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Brodsky’s Travels: Leningrad to Venice.



‘What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!  It’s as if he’s hired them to do it on purpose.’— Anna Akhmatova

JOSEPH BRODSKY HAD an extraordinary life, yet there is no biography or edition of his letters and all readers lack the essential context for a complete understanding of his poems.  The Soviet authorities arrested him for “social parasitism” in 1963, sentenced him to five years of hard labor near Archangel in the Arctic Circle and exiled him in 1972.  His distinguished poet-mentor Anna Akhmatova ironically commented, “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!  It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”  His grace under pressure during his trial greatly enhanced his reputation in the West, where the transcript was published and his career flourished.

In Watermark, his prose meditations on Venice, Brodsky briefly alludes to a woman (his wife, Maria Sozzani) as “an Italian, a Roman, with a dash of Greek blood in her veins.”  But very little is known about the young beauty he married in 1990 when he was fifty, only five years before his untimely death, and who inherited his papers.  Brodsky himself thought that critics should focus on the poems rather than on the man and Maria has enforced his belief.  She has forbidden anyone to write his biography, blocked access to an essential part of his archive at Yale and often refused permission to quote from his work.  Russian scholars, unwilling to offend her, have obediently followed her orders and bowed to her Stalinist omertá.

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The thousand pages of Brodsky through the Eyes of his Contemporaries remain silent about the details of his personal life.  Like most keepers of the flame, Maria also wants to exercise power and suppress all negative aspects of Brodsky’s life.  Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, he had an ironclad certainty of his own genius, specialized in dogmatic assertions, and he hurt many people with his sharp tongue and cruel streak.  In Russia, he himself had been wounded by his lover, Marina Basmanova, who betrayed him with his best friend but continued to inspire his love poems.  (Saul Bellow experienced the same betrayal and described his agony in Herzog.)  Maria may have been jealous of Brodsky’s long sequence of unhappy love affairs, which also hurt many women and may have continued during his late marriage.

Brodsky traveled from the canals of Leningrad to the canals of Venice searching for his lost city.  He felt, as D. H. Lawrence wrote in the impulsive first sentence of Sea and Sardinia, “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”  He also believed, as Lawrence observed in a September 1922 letter from New Mexico, “Perhaps it is necessary for me to try these places, perhaps it is my destiny to know the world.”  Once sent into exile, Brodsky, charged with curiosity and energy, became a wanderer and a cunning Ulysses.  His travels were at once a flight to freedom and quest for inspiration, a synthesis of history and direct experience.  His response to a new city and its culture was a means of self-exploration and self-revelation.  Beginning in 1972, he traveled to Venice for every long Christmas holiday, and in 1981 he spent four months at the American Academy in Rome.  The brightness and clarity of the South, the classical perspective of the Mediterranean, opened his eyes to new worlds and enabled him to transform his experience into art.  No place was real until he’d written about it.

Born in Leningrad in 1940, a year before Hitler invaded Russia, Brodsky was the son of a naval officer who could not, with a Jewish background, rise above the rank of commander.  His family experienced the 900-day siege of the city, in which a million people were killed by bombardment and starvation, and corpses (some cannibalized by desperate inhabitants) piled up in the streets.  In his essay “Less Than One” he described the ravaged Leningrad after the war:

Gray, pale-green façades with bullet and shrapnel cavities; endless, empty streets, with few passersby and light traffic; almost a starved look. . . . A lean, hard face with the abstract glitter of its river reflected in the eyes of its hollow windows.”

Two early Russian poems, included in the 1973 Penguin edition of Selected Poems introduced by W.H. Auden, provide a poignant contrast to his later Venetian poems. In 1962, Brodsky visited the former Königsberg in East Prussia, which had become the Russian Kaliningrad after the war, and was shocked to see Kant’s city still devastated and ruined. His poem was ironically addressed to “Einem alten Architekten in Rome,” who was urgently needed to rebuild the city, as Italian architects had originally built St. Petersburg.  Brodsky describes the bombing planes and languorous sorrows of war, which have destroyed the faint hope expressed by the positive allusions to “leaves of grass” and the gospel of “Good News.”

