A friendship that persists even many years after death. Robert Morgan talks about Joseph Brodsky.

24 August 2021

“A poet is a way of life,” said Joseph Brodsky. A great poet, essayist, translator, playwright and teacher, all this is about Brodsky. Venice became for Brodsky a place where he constantly returned, where he had favourite places, favourite friends and, in general, his favourite Venice. His close friend Robert Morgan, an American artist who came to Venice many years ago and stayed, still lives in Venice. The man to whom Brodsky dedicated the famous book “Watermark” and who to this day keeps a place in his life for memories of such a brilliant friend as Joseph Brodsky.

“He was sure of his ideas, but a hallmark was his great courage. He would not back down from what he believed, which is why he got in trouble in the first place. He certainly had his views and stood for them. When he went into high gear on almost any subject, you realized you were talking to somebody who was smarter than the rest of us”, - recalls Robert Morgan.

Brodsky’s fate was very tricky. In February 1964, Brodsky was arrested on charges of parasitism, after he was sent into exile, and when he was released a few years later, he was deprived of Soviet citizenship and left his homeland forever.

“He loved Russia and stayed in touch with his friends there but he was a sworn opponent of the Soviet regime. Sitting on the Zattere, every time a Russian ship went by - there was a lot of mercantile traffic in those days - he made an indecent gesture”, - recounts Robert.

It is a well-known fact that Venice reminded Brodsky of his hometown – St. Petersburg. Similar architecture, a city that stands on water, the north wind and rains during the winter. It is not surprising that Brodsky, as a true northern man, liked to come to Venice in winter avoiding summer, if possible.

“His widow, Maria lives in Italy now. Their daughter, Anna will be 30 soon and she has a daughter herself. Anna was very small when her father died. Shortly before his unexpected death he started writing poems dedicated to her in English. He hoped that she could perhaps remember his shadow.

Maria created and presides over the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund to provide Russian artists and writers with scholarships to visit Italy. One of the stops is Venice, in collaboration with the Emily Harvey Foundation. The American Academy is the host in Rome where Joseph stayed many times. The ultimate goal is to establish a permanent base which was Joseph’s dream”, says Robert

Joseph Brodsky left behind a huge legacy, and most importantly, people who preserve his work which constantly inspires future poets and artists. Brodsky himself did not come from a privileged family, his parents were simple working class: his father was a military photojournalist, after demobilization he worked as a photographer and journalist in several Leningrad newspapers, and Brodsky’s mother worked as an accountant. Perhaps that is why Brodsky, even after his death, remains an example for any person that everything in our life is possible.

“He always smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank black coffee. In Italy, a shot of grappa replaced his favorite vodka. He didn’t take very good care of his health...” – recalls Robert. Brodsky suffered from a serious cardiac condition, but he did not limit himself despite his illness. His famous book about Venice “Watermark” is called “Fondamenta degli incurabili” in Italian. Robert Morgan, to whom the book is dedicated, proofread it, and suggested the title. He still has a copy of the typed manuscript. “Joseph was intrigued by the Ospedale degli incurabili because it corresponed with his own condition and with the human condition in general. He loved such metaphors.”

“He had a unique gift for poetic language. It is said, that his best poetry was written in Russian, but he certainly had a extraordinary command of the English language. He was extremely eloquent and articulate. But it was like, you could tell that it was stage Russian. Perfectly understandable in English, he spoke with an unmistakable and beautiful Russian intonation.” – recalls Robert.

On December 10, 1987, Joseph Brodsky was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature with the wording “for a comprehensive literary activity characterized by clarity of thought and poetic intensity. He said in his Nobel Lecture: “If art teaches anything (to the artist, in the first place), it is the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly, a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness – thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous “I”. Lots of things can be shared: a bed, a piece of bread, convictions, a mistress, but not a poem by, say, Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete-a-tete, entering with him into direct – free of any go-betweens – relations. It is for this reason that art in general, literature especially, and poetry in particular, is not exactly favored by the champions of the common good, masters of the masses, heralds of historical necessity. For there, where art has stepped, where a poem has been read, they discover, in place of the anticipated consent and unanimity, indifference and polyphony; in place of the resolve to act, inattention and fastidiousness.”

Joseph Brodsky died in 1996, his body was buried on the Venetian island of San Michele a year later in the Protestant section of the cemetery. It was not easy to get a plot but Girolamo Marcello, a descendant of Doges’ and a devoted friend who met Joseph through Robert obtained the necessary permit from the commune. There was a moving funeral ceremony with readings from his work at the church of San Michele, attended by family, colleagues and friends from different parts of the world which, despite the presence of many great names, remained private.

Brodsky was a brilliant man, a great poet, a wonderful friend who had friends all over the world, a beloved husband and he always dreamed of returning to Venice even after his death. "If there is a reincarnation, I would like to live my next life in Venice – to be a cat there, anything, even a rat, but always in Venice," - Brodsky wrote. Perhaps it turned out that Brodsky did return to Venice where now people leave poems, letters, cigarettes and other tokens of regard on his grave.