More than half of the writers, academics, politicos and their hangers-on who packed a movie theater to hear an obscure Russian e'migre' by the name of Joseph Brodsky read his poems did not know Russian. The time was 1978, the place was Venice, and Brodsky had been out of an Arctic labor camp 13 years. He was playing hooky from teaching literature at the University of Michigan. People went to hear him because their Russian-speaking friends attending a conference in town assured them in a breathless tone others reserve for Hollywood stars that Brodsky was the world's greatest living poet. It did not matter, they said, whether one understood a single word in his stanzas; it was a privilege just to be a witness to his presence.
A rumpled figure with a clown's mobile face, Brodsky started reading without any preliminaries, without preparing the audience for a transition from the prosaic and the profane. His body swayed as he read, sometimes whispering and sometimes shouting, but mostly in the firm bass of declamation. His moods shifted from the elegiac to the angry, from the comic to the tragic, and the cadences suggested a plea to and a dispute with an unknown god. It was a grand performance recalling some other century less inhibited in fervor and gesture than the 20th -- maybe the 19th, maybe the 13th. He perorated as if to himself; he seemed oblivious to the people who came to hear him.
To one part of the audience, the reading was as highly stylized as the Bolshoi Ballet or the changing of the guards in the Lenin Mausoleum. Others thought they witnessed a religious rite -- perhaps of sin and atonement. The poems spoke of the public triumphs of evil as well as a private celebration of the self rendered more complex by the encounter with evil. He blended the metaphysical with the colloquial.
He received thunderous applause. Many in the audience leapt to their feet, shouting "Bravo!" He did not seem to pay any attention. He walked off stage and told his friends who were hugging and cheering him that he was starving and that the nearest hole-in-the-wall dispensing pasta and red wine would do.
Alumni of concentration and labor camps are usually burdened by memories of torture and murder. But when asked by one of the people around the dinner table what he remembered from the two years he had put in, Brodsky cited the images he said he gained: the tormented shrubs of the Arctic tundra, the play of the light refracted by the ice and the pale sun. He also reminisced about the morbidity of Stalin's jovial smile and the funeral pomp of Moscow's government edifices.
Brodsky, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm this week, detests the Soviet system, which he fears is the forerunner of an increasingly bureaucratic, oppressive future for the Soviet Union and the rest of the world as well. But he is beyond politics the way an aged monk contemplating death is beyond sex. He thinks that debunking the Soviet state and its claims of glory is a waste of time. Listening to him, one gets the eerie impression that the Politburo and the KGB and their orgies of power exist only to serve as props for poetry.
After dinner, which Brodsky ate ravenously, praising the food and telling the waiter how good it was, he was ready for a stroll through the city. He walked slowly, deliberately, and talked about what he saw with the steady flow of a mountain creek. Some of his comments sounded like a rough draft for a poem or an essay; others had the sheen of a completed phrase. It did not seem to matter much whether he spoke Russian or English. He expressed himself as naturally in words that suggested poetry as a bird flies or a farmer sows.
He talked about being in exile yet feeling at home in Italy, in America -- and wherever his newly found freedom had taken him. His fellow e'migre's frowned and disagreed strongly. They said they suffered when they lived in the confinement of the Motherland and now they suffered because freedom offered too many possibilities, many of them painful. They cited Dante, banished from his native Florence: "How salt is the taste of another's bread, and how hard a path it is to go up and down another's stairs." But did Dante side with the pope or the emperor? No one in the group was sure if the immortal poet was persecuted as a Guelf or a Ghibelline -- or which of the two parties won in the end.
Brodsky was quick to say that the issue no longer mattered.
He said he was walking through Venice as if the city were eternity itself. He announced himself hypnotized by the swirling colors of the marble walls, and he bowed to the supreme folly of building a city on soft, shifting sands. He sighed a deep sigh every time he crossed a bridge, and his face lit up when we stepped on the undulating expanse of gray pavers that stretched from the Piazza San Marco to the Mediterranean. He spoke about the sea as an enemy and a friend, and he pronounced water as the only force capable of erasing time. In Venice, time drowns in every canal, he declared, and the architects of the city were magicians, wise men who knew how to subdue the sea in order to confound time.
Soon it was dawn, and the light was iridescent, ricocheting between the turbulent dark sea and the carved pink marble of the Doge's Palace. The poet raised his arms high, saluting the city he conquered.
The writer is an editor at U.S. News & World Report.