Words and images by Kevin Rabalais
Morning in San Marco. Pluto, an overweight male Labrador retriever, pants beneath the bar of Café Venezia, eager for the locals to drop potato chips into his mouth. Crossing the threshold, each new arrival calls out his name. They bend down to greet him, voices raised an octave, and ruffle the fur behind his ears. Pluto’s owner is one of those well-dressed Venetians—envious, you see them everywhere, certain that you could never replicate the jacket and hat and scarf and cool, no, careless confidence—about whom Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky writes in Watermark.
[B]ipeds go ape about shopping and dressing up in Venice for reasons not exactly practical; they do so because the city, as it were, challenges them. ... What one sees in this city at every step, turn, perspective, and dead end worsens one’s complexes and insecurities. That’s why one … hits the stores as soon as one arrives here, and with a vengeance. The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it, to be on a par.
For nearly twenty years, Brodsky spent his winters in Venice. Watermark, his meditation on Venice’s culture and history, is part prose poem, part autobiography and essential for visitors and lovers of this miraculous city. “There is no better backdrop for rapture to fade into,” writes Brodsky. Indeed, the backdrops, and the Venetian civilization itself, the very day-to-day inner-workings (stare in awe at the morning boat deliveries of wine and bottled water, or try to pull your gaze from those garbage collectors who push their metal carts up and down these canal bridges) and endless surprises (the courtyards, the painted shutters, the lace facades, the laughing children at play in broad piazzas) that greet you at every turn.
Brodsky’s prose matches the elegance of his subject as he pursues its essence. Any visitor will recognize the following:
No matter what you set out for as you leave the house here, you are bound to get lost in these long, coiling lanes and passageways that beguile you to see them through, to follow them to their elusive end, which usually hits water, so that you can’t even call it a cul-de-sac.
Nothing new can be said about Venice, as Goethe quipped, a quote also later attributed to Henry James and Mary McCarthy. And yet Brodsky seems to do so. Seated with a group at a New York restaurant, his editor asked him to describe the reason for his annual winter pilgrimages to the city. He formulated examples:
listening to the Giardini’s rustle of evergreens in the company of Wagner and Carducci; about a brave sparrow perching on the bobbing blade of a gondola against the backdrop of a sirocco-roiled damp infinity. No, I thought, looking at their effete but eager faces; no, that won’t do. “Well,” I said, “it’s like Greta Garbo swimming.”
Certainly, people have had the misfortune to walk around, depressed, in this city. To imagine the scenario, however, you have to step far away from the sounds of gondoliers calling out for passengers or engaged in conversation with one another from across the Grand Canal—and force yourself from the symphony of scents of this city’s streets—and fall into deep concentration. For Venice, as Brodsky writes, is “itself a work of art, the greatest masterpiece our species produced.” Spend five minutes here, and you find yourself longing to preserve the memory. “An object, after all, is what makes infinity private,” Brodsky writes. And so you may do as I have done over the past week. You reach for the camera. Brodsky agrees:
Perhaps art is simply an organism’s reaction against its retentive limitations. At any rate, you obey the command and grab your camera, supplementing both your brain cells and your pupil. Should this city ever be short of cash, it can go straight to Kodak for assistance—or else tax its products savagely. By the same token, as long as this place exists, as long as winter light shines upon it, Kodak shares are the best investment.