Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets, Irena Grudzinska Gross
Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2, Valentina Polukhina
from The Kenyon Review, Spring 2011
When the disheveled, nervous, and unknown poet walked to the podium, time seemed to stop.
"It was an astonishing and, at the same time, almost tragic performance. That is, there were tragic dimensions to it—a young poet, virtually alone on stage," recalled Daniel Weissbort, who had also attended London's Poetry International Festival in June 1972.
Joseph Brodsky had been expelled from the Soviet Union only a few days earlier, and W. H. Auden had taken him under his broad, protective wing, shielding him from journalists as best he could. Weissbort recalled that the younger poet was "alone in the world, with nothing but his poems, nothing but the Russian language, of which he was already a 'master,' or as he would have preferred to say, 'a servant''' (Polukhina 542).
Then the poet poured out his poems in the hypnotic incantation that was to become his trademark: an archaic sound—a lament from a lost civilization, an ancient prayer, or simply a metronomic wail. And then it was over.
"When he ended, the audience was as stunned as the poet on stage was now silent— inaccessible, emptied, a kind of simulacrum of himself. It was as if the air had been drained of sound. And the appropriate response would have been that, a soundlessness, in which you would hear only your own breathing, be aware only of your own physicality, your isolated self," says Weissbort, who later became one of Brodsky's translators. "To say we were impressed is putting it far too mildly. We were moved, emotionally, even physically" (543).
Brodsky's Western debut is among a number of stunning recollections in Valentina Polukhina's Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2. But every story depends on where you begin it. Irena Grudzinska Gross describes a different baptism for the long exile of the Russian poet in her Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets. Brodsky received a letter of advice from a colleague in July 1972: "Everything depends on the man and on his internal health," Czesław Miłosz had written. "What else can I say? The first months of exile are hard. They shouldn't be taken as a measure of what is to come. With time you will see that perspective changes" (2).
The letter dispensing such sage equanimity was a far cry from Miłosz's own desperate loneliness after his Paris defection in 1951. No mention of the drinking binges and bouts of severe depression. Surprising, perhaps, given the first sentence of his post-defection declaration, "Nie" [No]: "What I'm going to tell now could well be called a story of a suicide" (55.) The decades had infused him with what Gross calls "a Californian serenity" (232).
Brodsky returned Miłosz's support startlingly early, six short years later. By then he had eclipsed the reclusive Polish maestro in celebrity. Brodsky successfully put Miłosz's name forward for the Neustadt Prize, a harbinger of the Nobel.
"I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czesław Miłosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest," Brodsky had famously claimed. "Even if one strips his poems of the stylistic magnificence of his native Polish ... and reduces them to the naked subject matter, we still find ourselves confronting a severe and relentless mind of such intensity that the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the biblical characters—most likely Job" (81-82).
Gross writes that Brodsky's presentation—four densely packed paragraphs—"witnesses to an incredibly quick acclimatization of the immigrant poet" and "his place and influence within the poetic establishment" (81).
The turnabout in roles makes a further point: the two future Nobel laureates were opposite nodes in a reconfigured literary force-field, operating on a frequency inaudible to most Western ears. Significantly, Gross's book was published three years ago as Miłosz i Brodski. Pole magnetyczne [Miłosz and Brodsky. Magnetic Fields] —a more evocative title for Eastern European readers attuned to the poets' lives and thinking. In Polukhina's book, Sontag summarizes Brodsky's impact on the West this way: "He landed among us like a missile from another empire, whose payload was not only his genius, but his native literature's exalted, exacting sense of the poet's authority" (328).
In Polukhina's first volume of interviews, Miłosz says that his poetry "stands in opposition to Western poetry. And there Brodsky and I take a common stand, we're fighting the same fight" (364). They shared a sense of hierarchy and a feeling for the sacred. They rejected what they saw as Western subjectivity in poetry. Both shared what Miłosz called "sobriety" and an immunity to literary fashions. They represented, however, opposite approaches to exile. They were further divided by their different approaches to language, empire, religion, time, and ultimately their own fates. Miłosz, says Gross, could be called the patron saint of exiled poets; Brodsky the patron saint of immigrants. Miłosz went back to Poland in triumph; Brodsky was never to return. "They were soloists, each playing a different piece of music," concludes Gross (210).
