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Joseph Brodsky’s Utter Happiness

Rebecca Spears

a meandering intermittent stream courses through a foggy meadow in autumn Poet Joseph Brodsky began spending winters in Venice in 1972, and his holidays there continued for years. In 1989, he published his reflections of those winters in Watermark. In this lyric essay, Brodsky makes a rich physical and metaphysical journey into that city, where he calls up the primordial and the eternal, the fixed and fluid properties of the watery landscape, and the real and impressionistic architecture of the city.

Yet more notably, in this setting Brodsky is smitten with “utter happiness.” Newly exiled from his native Russia in 1972, he had come to live and teach in the United States, his “Purgatorio,” while Venice became “my version of paradise.” For one thing, the watery city reminded him of St. Petersburg, Russia on the Baltic Sea, where he spent his childhood. What’s more, the visual delights of Venice signified Eden to him. On first entering the city at night, Brodsky described entering “infinity,” traveling on a vaporetto over the water’s black surface. The city itself, he wrote, is “a porcelain setting by a crystal water,” where the Spirit of God might move upon the water’s face. Here, he wrote, people want to cover themselves because of all the surrounding beauty, “the marble lace, inlays, capitals, cornices, reliefs, and moldings . . . angels, cherubs, caryatids . . . and windows.”

I think we all have some notion of what is Edenic to us, a place, imagined or real, that brings on feelings of joy or comfort or rest. Like Brodsky, I appreciate both wintry and foggy landscapes—not because they remind me of my childhood, but because I am a creature of the endless Southwestern sun that often obliterates the views with its white glare. And like Brodsky, I “take heat very poorly.” No wonder I often find woods and forests, mountains and hills divine, especially in the summers. Yet even when I must summer in the boiler that is Houston, the softened panorama of clouded days and the obscurity of fogged mornings can remind me of God’s garden, however briefly.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker discuss early Christian concepts of paradise in their book Saving Paradise and especially in the article, “This Present Paradise.” The authors write, “In the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. Early images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies and teeming water of the Mediterranean world as if they were lit by a power from within.” This world, they say, was “a world created as good and delightful.” God was present in it, for in early Christian images, a ladder often appears, where not only people could ascend to heaven, but God could come down to earth.

In Watermark, Joseph Brodsky delights in the “present paradise” he finds in Venice; and I am easily pulled into in his enchantment with it. When I read Watermark, I understand the poet’s sentiments, his overarching love of place, the watercolor of Venice. Wandering in Brodsky’s descriptions, I think of my own moments of heaven on earth. In such moments, peace, utter happiness.