The OF Blog: Joseph Brodsky, Watermark

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark

One never knows what engenders what:  an experience a language, or a language an experience.  Both are capable of generating quite a lot.  When one is badly sick, one hopes, even against hope, to get cured, the illness to stop.  The end of an illness thus is the end of its metaphors.  A metaphor – or, to put it more broadly, language itself – is by and large open-ended, it craves continuum:  an afterlife, if you will.  In other words (no pun intended), metaphor is incurable.  Add then to all this yourself, a carrier of this métier, or of this virus – in fact, of a couple of them, sharpening your teeth for a third – shuffling on a windy night along the Fondamenta, whose name proclaims your diagnosis regardless of the nature of your malady. (pp. 77-78)

Joseph Brodsky's memoir/essay/prose poetry, Watermark, has haunted me ever since I first read it in July 2012.  It is hard to pin down exactly what it is; its protean qualities make it a mirror of sorts for the reader:  whatever might preoccupy your subconscious may come to the fore when reading this.  In a draft of a July letter that I wrote to someone dear to me, I focused on the metaphor of water.  This is what I wrote, with the quote above appearing in the middle:

As I said to you [...], Brodsky's Watermark was a dangerous book for me to read, as I have already re-read it once and thumbed through parts of it another.  The metaphor of water, which in liquid form possesses no innate shape and whose formlessness reflects and refracts objects rather than possessing the entirety of them, for life, the city, and time has occupied several of my waking thoughts (and a few of my dreaming images) these past few days.  Take, for instance, his comments on metaphors:

[quoted passage above]

I dream in metaphors, taking the concrete and bending it into something more malleable.  I do not possess the talents of the great poets (and Brodsky certainly ranks as one), but I do get some sense of what maladies afflict them.  Water as metaphor works because we grasp the futility of holding it; it always escapes us.  Water, however, flows through us, moves us, makes our very lives possible  It connects without being a part of a beginning or a terminus.  It envelops the square that contains the circle in which the points of a triangle struggle to pierce it.  Water perhaps is a metaphor for the Alpha and the Omega.

Yet this is only a singular impression of Watermark.  Re-reading it as the leaves have mostly fallen, with ashen skies and cold breezes, there are other passages that seized my attention.  The allusions to the preciousness of color in a wintry clime, of fog enveloping the streets, the labyrinths of canals and streets cloaked with this fog and the meandering paths that people take through the city – these are other elements of Watermark that complement (and provide a contrast to) the watery metaphors of other passages.  As a collection of 48 short essays on Brodsky's 17 consecutive winter visits to Venice, Watermark contains at least as much references to the symbolism of that month (and of Brodsky's love for coolness) as it does toward anything else.

Future re-reads no doubt will highlight over aspects of Venice and Brodsky's impressions of it.  This is one of the more attractive parts to the book, as Venice, like people, is constantly shifting.  In some guises, it appears active, bursting with activity, as might a radiant child playing in front of approving parents.  Yet there are times where the stillness of the city captures something else:

And you sense this light's fatigue as it rests in Zaccaria's marble shells for another hour or so, while the earth is turning its other cheek to the luminary.  This is the winter light at its purest.  It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus.  Its particles' only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or small, visible.  It's a private light, the light of Giorgione or Bellini, not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto.  And the city lingers in it, savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came.  An object, after all, is what makes infinity private. (pp. 80-81)

Privacy certainly is another layer to Brodsky's text.  In his impressions of the city, ranging from the city as metaphor to the city as symbol, Brodsky's imagery feels intimately personal, as he struggles to convey what he feels each time that he perceives a countenance of Venice's many faces.  We are but interlopers here, Peeping Toms who witness his attempts to wrestle with the infinitude of symbol and metaphor to craft something approximating a "true view" of his beloved Venice.  As I said in the excerpted personal letter, "It envelops the square that contains the circle in which the points of a triangle struggle to pierce it."  Yet these approximations, close as they come to realizing infinity, by nature must fail.  And in that "failure" of Brodsky to define Venice, we detect that eponymous watermark that signals that this work is one of the most evocative works of the late twentieth century, one in which re-readings will yield different impressions each time his essays are considered.

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