San Michele is a rectangular island, separated from Venice by a stretch of water and surrounded by a high wall. From an airplane, its cemetery could seem like an enormous hardback book: one of those stout, heavy dictionaries in which words – decomposing skeletons – rest for ever. There is something ironic about the fact that Joseph Brodsky is buried there, facing that city in which he was always to be found but always wanted to be just passing through. Perhaps the poet would have preferred a grave far from Venice. When you come down to it, the city was, for him, a ‘plan B’ or, to use a more literary metaphor, an Ithaca whose attraction consisted of being unattainable, an ephemeral, imagined place. What’s more, Brodsky once stated in an interview that he would like to be buried in the Massachusetts woods; or perhaps it might have been more correct for the body to be returned to his native St Petersburg. But I suppose there is no sense in speculating about a person’s posthumous wishes. If volition and life are two things impossible to separate, so are death and chance.
It wasn’t easy to find the grave. In contrast to many cemeteries in Europe, San Michele is not a centre for necro-intellectual tourism and so there are no guides or detailed maps, much less a list of the coordinates of its famous dead, like the ones at, for example, the entrances to Montparnasse and the Père Lachaise. Other well-known people – Ezra Pound, Luchino Visconti, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev – are to be found in San Michele and in each case the location of their graves is marked, but by a barely visible sign in front of the small section in which their remains lie. If you don’t know that the notable foreigners are separated from the ordinary Venetians, you can spend hours wandering around among the Antoninos, Marcelinos and Francescos without realising that you will never find echoes of The Cantos nor reverberations of The Rite of Spring. Having searched for Brodsky’s grave for several hours and not even found Stravinsky’s, I was ready to throw in the towel. While gathering the strength to make my way to the exit of the cemetery, I sat down in the shade of a tree and lit a cigarette.
In his essay ‘On Running After One’s Hat’, Chesterton said that if a person were to come across a cow during a country walk, only a true artist would be able to paint it; while he, not knowing how to draw the hind legs of quadrupeds, would prefer to paint the soul of that cow. I, who am neither an artist nor Chesterton, would not know how to do either of these things. I have never been like that class of people – whom I greatly envy – capable of losing themselves in the ruminative contemplation of a bird in flight, the industrious coming and going of ants, the serene suspension of a spider hanging in its own secretions. I am, unfortunately, too impatient to find poetry in nature’s gentle rhythms.
But there is no need for a special sensitivity to the animal and vegetable kingdoms in a cemetery: it’s enough to sit in silence for the duration of a lighted cigarette in order to be taken over by the life force flourishing among the graves. Beneath its cypresses, like the gnomons of gigantic sundials, time stretches out and flows. Maybe it is the very silence that magnifies the frenetic flapping of the insects; so much calm that disturbs the languid creeping of the lizards; so much death, responsible for animating the wilting leaves of the black poplars.
I was about to stub out my cigarette when there was a sudden outburst of squawks. First just a few, and then dozens, perhaps hundreds – as if squawking, like laughter, were something contagious among birds. Henri Bergson maintained that laughter can only arise if its object is or resembles the strictly human; that a cat or a hat cannot provoke laughter unless we detect in them a human expression, form or attitude. Perhaps. It may be that, at least from a distance, that squawking of birds was like the wheezing laughter of old tuberculosis sufferers, and for that reason alone I also burst out laughing in the midst of the silence. Anyway, if I did not admit defeat in the task of finding Brodsky’s grave, it was because of the good humour that prattling of hoarse seagulls suddenly sparked in me. If I did not find the poet, I could at least check they were indeed squawks and not elderly Venetians at death’s door. And then, why not run after a grave or some birds if Chesterton, so fat, so dignified and so intelligent, had been capable of running after a hat?
The graves of the famous foreigners in the cemetery are not only in a separate section from those of the ordinary Venetians (heaven forbid that a gondolier should lie next to Stravinsky’s wife), but there are also divisions among the foreigners. The numerous Russians who frequented Venice on one side; the rest on another. The strangely ironic thing is that Joseph Brodsky does not lie among either the Moscow or Leningrad intelligentsia, but in a different section, next to his great enemy Ezra Pound. In contrast to the others, his grave is not indicated by an official sign at the entrance to the section, but some benevolent soul has written his name in liquid paper between that of the writer of The Cantos and the arrow showing the direction of the two graves:
PROTESTANT SECTION Ezra Pound (& Iosif Brodskji) ->
I imagined that I would find at least a handful of groupies bent on leaving an amulet or a kiss on his grave. But there was no one in the Protestant Section. Except an elderly woman, laden with every imaginable type of shopping bag stuffed with her belongings, standing by Ezra Pound’s grave. I walked directly towards Brodsky without even nodding, as if indicating my side: ‘You with Pound, and me with Brodsky.’
If there is an infinite aspect to space,’ writes Brodsky, ‘it is not its expansion but its reduction. If only because the reduction of space, oddly enough, is always more coherent. It’s better structured and has more names: a cell, a closet, a grave.’ He recounts that the established norm for communal housing in the former Soviet Union was nine square metres per person. In the allotment of space, he and his parents were lucky, since in St Petersburg they shared forty square metres: thirteen point three apiece: twenty-six point six for his parents, thirteen point three for him: a room and a half for the three of them.