Miłosz opens Visions from San Francisco Bay, which describes his process of adaptation, with these words: "I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said—you begin with those words and you return to them. Here means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other, and in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient." Gross describes it as an attempt to resist the disorientation of emigration, an "encounter of the old self with the new place" (201).
Brodsky, too, documented his own passage in "Lullaby of Cape Cod," with an uncharacteristically prosey line: "It's strange to think of surviving, but that's what happened" (116). But then he continues:
there's nowhere to go.
Elsewhere is nothing more than a far-flung stew
of stars, burning away. (122)
For authors Polukhina and Gross, their books are an homage—for the rest of us, invaluable treasure chests that extend the works of these writers into the future.
Gross's brilliantly conceived and elegantly written meditation on the two poets, neatly divided into thematic chapters, uses poems, essays, letters, interviews, speeches, lectures, and her own personal memories as a confidante of both Miłosz and Brodsky. She plumbs their attitudes toward religion, history, memory, and language. Gross's book can be gulped in a few long sittings.
At a Krakow memorial following Miłosz's 2004 death, his publisher, Jerzy Illg of Znak, referred to the "Continent Miłosz." Polukhina's indefatigable effort to document Brodsky's life and thought, over decades now, limns the "Continent Brodsky."
Polukhina's book is dense and complicated, littered with typos and proofreading errors. Yet her interviews are addictive in the best way, like chocolate, and best digested a few pages at a time. Frequently, they reveal as much about the interviewee as they do about Brodsky—for example, Susan Sontag's insecure, repeated insistence that she is a "self-Europeanized American."
In Polukhina's book, too, one wonders about payback, about the motives and submotives of who says what, and which witnesses are reliable, and which dicey. Who among them might be burnishing a legacy or ego? Who might be embroidering with the slenderest thread of a connection? So much depends not only on who is speaking, but when. One sifts through the divergent, Rashomon-like accounts, reading between the lines, and ingesting spoonfuls of salt along the way. (And here I must apologize to Weissbort, who, in an earlier Kenyon Review article, I had faulted for mentioning Brodsky's three children, rather than two: Brodsky's daughter Anastasiya Kuznetsova, whose existence has been known to astonishingly few intimates, is interviewed in this volume.)
The books, taken together, illustrate the fractures as well as the friendship between the poets and the literary spheres in which they moved. Gross describes Brodsky counseling and calming Zbigniew Herbert, who had penned "Khodasevich," the poem that dynamited Herbert's friendship with Miłosz. She also chronicles the time Miłosz confronted Brodsky's imperial arrogance at an international literary conference in 1988, teaming with Sontag, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie and others to take on Brodsky.
"We had a point of friction, I should say. I learned not to press that pedal," Miłosz said to me in 2000. "He was extremely patriotic about Russia ... I don't like the imperial Russia. Brodsky was a Russian patriot, if not chauvinist, I don't know. I knew that it was a very sensitive point" (Conversations 197).
The differences extended even to Brodsky's reading style, which Gross calls "a cross between a rapper and cantor"—but that's not quite right, either. His publisher, Roger Straus, was enthusiastic: "He was a wonderful reader of poetry. It was almost always the same but it had a lot of, well, a lot of balls. It was very, very Jewish" (Polukhina 589).
Again, Weissbort remembers: " ... his hands straining the pockets of his jacket, his jaw jutting, as though his attention had just been caught by something and he were staring at it, scrutinizing it, while continuing to mouth the poem, almost absent-mindedly, that is, while the poem continues to be mouthed by him. His voice rises symphonically: 'syn ili Bog' ['son or God'], already on the turn towards an abrupt descent; and then the pause and a resonant drop, a full octave: 'Ya tvoi' ['I am thine']. As the poet, with an almost embarrassed or reluctant nod, and a quick, pained smile, departs his poem" (546).