In his Literary Life, Brodsky’s friend Lev Loseff explained the background of “A Halt in the Desert,” a poem about the destruction of a beautiful old building: “One night Brodsky watched the first stages in the razing of the Greek Orthodox church from the apartment of his friends, two sisters from a Tatar family,” and called the poem “a meditation on the symbolic significance of what has just happened: Russia has broken with its Christian and Hellenistic cultural heritage.”  Brodsky writes:

So few Greeks live in Leningrad today
that we have razed a Greek church, to make space
for a new concert hall, built in today’s
grim and unhappy style. . . .
it is sad that from this distance now
we see, not the familiar onion domes,
but a grotesquely flattened silhouette.

The deliberately created “fresh ruins” and “open altar wounds” recall the recent wartime devastations.  The biblical allusion in “Thou who doest sow” suggests the threat of retribution in Hosea 8:7, “they have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind.”  Brodsky concludes by hopelessly asking:

What lies ahead?  Does a new epoch wait
for us?  And if it does, what duty do we owe?–
What sacrifices must we make for it?

Loseff claimed that Brodsky condemns “the collective guilt of a nation that produced this regime, that refused to accept the historical alternative, the heritage of Greece and Greek democracy.”  But the Russians did not refuse to accept the heritage of Greece.  They were not consulted and had no choice.  An atheistic Communist system had been imposed on them by deadly force after the Revolution of 1917 and brutally maintained by all successive regimes.  It was now the poet’s responsibility to preserve this culture.

Brodsky doesn’t specifically compare northern and southern Europe, as Auden does in “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno,” but the comparison is implicit in his Venetian poems.  He even mentions Moorish elements and Venetian windows in Leningrad. In Venice, Brodsky recaptured and revived his youthful memories of Leningrad.  Though he never saw Leningrad in its pristine prewar form, he glorifies his birthplace in two essays.  He writes that Leningrad is “the most beautiful city on the face of the earth.  With an immense gray river that hung over its distant bottom like the immense gray sky over that river.  Along that river there stood magnificent palaces and beautifully elaborated façades.”  His English prose has been praised and prized, but in his nostalgic “Less Than One” he uses the cliché “face of the earth,” repeats “beautiful,” “immense gray” and “river” in only three sentences, and seems unaware of the misleading connotations of “hung over” and “distant bottom.”

Brodsky’s essay “A Guide to a Renamed City” describes the place created by Peter the so-called Great and built ex nihilo by genocidal slave labor in the eighteenth century.  Variously named St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and Petersburg, it was always affectionately called Peter by the natives.  Brodsky finds many striking similarities between Len and Ven.  Both cities, he states, are utterly flat and horizontal.  They have many islands, canals and bridges; narrow alleyways, constricted courtyards and shabby apartments; and the invigorating aroma of kelp.  Most particularly, the splendor of both places “should be attributed first of all to the ubiquitous presence of water.  The twelve-mile-long Neva branching right in the center of town, with its twenty-five large and small coiling canals, provides this city with such a quantity of mirrors.”

Auden wrote “snow disfigured the public statues.”  Brodsky writes that in Venice the nebbia or heavy fog “obliterates not only reflections but everything that has a shape: buildings, people, colonnades, bridges, statues.”  In Solomon Volkov’s Conversations with Brodsky the poet praises the snow and water in Venice when, paradoxically, “the contours of a foreign life are more distinct.”  In Leningrad,” he adds, people “feel most at home in the foul weather of late fall . . . when the palaces and mansions loom over the frozen river in their heavy snow trimmings.”

