Two small items on Joseph Brodsky
1. pun on “From Russia with love” in signing his selected poems for Adriaan van der Staay
2. a recollection of his first visit to Poetry International Rotterdam in 1974 by its director.
I never saw him again afterwards, but the memory is vivid. I was his host, I had invited him to read at the Poetry International Festival of Rotterdam. I think it was 1974. I had heard that two years before he had been dropped at W. H. Auden’s door near Vienna and afterwards stayed in exile. He came from the prisons of Russia and was not yet a Westerner. He had never been outside. He had, in a way, no manners.
When I met him up in the Doelen building where a pre-festival drinks had been arranged in the Queens parlor, I felt he felt uncomfortable. This was not serious to him, not real. His world was real, more than real, and the party seemed to bother him. So we went through a door onto the roof for some fresh air.
The roof of the Doelen building was rough. There was a tar coating underneath covered by pebbles. This field of gravel stretched out to the sharp straight edges of the building. We walked there and looked four floors down onto the streets below. We were separated from the void by a metal gutter.
We turned back and sat down, leaning against an oblique light-well. He lit a cigarette and smoked, asking me about Dutch football. I had a feeling he was in this way testing me whether I was serious.
After a while he started to pick up pebbles and began throwing them some ten meters away over the rim of the building. It reminded me of sitting at the edge of a pond and pelting it with stones found on the bank. I realized that these stones could accelerate and hurt people beneath. But it seemed incommensurate to take care of that aspect compared with the world he had come out from and witnessed.
We turned back to the parlor full of literary people and I asked him to read. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and opened his mouth with his head flung back. He chanted his poetry from memory. He chanted it with a voice fit for a cathedral.
I remember he sang or recited three long poems in this manner. There was no understanding on our side, just amazement at the sounds, the rhymes, the sheer physical panache and the seriousness of the performance.
More I have not to say about Brodsky.