After that room and a half, Brodsky had an infinite number of bedrooms, hotel rooms, houses, cells, chair-beds. But perhaps the truth is that a person only has two permanent residences: the childhood home and the grave. All the other spaces we inhabit are a mere grey spectrum of that first dwelling, a blurred succession of walls that finally resolve themselves into the crypt or the urn – the tiniest of the infinite divisions of space into which a human body can fit.
On his grave, inscribed with the dates 1940-1996 and his name in Cyrillic letters, were chocolates, pens and flowers. But mostly chocolates. There was not, as is so often the case in Italian cemeteries, a portrait of the deceased set into the stone. I had been longing to see Joseph Brodsky’s last face.
In Watermark, his book on Venice, the author writes: ‘Inanimate by nature, hotel room mirrors are even further dulled by having seen so many. What they return to you is not your identity but your anonymity.’ In a loosely paradoxical way, anonymity is a characteristic of absence: it is the absence of characteristics. A young face is anonymous: it is devoid of the expressions and features that identify it. As it ages, it acquires the marks which distinguish it from the rest. But as that countenance ages and acquires greater definition it simultaneously exposes itself to more and more looks from strangers – or, to follow Brodsky’s image, to more hotel room mirrors, on which have passed so many reflections that they all return the same visage, rumpled, like their rumpled beds. In the same way, a face also gradually loses the definition it has gained over the years, as if having been seen so often through strange eyes, it tends to return to its unformed original. In this way, the excess of definition that a visage acquires with time, and which would perhaps culminate in a monstrous excess of identity – in a grimace – is balanced by the simultaneous loss if identity. It may be for this reason that all newly born babies tend to look alike, as do the very old, without looking like anyone in particular. In the very beginning and the final stretch, faces are anonymous. A dead person no longer has any face at all. The faces of the dead must be, in any case, like those petals on a dark bough Pound caught sight of in the Paris Metro.
There was no portrait on Brodsky’s gravestone. It was right that that definitive stamp of identity was not there; the smooth, opaque grey of the stone was more honest – a reflection of the anonymity of a hotelmensch par excellence, a man of many hotel rooms, many mirrors, many faces. Better to stand by the grave and try to remember some photo of him sitting on a bench in Brooklyn, or bring to mind one of those recordings of his voice, at once powerful but broken, like that of someone who has passed many hours in solitude and acquired conviction through doubt:
A tree. Its shadow, and
earth, pierced by clinging roots.
Clay and a clutch of rocks.
Roots interweave and blend.
Stones have their private mass
which frees them from the bond
of normal rootedness.
This stone is fixed. One can’t
move it or heave it out.
The tree shadows catch a man,
like a fish, in their net.
The outcome of a long-awaited encounter with a stranger is often disappointing. The same is true of a dead person, except that in the latter case there is no need to hide the disappointment: a dead person, in that sense, is always more agreeable than a live one. If, on standing before him, we realise that in reality we have nothing to do there, that the amusement lay in looking for rather than finding the grave. There’s no necessity to be polite to the dead, even though religion has attempted to instil absurdly decorous forms of behaviour in us at funeral masses and in cemeteries. Not speaking, praying and walking slowly with head bowed, hands clasped at waist level, are customs which matter little to those lying six feet under.
That is why the presence of the elderly lady standing, as it then seemed to me, deep in thought by Pound’s grave was so opportune. She edged towards the shadow of the tree where Brodsky and I were already sharing an uncomfortable silence and began to scratch her legs as if she had fleas. When she had finished scratching, she moved a little closer and stopped in front of Brodsky’s resting place. With complete calm, like someone carrying out routine domestic chores, she began to pick up the chocolates which had been left for the poet. When she had finished with these, she also took the pens and pencils. Then, as if not wanting to seem impolite, she left a flower, stolen, I suppose, from Pound’s grave.
From the familiarity with which she moved between the two graves, I imagined that she was an old friend of the poet or, perhaps, the owner of the pension where Brodsky had stayed during some of his trips to Venice. Timidly, stumbling over my broken Italian, I asked her if she had known Joseph Brodsky and had come to visit him. No, no, she said, sono venuta per visitare il mio marito. Antonino. Credo che Brodsky era un poeta famoso . . . ma non tanto come il bello Ezra. The elderly lady sighed – No, not as famous as the beautiful Ezra – and bent to scratch her legs again; she picked up her heavy bags, filled with necrological souvenirs, and left the Protestant Section, just as in the poem by W. H. Auden that Brodsky was always quoting: ‘silently and very fast’.
This is an abridged version of the essay ‘Brodsky’s Room and a Half’ from Sidewalks (originally entitled Papeles Falsos), translated by Christina MacSweeney, which was published in August 2013 by Granta Books. Excerpt from ‘Nature Morte’ from Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky. Copyright © 2000 by the Estate of Joseph Brodsky. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Photo © ostromentsky