Thinking of the Mongol hordes and the Russian invaders of Europe, Brodsky observed, in one of his brilliant aphorisms, that “civilisation always spreads from south to north; barbarism from east to west.” In one of his dogmatic assertions he declared that Italy is “where everything came from.  Everything happened in Italy, then crawled over the Alps.  Everything to the north of the Alps can be seen as a kind of Renaissance.”  He preferred the blue translucent sea to the towering peaks and remarked that Switzerland, under geologic pressure, “is so landlocked that it’s getting mountainous.”  His Russian friend Peter Vail concluded that Italy brought everything together for Brodsky, “not only through history and culture, but also through its incomparable harmony—of climate, nature, personalities.”

Travelers floating magically up the Grand Canal in Venice and past the rosy facades of the palaces shimmering in the water—painted by Carpaccio, Canaletto and Guardi, by Turner, Monet and Whistler—find it a breathtaking experience.  Brodsky was always a visitor, never a permanent resident.  Sempre in gamba and usually isolated, he quietly observed and moved on.  He was not seduced by the well known attractions of Italy: sunshine and warmth, natural beauty and sympathetic natives, delightful food and wine, handsome buildings and harmonious towns, pagan elements and traditional life.  He was more interested in atmosphere and mood than in landscape and people, and wrote no poems on Italian paintings.

Brodsky assumed a decidedly unromantic stance during the penetrating damp of the winters…the gloom of Venice made him think of Leningrad and feel atavistically Russian…

Brodsky’s self-absorption and saturnine feelings in his Venetian poems resembled those of the Romantic poets, but he did not, like most authors, glorify Venice.  He assumed a decidedly unromantic stance during the penetrating damp of the winters and the depressing landscape matched his mood.  His frequent visits and new way of perceiving the city changed him.  The gloom of Venice made him think of Leningrad and feel atavistically Russian, and he seemed most content when he was sad.

Venice inspired many writers as well as painters, from Shakespeare and Byron—through Ruskin and D’Annunzio—to Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh.  (The Russians, Maxim Gorky and Ivan Bunin, lived on Capri before the Great War.)  Brodsky was drawn to the Byzantine and Ottoman influence, and to the theatrical aspects of Venice: the memories of swords clashing in the dark alleys, crumbling palaces in the decaying city, licentious carnivals and masquerades; the exotic ambience unchanged throughout the centuries and the extraordinary silence of La Serenissima.

Volkov asked Brodsky, “When you talk about Venice, you talk only about the water and the architecture.  What about the people?”  To which he brusquely replied, “There are no people for me.”  Brodsky believed, like Kipling, “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, / He travels the fastest who travels alone,” and rarely mentioned his lovers in Venice–Susan Sontag and his future wife.  In Watermark, he misleadingly explains, “I came here not for romantic purposes but to work, to finish a piece, to translate, to write a couple of poems . . . simply to be.”  The pen of Brodsky then moved upon the face of the shimmering waters.

Most critics agree that Brodsky’s Russian poems are much better than the poems he wrote in English.  Since Anglophones can read his best work only in translation, it’s difficult for them to understand (as with Pushkin) why Brodsky’s poetry is so highly regarded.  Versions of his Russian poems have been expertly translated by major poets who did not know Russian—Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Derek Walcott—as well as by competent translators who knew both languages.  The Russian poems have also been translated by Brodsky himself, and by many others whose work Brodsky heavily revised and even completely transformed without consulting them.

Brodsky first read modern English poetry in an anthology edited by the excellent scholar Prince D. S. Mirsky (published anonymously in 1937 when he was in prison and two years before he was executed).  When Brodsky lived in America and lacked continuous and firsthand Russian impressions, he began to write poems in English.  He first collaborated with his translators and then flew out on his own.  But like a falling trapeze artist, he let go of one secure hold before he could firmly grasp the next.  Critics think crude rhymes like “Paris/car is” sound better when pronounced with a Russian accent.  The bilingual expert John Bayley, in a memorable phrase, compared Brodsky’s English poems to a “bear playing the flute.”

