Joseph Brodsky’s “Watermark”: Venice in Winter

When I returned from my early December trip to Venice and Milan, I read a short book by the late Poet Laureate of the United States, Joseph Brodsky, called Watermark
. It was featured in an article in the New York Times just before I left for Italy and was described as a prose poem. It is an apt description. Brodsky writes what is essentially a memoir of his many trips to Venice, beginning in the mid-1960s, almost always in the winter months. There are almost no tourists, the colors of the city are muted by the gray, cloudy and often rainy skies. Astronomical tides cause flooding in the some parts of the city. And the damp wind blows through about any warm clothing you might be wearing.

Brodsky writes in short chapter vignettes, each about some aspect of his life in Venice, with themes that recur through the book. The tones and sometimes fantastical imagery are as dark as the weather. Yet it is as accurate a portrait of winter-ish Venice as I have found. It’s worth reading for Brodsky’s use of language, but I was struck again and again in my reading of things that he describes that I observed as well. One small example is how the houses of Venice are closed to the street, usually with shutters, and it is impossible to tell what might be going on in those palazzi. The Venetian society is likewise closed to outsiders, unless one has a connection to someone from the inside. Venice and her people don’t share their secrets easily. Brodsky discovers some of them and shares a phantasm of what they might be.

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