scenarios” to both sides of the equation. So, here, if I “reported” James (and I wasn’t sure to who, or what consequences would follow from the reporting; he hadn’t done anything yet; he’d only written a poem), the worst case scenario would be that he would shut down completely in class, refuse to participate whatever, pressure by example his whole little clique, and beyond that, the class, to turn against me. No, wait. Why had I come up with that as a worst case scenario? What was the matter with me? The worst case scenario if I reported James was that he would become enraged and carry out against me the actions he threatened to take against his ex- girl friend. The worst case scenario if I didn’t say anything to anyone was that James would kill his ex-girl friend. The worst case scenario if I did say something was that James would kill me. What was the matter with me was that I was frightened.

Now my mind leapt into lurid technicolor fantasizings. James would kill his ex, then kill me, then kill the whole class. Renton would be the next Columbine. He and his athletic group would band together a la Lord of the Flies: they would band together and come to school armed with a whole shooting match of supplies, available at gun shows and elsewhere.

I told myself that was impossible. Then I flashed back a few years. I was living in a peaceful country house with my husband, a psychiatrist, and my three year old daughter. The dog had awakened me at 2 in the morning. He was downstairs on the back porch, barking his “something’s wrong and you need to take care of it” bark. I went quietly downstairs—no sense in waking either of them up—and went into the kitchen. The minute the dog saw me standing by the door, he stopped barking. And that’s when I heard Crazy Pete pounding on his door. Crazy Pete normally liked to play his Crazy Religion radio station loudly at night. It was hard to ignore. Even through a couple of doors, I found it difficult not to hear that Elvis, for example, had been the reincarnated Jesus. He had not died, but was wandering around…. I had just last week come around to realizing that two of our renters needed to go. I had already spoken to Pete, and was planning to speak to Berna Drumwright, the world’s ugliest woman, though sweet, a welfare renter, who mumbled odd things and tried to borrow money for cigarettes the day after she paid her rent. I was planning to turn over the rental of the whole back of the house to Jason, a cheerfully ambitious up and coming young man who came with references and worked two jobs and was going to build us a basketball court. With the two crazies gone, the house could return to a peaceful state.

But Pete was shouting as he pounded, “He’s killing her. Jason’s killing her.” I ran to get my husband, still asleep upstairs, and called 911 on my cell phone as I ran. I told my husband what little I knew, and he pulled on some jockey shorts and stumbled downstairs. As I was telling the 911 operator what little I knew, it occurred to me that the house had gone back to being silent. I thought of waking up my daughter and taking her away, but I didn’t know what was happening. “Sit tight,” the operator advised. We’ll be right there.” I stepped out of the front door, and walked around the corner of the house until I could see the back entrance. The door to it was open, and the light was on. There was my husband, throwing himself against Berna’s door. At first I saw him in profile, but then he turned toward me. His head was bloody. Then there was a noise, and my husband disappeared into Berna’s room. I ran up the back stairs and followed him in. Berna lay on the floor. There was literally blood everywhere I looked. She was naked from the waist down, Her face had been bashed in. Before I could think that I didn’t know what to do, police and an ambulance came. They took Berna away. Pete was nowhere to be found. My husband told the officers that he had been trying to enter Berna’s room to stop Jason from doing whatever he was doing and Jason had tried to keep the door closed, bracing himself with his feet. When my husband got the upper part of the door half-open and stuck his head in, Jason hit him on the forehead, backwards, with a wine bottle. My husband said Jason was wearing nothing but underpants. He had apparently gone out the window at some point.

“Don’t worry,” the police said, “we’ll go after him with the dogs. You don’t have to worry.” “But there are doors on the other side of the house that lead directly into his room,” I said. “What if he comes back to try to get clothes or something? He has a key. In the movies, they always come back.” “You have the dog,” they said. “The dog will bark.” “But the dog barked because Jason was attacking Berna. He knows Jason. Jason gives him biscuits. He might let Jason back into the house. Please check his room before you go.” So they checked Jason’s room begrudgingly, and when they opened Jason’s closet, Jason sprang on them from the top shelf. And they led him away, smiling his obliging smile, still wearing only his underpants, blood on his chest and arms.

All the jumbled events of that night came back to me, and the trial afterward, and how Jason pleaded no contest and got some really light sentence and how about the time the sentence was to have ended, I saw Berna walking on the street, and she looked wonderful, with a new hairdo, new clothes, a new face.

What if Jason in the days or the week before attacking Berna had threatened to kill her? What if, because the threat came in the form of a poem, no one took it seriously?

And then I flashed back to the year before Jason, when my mother was very near death, and we all feared the worst, and the early morning phone call came and I thought, “This is it,” and took the phone to hear that my 26-year-old niece had been stabbed to death on the Appalachian Trail, stabbed almost thirty times, and her boy friend, traveling with her, shot three times.