Brodsky wrote six important poems about Venice.  “Lagoon,” superbly translated by Anthony Hecht (author of The Venetian Vespers), retains the Russian stanzas and rhyme. The setting is Christmas at the pensione Accademia, the mood is mournful.  By the waters of Venice he sat down and wept when he remembered Russia, as well as the estrangement from his Russian son: “bereaved / of memory, homeland, son, with only the noise / of distant forests to grieve for his former joys.”  He recalls the northern Egyptian sphinxes that adorn the Neva esplanade, and the tyrant of the totalitarian State where “spit goes ice-cold on the tongue” as poets try to speak the truth.  The passion-soiled mattress on his rented bed is sodden with tears and even remembered kisses taste bitter.  In this dirge the fiery grappa and muted church bells, the rocking gondolas (“moored cradles”) and winged lions in the Piazza San Marco cannot console him.  In Hecht’s fine rhyme, in the drowning city “footsteps fade / invisibly along the colonnade.”  Brodsky recalled that when he read “Lagoon” in a theater near La Fenice during the 1977 Biennale (and confused Guardi with Tiepolo) he was deeply moved by the effect of the poem on himself: “the walls, the ceiling, everything—was covered with Guardi frescoes, I believe.  Imagine this hall, these paintings, the dimness.  Suddenly, reading my ‘Lagoon,’ I felt like I was standing in some kind of energy field and even contributing something to it.”

Venice: Lido” is set in the same wide beach and shallow water as Mann’s Death in Venice, without the elegant beauty and fatal passion.  The awkward, heavily rhymed English couplets—wankers/anchors, flocking/plucking, humble/tangle—debase rather than enhance the art of the poem.  Brodsky stubbornly refuses to be seduced by the alluring ambience.  He opens with a description of a rusty Romanian tanker and its sweaty impoverished crew who are confined to the deck and crave the labyrinthine tangle of the town across the water.  (The streets of the Lido are straight.)  Lying on the beach with a different perspective, the poet sees a pretty girl and puns on “palms” that merge into a greedy waiter:

Only by biting the sand, though, all tattoos faded,
can the eye of the needle truly be negotiated
to land at some white table, with a swarthy darling
of local stock, under a floral garland,
and listen as wide-splayed palms, above the boathouse pennant,
rustle their soiled banknotes, anticipating payment.

San Pietro is a solitary island, with church and campo, on the eastern edge of Venice.  The poem with this title (translated by Barry Rubin) concerns change in the weather.  In Brodsky’s version of Auden’s “Thank You, Fog,” the effect of heavy nebbia alters his perception of the city.  There is darkness at noon and fading silhouettes, gauzy signs and soundless bells, penetrating dampness and peeling stucco, “shabby façades, chipped and pitted”:

Around a bend
streetlamps trail off like white ellipses,

followed by nothing but a smell of seaweed. . . .
A lodger out for some cigarettes
ten minutes later returns to his room
via the tunnel his own body has
burrowed through the fog. . . .
Twilight.  No wind.  The stillness.

Brodsky also hints at the two sequestered women who hide a great poet’s manuscripts in Henry James’ story “The Aspern Papers.”  The “tightly shuttered balconies / in which no one—neither heiress nor governess– / has emerged in two hundred years” conceal “ancient secrets that are in fact / best kept dark by daylight.”

The last three poems were written in English.  “Venetian Stanzas I” is more indebted to Brodsky’s revered Master, Auden, and more densely allusive than the earlier Italian poems.  In his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” Auden memorably wrote, “The brooks were frozen, / the airports almost deserted, / And snow disfigured the public statues.”  Brodsky echoes this wintry landscape in “The piazza deserted, the quays abandoned . . . the quay is a hoarfrost.”  In a series of cultural allusions he refers to Iago producing the incriminating handkerchief and provoking the jealous Othello to smother Desdemona; to John Keats (who died in Rome) and other “bards burning with tuberculosis”; to the Italian actress Eleanora Duse, tragic lover of D’Annunzio; rather obscurely to “Perm’s citizen,” the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who was buried in Venice; and vaguely to the ideal landscapes of Claude Lorrain in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, which supposedly inspired this poem.  As the chandeliers dim and the orchestras fade, Brodsky uses far-fetched rhymes and vertiginous lines to recall the Tiepolo frescoes he saw when reading “Lagoon”:

The retina’s sudden encounter with a white ceiling’s goddess
shedding it all but her cobweb bra
makes me dizzy.  A doorway’s inflamed raw throat is
gaping to utter “Ahhhh.”

