To the Editors of the Novoe Russkoe Slovo:
The biographies tell us he had many friends and social obligations. The biographers, his friends, tell us his other friends—also biographers and rememberists—were not as close to him as they’ve claimed, in their biographies, to have been. And indeed, toward the end (i.e., after the Nobelevka), I now know that he had had to get an unlisted number because even Yevtushenko and mayor Sobchak wanted something from him. . . . Yet this man, the poet Joseph Brodsky, about whom nothing worthwhile has yet been written, was, for a period of two years, my neighbor and confidant-on-the-stairs, though as an utter nobody I had no idea at the time that he was anyone famous, and Brodsky himself never mentioned it. How, you might say, could I not have known? Well, I was not so well read then; that and the burdens of the first years of immigration added up to several lost years during the course of which I read virtually nothing but newspapers and mail, though several times a week, when he was around, Brodsky and I smoked Kents on the landing and cursed about the usual topics. I would tell him dirty jokes and he’d say he “admired” my pumpernickel and butter lox sandwich, often taking a few of the gray ends for his cat, Kissa, which I named Ashtray after the way it smelled, pointing at its nicotine- stained paws and yellow asshole the color of my wife’s burnt mayonnaise. It seemed to me Brodsky lived under some constant constraint, but without really mentioning details he was the first to admit that, excluding the eternal problems, it hadn’t been all that bad for him in the Soviet Union. You see, he was not, like Dostoevsky’s anti-heroes, reluctant to admit these things to himself, and it seemed to me that, despite his pretensions and sympathies, Brodsky and I had in common our understanding of the paradox of survival, which, though it might be impressive to those who have been less opposed in life, is, in itself, nothing but a fact to be proud of. Thus, like any honest person, he was only proud of those things he himself had achieved, and, perhaps because he dressed like a poor tutor, I never thought he was anyone important, Continental, cosmopolitan. Why, then, did he waste his time on a simple person like me? Well, after following with disgust the publication of biography after biography, with their bitchy dissections of what he inscribed to whom, I realize now it was precisely because I was a simple person—another taxi driver in a city of taxi drivers—and not some fawning poet or lady diarist, that he lent me the links of his endless chain smoking and the fag-ends of his dying days. Because I didn’t know who he was I couldn’t have wanted anything from him—he must have reasoned— and yet, though my wife says I should be proud to represent the slum in Brodsky’s slumming, I can’t but be resentful now of his deception, which seems less innocent the more I learn about who he was.
It made me feel a bit like a whore, for instance, to find out that Brodsky was BRODSKY from the obituary in your newspaper (Jan. 29)—a kind of betrayal of the unstated pact between two poor and helpless people, and the queasy, sneaking sense of having somehow been undermined. (Once I held a package for Brodsky. I thought the package contained papers or socks. Now—I think when I can’t fall asleep—it must have been his books, his first editions.) It’s true he never talked about money or objected when I did, but I feel like a fool recalling my woeful tirades and complaints against the inefficiencies of the Jewish agencies and NYANA—“So maybe you don’t have to boil the water here but that doesn’t make it paradise”—a shade of shame remembering the stories I wrote between shifts in the cafeteria where half the taxi corps wrote like Dovlatov and dreamed of success in the émigré newspapers too, our sad insularity as similar and hilarious to Brodsky as the bitter rifts between Mussulman intellectuals—“The Prophet said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery’,” etc. And though he loved rumors and gossip, Brodsky, in contrast, was less bothered and fearful than the rest of us: he seemed only to suffer in silence as worry came naturally to his face, a kind of mask of reaction, which one could imagine he took on and off like a prosthesis or amputated limb. Around me I think his favorite word was pederast, the r rolling off his tongue in pseudo-lyric imitation, perfectly imprecise like everything he wrote and said. I went to see him when he died—because conscience does not depend on the weather and because there are worse things than abetting genius and poetry—and it felt like the man in that box was intruding on his own funeral, on the privacy of the poet, the ceremony and solemnity of mourning a symbol, a legend, which suits a Pushkin or a Blok, fine, but not an Esenin, not an Auden, and not a Brodsky either. . . . It’s actually a relief he’s buried in San Michele and not in South Hadley or Petersburg because I’ve never been there, just a little camp on the coast of Rome where my wife and I lived for three and a half months, though I think what they did to him in the end with the church business was disgusting: no unbaptized Jew who hated Tchaikovsky and called himself a kike should be left on view in Brooklyn Heights with a cross in his hands and Chernomyrdin’s wreath on his chest while the women wait to ship his box off to Venice and a watery grave in the Episcopalian section not nearly far enough away from the fascist poet Pound (“Forever is not a word, but a number”). . . No hands anglophile named Brodsky, in fact—no American poet laureate named Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky—with a maternal grandfather Moses and a congenital heart condition, who despised the desperate conversions of Naiman and such, and who, as a Soviet individualist, felt himself more American than the Americans, could be laid out like so much Jewish coldcut for every gold mouth to gape at and every white face to stare: just more Jewish fertilizer for the Russian language, the old Russian word, the new Russian word, a poor poem—isn’t that so?
More money, more paper, more prizes and plaques. More euphemisms, more schadenfreude, more tourists, more mail, more weepy self-deception, less poetry, less Brodskies—though poets, like people, are nothing if not inconsistent and paradoxical, contradictory, as taken to hypocrisy as anyone else. Brodsky the aesthete and moralist, the elitist and humanist, wrote, perhaps in recognition of this, the following lines in his poem “The Candlestick”:
It seems that what art strives for is to be
precise and not to tell us lies, because
its fundamental law undoubtedly
asserts the independence of details.
Because we can never recall the past, I wish to remember it here, complete with the truths granted us by the “independence of details.” Because no extant poem of his was written for me and because I’m sick of being trapped in my own anecdote and because, well, I feel deceived by Brodsky—deceived, after all, by his anonymity—I, too, have written a memoir, of sorts; only the purpose of my memoir, which at this time I’ll call I’m Bored Without Brodsky, is to tell how, besides being famous and tired, Brodsky was also quite snobbish and sentimental, obsessed and proud, and that yet, it is, I confess, so lonely and boring here without him.
Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator of Russian poetry and prose. He lives in San Francisco with his fiancé and is working on a book about beekeeping and globalization.
“Bored Without Brodsky: An Open Letter to the Russian Diaspora” was originally published in Street Cred (TLR, 2015)