When I read James’s poem, a wave of fear and violent remembrances swept through me. It took several days for that to subside. I reported what had happened to the Language Arts supervisor at the school, and then to the class teacher. The class teacher said the “scary” poem “didn’t sound at all like James,” but agreed that we should report it to the school nurse. It turned out that’s what happens at Renton when someone threatens violence against themselves or others: they’re sent to the nurse. That’s all that happens—a one time visit to the nurse. The school is has had its share of lockdowns and reports of guns and even some sporadic gang violence. I guess a “scary” poem doesn’t loom large in their list of worries.

And then I remembered being a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I was friendly acquaintances with a famous poet, a Nobel Prize winner, and was pleasantly surprised to have him call me from Berkeley one day. He told me his son was “running amuck,” and threatening people’s lives. He gave me the number of his son’s best friend, a Canadian psychologist, and asked me to go and talk to his son (whom I’d only met once) and see if I could talk him into getting help. Another long story, the upshot of which was that the son was “ravaging” the anthropology department, sending letters to faculty and putting notes in mailboxes which threatened to have the people “executed” for “crimes against the state.” I spoke on many occasions to various social service agencies, agitating (along with the friend, who had come down from Canada to be of help) to have the poet’s son put in a mental hospital. The social agencies said they couldn’t do anything because the poet’s son didn’t use the proscribed language. “He doesn’t say ‘kill’ or ‘murder,’” they explained to me. “As long as he sticks to words like ‘execute,’ we can’t do anything. In the end, the Canadian friend and I realized if anyone was going to give the poet’s son the respite we felt he needed (the friend felt even more strongly than I that the poet’s son was very dangerous), one of us was going to have to commit him. The Canadian friend, as it turned out, couldn’t do it, because he wasn’t an American citizen. So I did.

I reflected on how seriously we take language, and found myself wondering how good a predictor language was of future event. (I remember from my days as a hospice social worker that written expressions of suicidality were one of the strongest predictors of actual attempts. Going over James’s poem for the umpteenth time, I noticed (finally) that he had actually not fulfilled the assignment. The prompt had asked students for their feelings- What feelings did they have, etc. The other students had written less graphic, less powerful, more “tell without showing” pieces in which they did as they had been asked, and presented (in most cases) a jumble of conflicting feelings, most of them carefully labeled—“anger,” “depression,” “guilt,” “fear.” James hadn’t actually said what sorts of feelings he had—what he had presented was a game plan for acting out feelings of anger and worthlessness and victimhood: “Im crazy, you made me like this” along with hyper-powerfulness and self-justification and hyper-revenge, “you dyeing is like taen a thousand lives.”

I wrote James a letter (because I wasn’t due to meet with the class for another week, and James was going to be gone the week following that) and I wanted to be out in the open with the decision I had made. explained that his teacher and I were referring the matter to the school nurse because he had threatened the life of another human being, and I needed to take that threat seriously. At least that’s what I thought I’d said, until I found and reread my letter for this essay. Here it is in its entirety:

Dear James,

In your latest piece of writing, you threaten to kill another human being. I am therefore going to pass it on to Ms. Barker and the school nurse, and see if there is a need for further action.

Your piece is scary, and a call for help. The fact that it is eloquently written is not the point here.

I don’t know if you know what a strong writer you are. It scares and saddens me to read what you have written.

You have a lot of sadness and rage in you, and you know how to express what you are feeling forcefully and economically. What is important to realize here is that you have NOT expressed your feelings, which was what Ms. Barker’s prompt asked you to do. You have jumped over most of your feelings and written a death threat describing what you say you will do; one in which you blame someone else for your internal state—“you made me like this, pissed at you and the world.”

I would appreciate your redoing this assignment, and writing about a break-up you experienced. What actually happened? How did you feel? In my view, one of the greatest services writing performs is helping people examine their own feelings and beliefs and the feelings and beliefs of others, so they can act in a reasoned and compassionate way.

I wish you well, and hope I can continue to help you strengthen your writing.

                                                Lyn   

Looking back and reflecting on my letter, I would say I was an idiot. I was acting “under the gun” of time pressure, however. The school nurse would be contacted the next day, and I wanted to get word to James before that happened, so he wouldn’t feel sabotaged by me.

One sentence I especially don’t like is, “Your poem is scary, and a call for help.” The last, “call for help” part of it sounds both arrogant and cliched (social worker jargon) to me now.

For the next three or four weeks, James managed to get out of class with me. He had a series of “legitimate” excuses. For about two weeks, he was out looking at top basketball schools on the west coast.

When he came back to school, the teacher gave him a couple of library passes for to work on different projects. As soon as James appeared, I tried to speak with him, but he was having none of it.

Lyn: James, I’d like to talk with you.