“Venetian Stanzas II” is a topographical survey of the watery winter and wintry water.  The diction is cruder (“H2O,” “semen,” “garbage barges”), the imagery denser, the similes more forced and unpersuasive: “Like lengthy, supple / sticks run by hot-footed schoolboys along iron grates, / the morning rays strum colonnades.”  A woman bathing is compared to a new Susanna watched with impunity by the elders.  More effectively, the sleeping beauty in his room “draws her shoulder blades in” as when “angels react to sin.”  The stanzas end as the focus shifts, like a close-up in a film, to the poet, a little drunk, writing this very poem in an outdoor café.  With a pun on glaring “pupil” and familiar Audenesque mood,

the blinding lagoon is lapping
at the shore as the dim human pupil’s bright penalty
for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy
here without me.

“In Italy” returns to the architecture and mood of Leningrad and summons up bitter Russian memories.  His beloved parents are now dead.  The vengeful Soviet officials would not allow them to travel abroad and visit the famous exile, and he never saw them after he was forced to leave Russia.  The Italian exclamations that he hears in a public quarrel, “Scum! Leave me alone!” (Feccia! Lasciami stare!), are another unwelcome reminder of the past.  Having lost the struggle against the Russian authorities, he ends with a clearer vision and grim resignation:

At the point where one can’t be loved any longer, one,
resentful of swimming against the current and too perceptive
of its strength, hides himself in perspective.

Brodsky’s travel poems were severely criticized by Yuri Kublanovsky, a contemporary Russian writer, who maintained that his “image turns into a cliché and somehow starts to operate automatically.  Brodsky arrives in Florence, Brodsky arrives in Venice . . . a visual impression helps poetry along quite a bit.  That’s fine once, twice, even three times, but when his ‘meditations’ continue in Copenhagen, Lisbon, and so on, and so on, using the same old framework, it finally starts to get a bit wearisome.”  But Brodsky’s industrious editor, Valentina Polukhina, fiercely defended him by stating that he transcends the template and that his travel poems enable him “to look from a fresh angle, to detach himself, to take a look at the eternal problems of human existence through the cultural prism, through the history of that country in which he happens, momentarily, to find himself.”  The distinguished Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina (once married to Brodsky’s rival, Yevgeny Yevtushenko) was also a great admirer.  She praised Brodsky’s “innate ability to take on board the culture of the whole world. . . . He relates to the whole universe, its cultural treasures, classical, biblical and contemporary.”

Though Brodsky was well aware of his extraordinary poetic talent and adored his baby daughter, born in 1993, he did not take care of his precarious health and seemed to live more intensely when threatened by death.  He continued to ignore medical advice, drank strong coffee and, tearing off the filters, smoked several packs of cigarettes a day. Robert Browning, who died in Venice, wrote, “Open my heart, and you will see, / Graved inside it Italy.”  Brodsky, at the very end of his life, refused to actually open his heart for a third operation–and died at the age of fifty-five.

Like Edgar Poe, D. H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald, whose corpses were transported from their original graves, Brodsky continued to travel when dead and moved from New York to Venice.  His Italian wife buried him in his favorite city, near the graves of Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound, on the island of San Michele and in the most beautiful cemetery in the world.  Like Isaac Babel, another courageous Russian, Brodsky had “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.”

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had 33 of his 54 books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents.  He’s recently published Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love (2015) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018).



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