Book Review – “Watermark” by Joseph Brodsky

Posted on December 31, 2010 by randysrules

Joseph Brodsky wrote Watermark in 1989 (Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1992; First paperback edition 1993, 135pp. ISBN: 978-0-374-52382-4.  $13.00US).  He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and was the United States of America’s Poet Laureate in 1991 and 1992, and lived only 56 years (1940-1996).

John Updike’s review of the book in The New Yorker upon publication is insightful and enigmatic at the same time:

“We read Watermark enraptured by its gallant attempt to distill a precious meaning from life’s experience – to make a spot on a globe a window into universal circumstance, and to fashion of one’s personal chronic tourism a crystal whose facets reflect an entire life, with exile and ill health glinting at the edges of planes whose direct glare is sheer beauty.”

During Brodsky’s short life, and beginning only after emigration to the United States and a budding academic career allowed him the freedom to first travel to Venice in 1973, his love affair with the City blossomed over the seventeen consecutive Winter visits that led to Watermark.  Yes, Winter, for that was his favorite (or assigned?) time to sojourn there, as well as the first feasible season due to lengthy winter breaks at Mount Holyoke College where he taught.

Through forty-eight very short chapters, Watermark recounts memorable personal experiences that he had during those visits.  These are not the reports of a tour guide or casual collector of sights, but those of one who found Venice not to be a cruise-ship, day-tripper Disneyland(c)(Venice is NOT a museum or a theme park).  Brodsky found a place that was integrally defined by the people with whom he experienced it, an ever-growing understanding in all of its facets.  

Clearly, Venice gifted Brodsky most with a growing comprehension of himself and the larger world.  Through this little book, he shares that with us through along with the parallel growing comprehension of the City that provided that result.

Brodsky’s vision of the structure of the City, the Lagoon, fondamente, urban fabric and campi is, of course, enmeshed with his preparatory life experience and circumstances.  His word paintings of the people, history, aesthetics, history and the reality of life in Venice are exquisitely crafted.

Many elements and linkages that glide through the book addressed and improved my understanding of and rumination upon the reality and meaning of Venice.  A reader need not agree with many of them to be informed.  Brodsky’s impulse that water and time are analogous is an example. 

Symbiosis of Water and Construct  (c)2008 Randy D. Bosch Symbiosis of Water and Construct (c)2008 Randy D. Bosch

However, his observation that the fabric of the lagoon and canals – an endless pattern of wavelets like the scales of a fish – reinterpret through either their perfect mirror or shimmering,mosaic-like, surrealistic reflections the fabric of the man-built City – an endless pattern of brick walls like the cells of human skin – shows how Venice evinces a symbiosis unexcelled elsewhere on earth.    

Recognition of that and other insights into both Venice and self can be achieved only by seeing, through the human eye, and then searching for comprehension.  People are the source of movement in Venice, the blood coursing through its transparent veins, without which there would be no Venice.  If you determine to discount or ignore that element of the City, you will be welcome in the disorienting nebbio of self-definition. 

Developing a brave willingness to observe and interact with others is a necessary resolve and activity to obtain an understanding the City and its zeitgeist as is the observation and understanding of its time, water, fabric, patterns, art and light.

If you think of Venice as an item on your “bucket list”, as a museum, theme park or necessary cruise destination, Watermark may not suit you, for Brodsky may force you to abandon any such superficial blindness.  Better yet, read it and open your eyes and other senses to its encyclopedic wonders.  One other large dividend will be how it may open your eyes to actually see the places you live, work or visit other than Venice!  Anticipate a change in your comprehension of life.

If Venice already owns and shapes your whole-world experience and comprehension, Watermark will enrich that and your gratitude for the gift of Venice to your life.

As Joseph Brodsky wrote,

“By rubbing water, this city improves time’s looks, beautifies the future.  That’s what the role of this city in the universe is.  Because the city is static while we are moving.”


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