Gross recounts that Brodsky was asked about his declamatory bent during his triumphant tour of Poland, and landed this punch: "Today's poet is afraid of the sardonic laughter of his reader, and because of it he tries to soften his poems ... This is a mistake. The poet should charge his public like a tank, so that the reader has no escape. Poetry is an act of metaphysical and linguistic attack, not of a retreat. If a poet wants to be modest and nonaggressive, he should stop writing" (236-37).
Not Miłosz's style, to put it mildly, and so he gently chastised the younger poet. Miłosz also lamented Brodsky's poetry in English: "The resistance against writing poetry in other languages should be considered a virtue.... We are born in a concrete point of the Earth and we have to remain faithful to this point, restrained in our following of foreign fashions" (Gross 242-43).
This was more than a case of brass meeting polish. Miłosz saw history as a horror he wished to escape, but in a larger sense, he was also at home in the wider story of centuries. He was a son of the Polish-speaking landed gentry in Lithuania and had a law degree from Stefan Batory University. The urbane elder poet had the educational context lacking in Brodsky, the defiant autodidact who dropped out of school as a teenager. When cornered on an error or a prejudice, Brodsky covered himself by firing off a belligerent blast; Miłosz could put his views into a historical framework, whether by referring to pronouncements of the medieval popes or the legal system of the Res publica. History, language, tradition connected with Catholicism because, writes Gross, "Without God there is no history" (208). But where Miłosz turned to tradition and his Catholicism, Brodsky was in a tailspin and could not find peace.
Hence, Brodsky was a devotee of Urania, muse of space and place; Miłosz served in the temple of Clio who, as Auden noted, is muse of history. But that's temptingly simplistic. The complex nuances of both need more dissection. In any case, time and space are linked by history.
In Gross's masterful synthesis and comparison of minds, she reflects: "In Europe, space is pregnant with meaning, because numberless generations tamed and named it." For Miłosz, "Too few layers of human time were deposited in California" (202-03). Yet California's barren landscape provided bitter fodder for Miłosz's poetry, a backdrop for his nature horror.
In "City Without a Name:' he writes:
In Death Valley salt gleams from a dried-up lake bed.
Defend, defend yourself, says the tick-tock of the blood.
From the futility of solid rock, no wisdom. (206)
However, for Brodsky, "every new country is, in the final analysis, just a continuation of space" (Polukhina, vol 1, 366). He rejects history, writing that "man juts forth into Time; man is his own end" (Gross 219).
Gross writes, "History constitutes for Brodsky the same kind of danger that nature constitutes for Miłosz—blind, mindless force, crushing human bones" (211). At a Rutgers conference, Brodsky put his position bluntly: "History never does repeat itself, for the very simple reason that one of the primary mediums of history is murder: each time a different man dies" (210). (Not hard to see why Heaney says, in Polukhina's interview, that Brodsky's best lines were "essentially a lie detector"; in his prose as well as his poetry, his judgments were "exhilarating, extreme, unfair, incomparable" [423- 24]).
Few have written about solitude and time with Brodsky's urgency, before he was finally felled, at fifty-five, by the heart ailments that had dogged him for decades. "Miłosz was very busy, yet he sounded like a person who was not pressed for time. Brodsky ran against time," writes Gross. "In that fight he was not supported by religion or by history—national or private" (113). Time was truly his enemy.
Gross recounts this riveting anecdote: "In 1994, when he was forced to visit a cardiologist during his stay in Sweden, he told him that he felt like a wounded animal who simply tried to survive. He expected to die at any time; when leaving his hotel room, he would put his papers in order. 'Hurry sickness' was the diagnosis of the psychologist who interviewed him on that occasion" (l13). The comment was recorded in a note "in possession of the author" (311) —one wonders how Gross came by it.
For Miłosz, poetry was the optimal attempt to match word with world, for, as Gross writes, "Poetry, the highest form of language, domesticates, organizes time, discovers the past, bows before our ancestors' shadows" (211). Brodsky saw it not merely as optimal, but as the only possible way to master time and death.