James: (walking away) I’ve got nothing to talk about.

Lyn: You sound pretty angry.

James: Conversation over.

The teacher first spoke of setting up a three-way meeting (her, James, myself), then said James didn’t want to talk with me, so she’d agreed he could write me an email. When I said, weeks later, I’d never gotten an email, she said he’d gone to see the school nurse, and would write me an email before the school year was out. She told me that was all I could reasonably expect of him.

In the last couple of months, I noticed a marked “chilling” in James’s class. The whole experience rattled me. Partly, I was secretly glad when James didn’t show up in class, because it was one less thing to deal with. Mostly, I was obsessing about what I’d done, what I hadn’t done (spoken to the principal, confronted James, confronted the teacher, etc.)

It wasn’t clear to me until the last day that this was a kind of classic t.v. story, without the classic feel-good entry. There no positive resolution to this story, and I am aware that, together with my being ill, James’s poem and its consequences colored the whole end of my teaching year. Even though I was able to keep to my WITS commitment, the last few weeks I have felt like a failure as a teacher. Partly, I feel that sentiment so familiar to a lot of teachers and fishermen (I think)—a tendency to focus on “the one that got away.”

Joseph Brodsky was Joseph Brodsky

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)-

showshoe vowels

       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

               newly translated

               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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brodsky, Revisited

Poem from Joseph Brodsky Was Joseph Brodsky publsihed by Levan Kavleli Publishing in 2012.

Read review by Judith Roche.

Links to purchase the book can be found.

BRODSKY REVISITED

for Gia, who wished this poem into existence

I write now to please my Gia

with a Brodsky fantasia—

Gia, you are Joseph’s fan

he could have no better than.

 

You know all the Brodsky saga—

that he was for Auden gaga.

Yet I need to make you wary

of some digging in that quarry.

 

In that old abandoned site,

Comes the Irishman by night

praising Bordsky, Auden Yeats—

is there nobody he hates?

 

I’m not saying he’s a thief—

He’s just got small cause for grief.

I shared with Joseph, when a lass,

sexier than sex, his class.

 

I was married, we were friends.

There our story nearly ends.

Soon he left our state behind,

the Michigander state of mind

 

Years went by. We wrote. Not much.

Eventually, we lost touch.

Then one day, I read he’d died.

I don’t even think I cried.

 

Joseph, you are where we’ll be,

postmarked to eternity.

Your smokes are gone, your coffeed curses,

What remains of you is verses.

 

In my recent dreams, I kiss you.

When I read your poems, I miss you.

And in these, how bright you shine—

In your poetry, you’re mine.

Goodbye, Godot

This poem was written in Mexico City on March 25, 2013, as a glad and grateful celebration of my dear new friend, Mohsen Emadi.

for Mohsen

1

this is a man who embraces snow
he has the juice of pomegranates on his thumbs
he and the snow are always disappearing

2

this is not a love poem
this has nothing to do with
words or bodies
or things that get put inside them

3

this has to do with sparrows
trembling on vines
vines that will still be there
in the dust
after the fight
after the battle
after the war

4

don’t get me wrong
(she says, knowing words can’t keep
even personal wolves
from unmarked doors)
don’t get me wrong
I’m not his mother,
not his lover
(is there time here for an asterisk,
meaning ‘alas’?)

*

I’m not even his friend
Though that’s a pebble thrown in the right pond
(pause here to hear a Bassho Splash!)

5

I have no culture
he has too much
I had no war
you get the picture
where he is male, eastern, dark, young
you get the idea
he is a part of what I forgot to remember
I am the shadow of a memory still to come

6

we are each to the other
the ghost of an imaginary friend
the breath within the wind
which is otherwise a lecture

7

I will not bore you with the usual
list of suspects
lineups of heavy-set thugs
accused of writing greeting cards
moon june love above
ah
but just one throw of chaff and
what might have been a poem is
ruined
stained with blood (Tehran)
or coffee (Seattle)

9

in Seattle
a waiter arrives labeled
(HI! MY NAME IS GODOT)
bearing a small glass tray
a mirror
a mirror as round as
a pregnant moon
and on that mirror he carries
a pomegranate even rounder

the mirror falls
(the waiter has been shot)
(insert title here)
waiter fruit and glass
break open
blood and seed and sweetness
mix with shards and he
separates the trinity with
delicate fingers
fruit from fragments

the fruit and the body
are ruined
but he puts the mirror back together
in the shape of a stained glass poem

10

these are just words from which
we both disappeared

you can find him
lying in long sweet grass
at the heart of a Persian desert

I am that improbable American grass
if I am anything at all
*

11

but no (meaning yes)
I still love you
so
I am still here
a vine in the dust
after the fight
after the battle
after the war-
and any trembling sparrow
is welcome to light on me

(no asterisk*)