Cynthia L. Haven
Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets. By Irena Grudzińska Gross. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 362 pp. $40.00, hardcover.
Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, vol. 2. By Valentina Polukhina. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2008. 604 pp. $29.95, paperback.
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 Grudzińska 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 forcefield, 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).