After the Iron Curtain fell, both poets stopped being exiles. Miłosz, after years of dividing his time between Berkeley and Krakow, moved back to Poland in time to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. Brodsky, famously, never returned to his beloved Saint Petersburg—why? Polukhina persistently grills his friends for an answer and pulls up different responses, none of them persuasive, and so is left with a puzzle. Gross recounts Brodsky telling an interviewer, "I am not a pendulum, Lyuba. To swing one's self back and forth ... I don't think I would ever do that. It's just that a person moves in only one direction. And only AWAY" (274).
Miłosz had always been a Dante, tasting the salt in another man's bread, and treading on another man's stairs in an exile he "accepted as a destiny, in the way that we accept an incurable illness" (244).
And Brodsky? An inextinguishable loneliness dogged him to the end. Choreographer and ballerina Elena Chernysheva tells Polukhina that in his last days, "[n]obody cooked dinner for him at home" (302). She remembers his saying, "Now I can die" (301), only hours before he was found dead at his desk; and she believes he didn't take his medication ... or is she another suspect witness? She recalls that Brodsky told her, on the last day of his life, that he had loved her for nineteen years. She admits later in the interview, "It is difficult to write an objective biography; as soon as one begins to write one is already lying. People always add a bit of something" (308). It's typical of the surprises and enigmas posed by the Polukhina volumes.
According to a legend, Ovid wrote poetry in the language of the Gatae during his long exile on the Black Sea coast. "Brodsky would be an heir to that tradition, although his exile was not as dramatic as that of the Roman poet" (242), Gross writes. She suggests Ovid may have been a literary "genotype" for Brodsky (285).
The pattern of Ovid, exiled for nobody knows what, may have absorbed Brodsky even earlier than generally supposed. I remember the poet in a melancholy mood in 1975. He asked me if I had read Ovid's Tristia. I hadn't, but got the book from the University of Michigan library, eager to please him. It's still with me, with its sedate green cover and dog-eared edges, with exiled Ovid keening:
I am a Roman poet—forgive me, my Muses, forgive me—
And I am forced to say many things in Sarmatian speech.
(Book vii, 11. 55-56)
The lamentation united both modern poets with the disgraced and anguished Roman—but the two poets were divided by a common fate. Miłosz trained a generation of Polish translators, recast much of the Bible into a vibrant Polish, and was gradually adopted among the ranks of American poets; he lived to ninety-three. But one could never imagine Miłosz tackling the American poetry scene with Brodsky's nervous, entrepreneurial gusto: William Wadsworth, who helped Brodsky distribute poetry anthologies around the country via the Academy of American Poets, recalled this conversation when Brodsky telephoned three days before his death:
"Bill, do you know what American poetry is all about?"
"No, Joseph, I don't. Please tell me."
"American poetry is all about wheels, it's about the Open Road. It's all about wheels."
"So you know what you have to do?"
"No, Joseph, what do I have to do?"
"You have to call up the Teamsters. We have to get poetry on the trucks, deliver the poetry with milk."
Wadsworth continued, "Now the Teamsters Union is the most notoriously corrupt union in the U.S. I said, 'Joseph, are you telling me that the Academy of American Poets should collaborate with organized crime?' There was a pause. Then Joseph said, 'Bill, one thing about organized crime. It's organized.' This was the last thing he said to me" (Polukhina 478).
Brodsky, Joseph. Collected Poems in English. Ed. Ann Kjellberg. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Miłosz, Czesław. Conversations. Ed. Cynthia L. Haven. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2006.
---. New and Collected Poems; 1931-2001. New York: Ecco, 2001.
---. Visions from San Francisco Bay. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.
Ovid. Tristia. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1975.
About the Author
Cynthia Haven's An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2010. Her previous volumes include Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London in 2005. She writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post Book World, and San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. In 2008 she studied in Poland with a Milena Jesenská Fellowship from Vienna's Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.
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