In this wicked world
one must not stand, in moonlight,
on a high divide, unless one wants to be a
target. -- From "Post Aetatem Nostram" by Joseph Brodsky
A funny thing happend to Joseph Brodsky on his way to Garvin's Laugh Inn, the comedians' bar on Connecticut Avenue. Although it happend 17 years ago, it led him inexorably to the strange scene Saturday afternoon when he recited his poems to a crowd in a cocktail lounge.
In 1963, when he was only 23 years old and a completely unknown poet in Leningrad, Brodsky was attacked in the newspapers, then put on trial and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia for being a "social parasite." He had posed as a poet, the prosecution charged, without having the proper academic credentials.
"Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?" asked the judge. "No one," said Brodsky, "and who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?"
Publicity-wise, it could hardly have been better; Brodsky became internationally famous overnight -- identified as a poet and a sort of stand-up comedian to millions of people who had never read a line of his writings. He was brought back from exile in Archangelsk after about a year and a half, when the government discovered that it had made a serious tactical error in his case, and in 1972 he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Now he lives in the United States, where he commutes between Ann Arbor and New York, teaching a semester at the University of Michigan and a semester at Columbia and NYU.
Saturday, Brodsky came to Garvin's, Washington's shrine of stand-up comedians. But he came as a poet, officially enrolled or not, and he read for an hour from works that have established his credentials with readers, if not with the Soviet government. Auden called Brodsky "a poet of the first order" and was introduced Saturday as "probably the greatest living Russian poet."
He read a little bit in English, which he now uses occasionally for writing poetry, but mostly in Russian, with translations read by Washington poet Carol Fleming. His English is good, and he uses it fluently in conversation but reluctantly in poetry. His Russian, when reciting his own work, has an almost religious flavor -- he chants the lines in a rich baritone, his voice rising and falling melodically like a monk singing Vespers. "You know, I was 32 when I left Russia," he explains. "An old dog can learn new tricks, but it's hard to forget the old ones."
The room full of people having drinks, and a few having food, was silent as Brodsky read. Earlier, while he was waiting to go on, there had been an occasional intrusion from the adjoining bar and the sound of a television set. "Can't we put some kind of a hold on that door?" Brodsky asked, and someone closed it.
"I know the Washington poetry audience," said Linda Pastan, looking out at the crowded cocktail lounge, "and they aren't here. It's a whole new crowd."
"We have a different crowd every time," said Bonnie Gordon. "This time, I think we have a lot of Russians," said her husband, Robert. "Someone asked me if I speak Russian." The Gordons (he's an energy consultant and she is a poet who earns her living working at Science 80 magazine) are the ones who arranged the poetry readings at Garvin's, which will continue for the next five Saturday afternoons and then start up again next year if finances permit.
Linda Pastan, a Washington poet with several books to her credit but no criminal record, was scheduled to read before Brodsky. She read a dozen poems, which were greeted with loud applause and occasional laughter, while Brodsky sat at a corner table, sipping Old Bushmill's and nervously flipping through his books, waiting for his turn to go on. "I have never read in a bar before," he said, "but I like the idea. There is not much public reading in bars in Russia -- in fact, there is not much public reading of poetry at all, no matter what you hear. We have much more of that in the United States -- every day in this country, hundreds of poets are giving readings," Brodsky himself gives few readings -- "less than one a month," he said after Pastan mentioned that she limits herself to one a month because otherwise she gets "tired of the sound of my own voice."
The cocktail lounge where the readings are given, and where the comedians hold forth a night, is almost completely cut off from Garvin's bar, which was doing business as usual during the reading. Occasionally a bar patrom would wander through on his way to the toilet, stop and look at the tall, husky man who was standing stiffly on stage with his hands jammed into his jacket pockets and chanting in Russian from "Odysseus to Telemachus": I don't know where I am or what this place can be. It would appear some filthy island, with bushes, buildings, and great grunting pigs."
After a minute, the intruder would shake his head and go on about his business.
"Garvin's has allowed us to come here because we draw a lot of people," said Bonnie Gordon. "The let us use the room and the sound system free, but they charge the customers $2 minimum for drinks. Besides charging $2 for admission, we sell books and T-shirts, and a portfolio of handwritten poems by all the poets who are reading here. We hope to break even, with a little help from grants -- the Writers' Center at Glen Echo is helping to pay for the series -- but it will be all right if we lose a little bit on it because we wanted to see it happen."
Out in the bar, regular patrons were not sure what to make of the poetry crowd. "They're a bunch of winos," said one regular, and the bartender confirmed that Garvin's had sold the poetry fans more than 10 liters of wine (at $1.50 per glass) during the afternoon, but he seemed worried at the "winos" epithet.
"Don't print that," he said. "What you should tell people is that we're bringing Washington something Washington has never had before."