Reading Joseph Brodsky's 'Watermark' in Venice - review by John Burnside

John Burnside

World Enough Outside

Reading Joseph Brodsky's 'Watermark' in Venice


In 1992, Joseph Brodsky published Watermark, a book-length essay that brings together his impressions of Venice in winter – he refused to go there in any other season – and a series of powerful and moving meditations on the writer’s vocation. A lifelong Brodsky fan, I had read Watermark several times since then, but never, until recently, in Venice itself. This June, over twenty years after his death in 1996, sitting outside a cafe near the Ospedale, I read again the passage in which he describes how ‘being sidetracked is literally a matter of course’ in this city of echoes and water. I found myself sidetracked too, not by a glint of light off the canal or by an echo, but by a sudden lull. I looked up from the page to see a small funeral procession crossing the lagoon, headed by a lugubre gondola, presumably making its way to the cemetery island of San Michele, where I intended to spend that very afternoon, visiting the graves of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Brodsky himself. 

For Brodsky, Venice was a winter city of cold water and colder stone, where we are constantly haunted by our own reflections. But it seems to me that, amid these reflections, the angels are never very far away. I am not talking about the painted ones, much less those carved in marble; I mean the commonplace angels of folklore and everyday life, those fleeting and indifferent spirits who pass through a gap in conversation, or that more personal Geist who hovers at my back when I am obliged to stop and catch my breath, overcome by the heat in some sun-blanked campo I have never seen before, though I have spent a good few summers wandering this city, trying to stitch together the several maps that have formed, as fragments, in my memory. The result of all this sidetracking, according to Brodsky, is a wry form of libertà negativa: ‘After a two-week stay – even at off-season rates – you become both broke and selfless, like a Buddhist monk. At a certain age and in a certain line of work, selflessness is welcome, not to say imperative.’ 

This remark seems to capture the essence of Brodsky’s work. I once spent several hours in his company, back in the 1970s, an evening throughout which he was extraordinarily kind to me, an unknown and utterly incompetent young poet. He was the only writer from whom I have ever taken advice, not about form or subject matter and not, I hope it goes without saying, about ‘how to get published’, but with regard to the honour of the writer’s vocation, and the responsibility to the world that pertains to those who use language. The bare fact is that he encouraged me, a long time ago, for no reason. Watermark is full of encouragement, especially about the power of the aesthetic: for example, noting the dangers posed by developers to a city that is, in itself, a work of art, Brodsky laments that ‘nothing has a greater future than money’, only to add, a few pages later, that ‘beauty, a fait accompli by definition, always defies the future, regarding it as nothing so much as an overblown, impotent present’. 

Much has been said and written about the ‘bravery’ of certain contemporary writers, most frequently for marketing reasons, but Brodsky was genuinely a courageous man, and not just in his resistance to the Soviet regime (asked by the judge at his trial, ‘Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?’, he replied, ‘No one. Who has enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?’). Speaking of those winter sojourns in Venice, which allowed him to escape his academic day job each year to ‘write a couple of poems, provided I could be that lucky’, he says, ‘Happiness or unhappiness would simply come … It is a virtue, I came to believe long ago, not to make a meal out of one’s emotional life. There’s always enough work to do, not to mention that there’s world enough outside.’ It takes not just courage but a certain hard-won wisdom to trust oneself so thoroughly to a vocation, but Brodsky is adamant that ‘aesthetic sense is the twin of one’s instinct for self-preservation and is more reliable than ethics’.

I think what he means by this is that, while ethics involves a process of deliberation and action, the aesthetic sense is ‘autonomous’. We trust to the aesthetic because there is ‘world enough outside’, and it is the world beyond the self – in this book, the city of Venice – that matters. Watermark opens with a Proustian recollection of freezing seaweed and ends with a moving anecdote about W H Auden in old age; there is no doubt that the mood throughout is stoical. Yet its closing sentence declares that ‘one’s love … is greater than oneself’. 

Reading it during a Venice June, I could not help wishing that Brodsky had overcome his dislike of the ‘shorts-clad herds’ to spend a few weeks here in the summer, when proximity to the water has a somewhat different effect than at other times of year. True, as in winter, the eye dwells constantly on the play of light and shade on the lagoon, but there is also something else at work, a finer attunement of the nervous system to every movement and ripple and dunt in the greater environment, as if the body has temporarily developed its own linea lateralis, the invisible, tender radar that fish use to monitor their home element.

That receptivity comes often in summer – as it did one afternoon, at a garden party on Torcello, far from the ‘unmitigated emissions of hydrocarbons and armpits’ of the Rialto. There, on yet another sidetrack, I found myself standing alone at the edge of my host’s garden, scanning the reed beds and the open water beyond in the hope of glimpsing a stork or a passing tern. The rest of the party had gathered around the drinks table on the far side of the lawn. Almost alone for a moment, I remembered my brief stint as an outfielder for the most dismal cricket team in Northamptonshire, and the surprising pleasure of being closer to the long grass than to the wicket, always on the point of turning and walking away, but sufficiently well disposed to remain where I was, shaded by the sycamore that bounded our sports field. Now, on one side of the garden, just so far, and no further, from the others, I was implicated in the intricate system that extends far and wide over this city of water, a matrix of awareness woven into the reed beds or hanging latent in the narrowest canals, in which the sudden rush of a speedboat passing the Arsenale or the slow progress of a lugubre gondola registers as a ripple, shivering across the lagoon for miles – and I remembered again Brodsky’s elegant closing passage, where he reminds us that ‘we go and beauty stays. Because we are headed for the future, while beauty is the eternal present.’   

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