In from the Cold

Valles_36.5_milosz Alissa Valles in Boston Review:

Fellowship of Poets examines the idea of poetry as a moral force in history, embodied in relationships both hierarchical—between poet and reader, teacher and student—and fraternal. For these particular poets, who met when Miłosz was in his 60s and Brodsky in his 30s, the friendship seems to have run a precarious course between mentorship and rivalry, and some of Grudzinska Gross’s most penetrating—and wittiest—insights pertain to how the two negotiated the balance of power between them.

Against the Western habit of placing Eastern European poets on the same page politically (for the simple reason that this is where anthologies place them), there is a revelatory account of Miłosz and Brodsky’s tête-à-tête at a literary conference in Lisbon in 1988, one of the few occasions when the two were publicly at odds. Miłosz accused Brodsky of supporting the principle of divide et impera—“divide and rule”—in denying the reality of Central Europe as a region unified by its subjugation to Moscow. Brodsky protested rather unconvincingly, disarmed by Miłosz’s repeated insistence that this was a disagreement between friends. Grudzinska Gross gives a valuable and subtle commentary on the shades of irony at play in Brodsky’s own use of the word “imperium,” claiming that he learned the stance of the empire’s cynical observer from Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most famous Romantic poet. Like Pushkin, Brodsky tended to make the figure of the tyrant, rather than the fact of empire, the object of his scorn, continuing to take pride in the grand scale of the Soviet Union and its history while adopting an ostensibly apolitical attitude. “Freedom,” he writes in a poem that carries that title, “is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name.” It is difficult to imagine Miłosz, or any Pole before Zagajewski, writing that line.

The American edition’s cozy subtitle, “Fellowship of Poets,” evokes the self-congratulatory backslapping atmosphere Miłosz and Brodsky moved in during their post-Nobel years. The Polish edition has a different subtitle, “Magnetic Poles,” which would have made for an unfortunate pun in English but neatly combines the book’s two important lines of inquiry: the basis for Miłosz and Brodsky’s mutual sympathy and fascination, and the ways in which they were (and remain, at least in the living word) polar opposites.