Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940)

Joseph Brodsky is one of the many modern Russian-Jewish-emigre poets whose works I have not read. He's special to me because for a short time he was a poet in residence at the University of Michigan and lived less than a block from my house. I never knowingly saw him. He did not like it much in our town. In a poem about Ann Arbor he wrote:
“In the country of dentists, whose daughters order clothes /
from London catalogues, . . . /
I, whose mouth houses ruins /
more total than the Parthenon’s, /
a spy, an interloper, /
the fifth column of a rotten civilization..." -- From a New Yorker review of Brodsky: A Literary Life, May 23, 2011
On the complex question of Brodsky’s Jewishness:
“In one sense, Brodsky is unequivocal on this subject: ‘I’m a Jew. One hundred percent. You can’t be more Jewish than I am,’ he told an interviewer. Yet he was typical of his Soviet Jewish generation in having absolutely no knowledge of Judaism—apparently he did not even read the Bible until he was in his twenties—and his understanding of Jewishness seems to have been passive and minimal. ‘When anybody asked what my ethnic background was, I of course answered Jewish,’ he explained, ‘but that didn’t happen often. There was really no need to ask. I can’t say a Russian r.’ Brodsky saw Jewishness in terms of such details of speech and appearance, like his prominent nose and pale skin. It could also be a cause of (fairly minor) discrimination: He recalled being teased by classmates and having his application to the Naval Academy rejected because of anti-Semitism.” From Another review of the same book, "Nowhere Man" by Adam Kirsch.

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