JOSEPH BRODSKY WAS JOSEPH BRODSKY The last times I had significant interactions with Joseph had to do with the publication of my book of Akhmatova translations- I don’t read Russian, but had worked with interlinear translations, and Serge Shishkoff, a native speaker teaching at the University, brilliant and kind. First of all, I asked Joseph if he would write a letter recommending me and the translations. by Lyn Coffin
'“Well,” said Joseph. “Let’s do
this. Here—” and he signed his name at the bottom of two or three sheets
of paper. “Write what you like,” he said.
'So I did.
'I wrote something brief about my translations “being poems in their
own right and doing something like justice to the originals.” I added,
“One can think of no higher praise than that.” I showed Joseph the
three-sentence letter I had (literally) written in his (i.e., over his)
name, and he said it was fine.
'By that time, Joseph was moving on, leaving Ann Arbor for NewYork,
where he would live until he died. I had a contract from W.W. Norton in
my hand for my Akhmatova translations, predicated on the book’s bearing
an introduction by Joseph Brodsky.
'He had promised to write said introduction before he left, but had
not done so. To say he was a procrastinator perhaps does not convey the
full extent of the situation. Joseph promised a lot. He always,
eventually, delivered. But sometimes later was so later it was no better
'So- the book went into galleys. No introduction.
'I wrote and called. Joseph (offhandedly) promised and promised.
Norton began making threatening noises. The book would be pulled unless
Joseph delivered. I was desperate, so I did a wild and desperate thing.
'I went to the library and read all the introductions I could find in
English that Joseph had previously written- paying special attention to
what he said about Russian writers. Using his own words, and twisting
them to fit Akhmatova, then weaving them into a more or less coherent
Introduction, I wrote Brodsky’s Introduction for him. (I justified
myself on the basis of Joseph’s having not been true to his word and b)
those sheets of paper he had given me with his signature at the bottom.
To be sure, a whole introduction was perhaps not what he had envisioned-
But, then, neither had I.)
'Anyway, I wrote the Introduction and sent it out, then waited with
bated breath for Norton’s response. (Maybe, I told myself, as I mused
about the stressful situation- Maybe when Joseph finds out, he’ll think
it’s funny or a good “up yours” to the academic establishment. I could
not quite push myself into being sanguine about his reaction but, like
Scarlet, I would think about that tomorrow, after the book was
published. Maybe the “fake” introduction would become a classic, taught
in classes of Russian literature.)
'Norton’s reaction came swiftly. They LOVED the Introduction. Their
letter (written by someone who knew the lay of Brodsky land) said he and
the other Norton people thought it was the best piece of prose Brodsky
had ever written. (Inwardly, I complimented myself- It was, I noted, a
truly loving tribute– condensed, vintage Brodsky.)
'And so the book went ahead, with not a word from Brodsky. And I kid you not- about one hour
before I was going to go to the post office and send back the by now
corrected and recorrected galleys of the whole book- a package arrived
on my doorstep from Brodsky. It was his Introduction. The note read,
“Sorry, I’m late with this” (or something to that effect.) It was
signed, I remember, “Citizen Joe.”
'What to do? I immediately sent the new Introduction to Norton. Joseph, I said, had written another Introduction, and he wanted that
to be used for the book. Norton read the new Introduction and objected.
The first Introduction, they said, was by far the better.
'“I agree,” I told them, (I actually did) “but Joseph Brodsky is
Joseph Brodsky. And he wants the second Introduction. He would be really
unhappy if the first Introduction were used.” (Truer words were never
'Finally, to my astonishment and immense relief, Norton agreed. The book was published with Joseph’s “real” Introduction.
'My last contact with Joseph was not a terribly happy one- A year or
so after the book came out, guilt assailed me, and curiosity. (Those two
so often come together.) I wondered what Joseph’s reaction to my
masquerade would be.
'We weren’t really in the same circle any more. I didn’t hear from
him. I was hurt. I thought I might get a (hopefully amused) reaction. I
sent him the Introduction I had pastiched together. I don’t know whether
he ever wrote me back or not. I don’t think so. I think I heard from a
mutual acquaintance that Joseph was not amused.'