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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of The Red Tower (NewSouth, 2010) and The Pilot House (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). His new collection,School of the Americas, is out from Black Lawrence Press. He is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner.

The Day Brodsky Died

I was walking across the creaky floor of Root Hall at Hamilton when a colleague stopped me and said, "I just heard that Brodsky died. That was the poet you translated, wasn't it?" The question itself betrayed both the fault line between academic and literary domains and the solicitude we all feel at the palpable loss of another. I had seen Joseph at a reading the previous fall in New York. He looked at me, scanning the changes he saw and declared, "What an improvement!" It was the first time I had seen him in years. Following an intense period from the moment of his arrival on these shores in 1972, until the summer of 1977, we had been in constant touch with visitings, enthusiastic dinners, road trips in his AMC Matador with Gucci interior, epigrammatic correspondence, lengthy phone calls. But three times that number of years had passed, since a falling out over a woman: I had presumed to date one of his exes. In those years, his Roman-candle fame had spread unstoppably, as had his heart condition.

It was a day like the day I lost my brother to suicide: snow everywhere. The sun, as the Prince in Romeo and Juliet said, "for sorrow, [would] not show his head" Unlike that day, I knew this one was coming. We all did, even the Nobel Prize committee, which hinted at the precariousness of his health, helped move up the prize he won at 47. And which he was no doubt destined to win at some point, had the Fates not warned all who were listening that such a future was probably subject to denial. Looked at another way he was eight years younger at his death than I am now writing this.

That date—January 28—divides time for all who knew him well, into before and after. Joseph had himself remarked how apt the phrase "death of the poet" seem contrasted with the less vivid "life of the poet." He knew he would die early, and he gave much thought to his only handy defense: elegy. And so, in his quick-witted way, he knew to make posthumous speech in all its forms his study. One of these forms was translation, as he reminded us in an important essay on Cavafy that appeared in The New York Review of Books. Cavafy's straight-faced words, a kind of writing-degree-zero, he argued, could hardly conceal the fact that they wanted first and foremost to be translated, that in fact translation—the posthumous voice—was their destiny. At the same time, he was quick to point out that the dead were best described by the dash in their life dates, not the numbers with which it is bookended. As he put it another time, "nobody lives for the sake of his obituary."

Everyone knew that smoking would kill a man whose heart, like a paper shack, could do little to lessen the coming storm's severity, let alone prevent it. He told me that when he lay hooked to tubes in the hospital after his first heart attack all he could remember was being intoxicated by the smell of tobacco then on the breath of Edith Gross, an editor at Vogue, who had bent down to kiss him when she visited. And after our parting of ways and not long before his death, his friend Derek Walcott visited Hamilton, and I asked him, whose own habit was way past addictive, if Joseph was still puffing, and his response was instant: "He smokes in church."

What a pity then that his own translations—mine included—fell short of a Cavafyesque standard, and yet how could they not? I know of no Russian translations that match the complex, interior and intramural graces that the language affords. The inferred lack, indeed the very fact of it, was achingly apparent when Pasternak's poems of Zhivago first appeared in 1958, as it was when Kunitz applied his Prospero's wand to the resistant, personal texture of Akhmatova's poems in 1973, and as it was when Merwin's offered up his controlled take on Mandelstam, also in 1973. Good as these were, they also left readers wondering what the fuss was all about. Thus the language that guards against foreign takeover or taint, also guards against the posthumous (i.e., translation) options. And yet, in insisting on that option all this life, Brodsky called into question whether the posthumous voice wasn't another variety of the attempt to attain an Absolute—what poetry really looks like in the mind of God, as it were. And that is both beyond words and beyond the irony that two dimensions could, in God's inscrutable wisdom, be somehow greater than three. This noble, but impossible ambition, which he also identified and admired in Tsvetaeva, is what drew many of us to him.

The day Brodsky died, I still smoked myself. Later that very day, after class, I opened a window in my office and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke into the dark north—though the dark north, being itself, blew it right back. It was a day not unlike the day a few years before when I got the call that my brother had blown his brains out in Ohio, as an early winter storm moved in, and roads got hard fast in the suburbs. In both cases, I remember there were stars where I was—"salt on an axe-blade," in Mandelstam's (and Merwin's) description—but where my brother's were when they died, there were only clouds. Unlike my brother, Joseph had died in his sleep, but neither, being indoors, perceived the last of starlight before taking the last breath.

The first time it was borne home to me that Joseph was actually mortal (though young), he had taken me to spend the day with Anthony Hecht in Rochester. On the way back, as snow lay all around the black ribbon of the New York Thruway, he suddenly sprang up and clutched his chest, which he pounded three times hard with his fist, then slumped back, silent. Given, as he was not, to any hint of self-pity, he looked out the window as we sped on our way, and said enigmatically but simply—as if he were talking about the fate of poems: "the houses are dark, but the people are darker, the houses would say if they could."

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