As our small poetry group has diminished due to members’ moving away to distant capitals or retreating to deal with life’s challenges and assaults, I write to assert survival of Otram Slabess. The roar of Justin Bieber and a vacuum cleaner washes over me as our daughter submits to helping clean the house before friends arrive for a new year celebration. It is the next to the last day of 2015. I’ve just been stirred by reading Joan Acocella’s New York Review of Books‘ article about a theatre piece centered on the life and poetry of Joseph Brodsky. Written and directed by Alvis Hermanis, the piece premiered at the New Riga Theatre in Riga, Latvia, and its one performer is Mikhail Baryshnikov, the great dancer and Brodsky’s great friend for the last twenty years of the poet’s life. It will open in New York in March. Hermanis is quoted as saying, “Whatever illusions you had, Brodsky makes you say goodbye to them. And so you achieve a sort of Buddhistic calm.” On another hand, as Acocella puts it, “Baryshnikov was charmed by Brodsky’s vivacity, his capacity for fantasy and play, his readiness to love things.” I love these apparent contradictions. We should all remember how Brodsky chanted his poems. I witnessed his presentation of them (in Russian) a couple of times when I lived in New York in the 1980’s, and I found it magnificent. Acocella plainly explains how we miss a great deal of Brodsky in English translation. Hermanis’ piece includes both Baryshnikov and Brodsky on tape singing the poems. It seems that audiences are given multi-leveled waves of language and movement via audio, supertitles, and Baryshnikov’s evocations, with body and voice, of his friend. I’ll bet the effect is magnificent. Both men became exiles–the poet by ejection, the dancer by defection–from the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s, and the poet became “a kind of older brother” to the dancer. The latter “needed one,” Acocella writes. Brodsky, eight years the elder, spoke English well, had many friends in the U.S., and was also the much greater celebrity than Baryshnikov at the time. By the time I saw him dance in New York and one night brushed shoulders with him walking on West 10th Street, the younger man had, of course, become as celebrated as anyone.
Otram Slabess has borrowed a kind of credo from Joseph Brodsky, and so, delighting in the descriptions and background of this theatre piece, as offered by a very fine writer and critic, I’m posting a kind of elegy I wrote for Joseph Brodsky when I learned of his death in 1996. I was teaching off and on as a poet-in-the-schools. The poem mentions Brodsky’s idol in English poetry, W.H. Auden, among other things, and the Congaree Swamp, which has been a natural muse for me in my writing life. Cheers to these great artists and to our own Otram Slabess!
In Memoriam Joseph Brodsky: Congaree Swamp
Today I read a translated piece of you,
“Stone Villages,” to a room of sixth graders
and declared for them how a football goal
is “bottled” in their classroom window,
mastering my fear of the world
of difference between your English pub
(after Auden) and this American public school
in a beaten, drug-gutted neighborhood.
Finding an accumulating grief, foolish
before an audience of children,
I wanted to tell the tale of your weeping
at Lowell’s funeral, the whole of poetry
in American English waiting
through your instruction on the heart.
But details as quickly defeated my lesson
as your heart let you sleep forever.
I wanted them to know your bravery,
your kind of defiance, not theirs,
and its consequences. The years between us
are filled with energy and envy. They
inherit my death, the silence after my words,
which are your words, no one’s words, everyone’s
now, everyone’s. You died on Super Bowl Sunday.
They don’t remember the Cold War.
“What is a parasite?” I asked them.
A teacher, a poet, a child without a resume:
what I didn’t say. “Mosquitoes?” piped one.
No, it must live on or in its host.
They buzz from our blood to private pools.
Try mistletoe or all of us kissing under stars
on this one earth: what I do say.
Your leaders named you that and sentenced you.
Yesterday, you died. “Thus the source
of love turns into the object of love.”
Your sentence. Life in this country
had been “terribly good” to you.
Now I walk and mumble in the great swamp.
There are no mosquitoes, Joseph, only migrants
mostly, exiles. “And the clearer the song
is heard, the smaller the bird.”