Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Brodsky and Baryshnikov: Russian Émigrés In New York City

Perspective


Outside View: Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov, New York City, 1985. Joan Acocella writes for The New York Review of Books: “In Brodsky, born eight years before him, Baryshnikov acquired a kind of older brother, and he needed one. Though a number of people were very kind to him, he did not, at this early point, have close friends in the United States, and he was slow in making them, because he had no time to study English. With Brodsky he could speak in Russian, and they had a city, a government—in some measure, a history—in common.”
Photo Credit: Leonid Lubianitsky
Source: NYRB


In a theater review in The New York Review of Books, Joan Acocella writes about the friendship between Joseph Brodsky (born Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky) and Mikhail Baryshnikov, formed while both were living in New York City, outside their native land of Russia, or more accurately, the Soviet Union. The review is in reference to a theater piece, “Brodsky/Baryshnikov,” written and directed by Alvis Hermanis and scheduled to play at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City on March 9–19, 2016.

In “A Ghost Story” (January 14, 2016), Acocella writes:
By the time Baryshnikov graduated from the Vaganova Institute and joined the Kirov in 1967, Brodsky had already returned from Norenskaya, and for the next seven years the two men lived in the same city. Baryshnikov knew Brodsky’s poetry, but the two men did not meet, and if they had, it wouldn’t have been good for Baryshnikov. Brodsky was a dangerous person to be seen with.
By this time, furthermore, Baryshnikov too was under suspicion, as a defection risk. In 1972, Brodsky was thrown out of Russia, and two years later Baryshnikov threw himself out. On tour in Toronto, he walked out of the stage door after a performance, signed some autographs, and then, instead of getting into the company bus, he turned and ran. A getaway car, arranged by friends, was waiting a few blocks away. He was now a Western artist.
In a long interview that he recently gave to the Latvian magazine Laiks, Baryshnikov recalled that he met Brodsky soon afterward, at a party at Mstislav Rostropovich’s house. “Joseph was sitting on a couch. He looked at me and said, ‘Mikhail, come sit down. There are things to talk about.’” Baryshnikov, though a celebrity, considered Brodsky a far greater celebrity. “My hands were shaking. The cigarette was going back and forth, like this,” he says, waving his hand like a windshield wiper. He sat down, and they talked for a long time. Thereafter they were friends for over twenty years, until Brodsky’s death. They spoke to each other every day.
Joseph Brodsky died of a heart attack on January 28, 1996; he was 55.

What is also common is that persons gravitate to other like-minded persons, language becoming the initial common denominator. In this case, both were also famous artists and performers; both were émigrés. When they initially moved to America, they brought with them their ideas of freedom, formed in the Soviet Union, which was not necessarily the same as what westerners held. Freedom, like any other concept, becomes more valuable when it is lacking or non-existent; it can also be daunting to accept when there is little personal history of it. One can become intoxicated with it in the same way a young person can be intoxicated with his first taste of spirits.

Although I was familiar with Baryshnikov in the late 1970s, and remember the film White Nights (1985), I became acquainted with Brodsky’s poetry much later, only in the early 1990s. He follows in the footsteps of those who preceded him, in particular the poets from the Acmeist school of Saint Petersburg. By then, I had read the poetry of Mandelstam and Akhmatova (albeit in translation) and had dipped into their biographies of living in a totalitarian regime that denied them their right to express views contrary to accepted State policy. Such makes their writing, their poetry, all the more revealing. I found in their stories, horrifying as they were, an aspect of humanity that resonates today.

A book worth reading is Conversations With Joseph Brodsky: A Poet's Journey Through The Twentieth Century (1998), by Solomon Volkov (Trans. Marian Schwartz). In this 306-page volume is a book formed from 15 years of conversation between the two men, which took place in Brodsky’s apartment at 44 Morton Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. In the Introduction (“The Lone Wolf of Poetry”), Volkov sets the scene by describing the now famous 1964 trial of Brodsky, then 23, charged with “social paristism”:
This Kafkaesque trial occupies a central position in the Brodsky myth, Little did Leningrad officials suspect, when they investigated this routine case, that the individual they considered a Jewish “pygmy in corduroy trousers, scribbling poems that alternated gibberish with whining, pessimism, and pornography,” would turn the Soviet court proceedings into an absurd drama at the intersection of genius and idiocy. In reply to the irritated question of the female Soviet judge, “Who made you a poet?” Brodsky thoughtfully replied, “And who made me a member of the human race?” and added hesitantly, “I think it was God.” Brodsky’s friend, the poet Lev Loseff, observed that in an instant Brodsky’s answer transposed the proceedings to a different plane. There was no doubt what metaphysical power the poet’s opponents were representing in this Manichean drama. (3–4)
Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labour (later commuted to 18 months) on a farm in the village of Norenskaya, in the Archangelsk region of Russia, 350 miles from Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). It was there, while he chopped wood and shoveled manure in the day, that he read Auden and Frost and wrote many of his finest poems in the evening. Perhaps, such is their appeal. Brodsky became a symbol of artistic freedom in the West, even before being expelled by the Soviet Union and emigrating to America.

Poetry was not only Brodsky’s path to freedom, but gave others the means to see the world in a different way. As were the works of Pasternak, Mayakovsky. Tsvetaeva and. of course, Blok. Even if they themselves did not find the freedom they sought, their poetry served as guideposts to others. Poetry is a condensed language that once unpacked can reveal so much more than its written lines might suggest.

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For more, go to [NYRB]

For an excellent 1979 interview of Brodsky in his Greenwich Village apartment, by Sven Birkerts, go to [the Paris Review]