Excerpt from Watermark
I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is. Perhaps this idea was even of my own manufacture, but now I don’t remember. In any case, I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it. Hence my sentiment for water, for its folds, wrinkles, and ripples, and – as I am a Northerner – for its grayness. I simply think that water is the image of time, and every New Year’s Eve, in somewhat pagan fashion, I try to find myself near water, preferably near a sea or an ocean, to watch the emergence of a new helping, a new cupful of time from it. I am not looking for a naked maiden riding on a shell; I am looking for either a cloud or the crest of a wave hitting the shore at midnight. That, to me, is time coming out of water, and I stare at the lace-like pattern it puts on the shore, not with a gypsy-like knowing, but with tenderness and with gratitude.
This is the way, and in my case the why, I set my eyes on this city. There is nothing Freudian to this fantasy, or specifically chordate, although some evolutionary – if not plainly atavistic – or autobiographical connection could no doubt be established between the pattern a wave leaves upon the sand and its scrutiny by a descendant of the ichthyosaur, and a monster himself. The upright lace of Venetian façades is the best line time-alias-water has left on terra firma anywhere. Plus, there is no doubt a correspondence between – if not an outright dependence on – the rectangular nature of that lace’s displays – i.e., local buildings – and the anarchy of water that spurns the notion of shape. It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t possess: with beauty. And that’s why water takes this answer, twists it, wallops and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.
The eye in this city acquires an autonomy similar to that of a tear. The only difference is that it doesn’t sever itself from the body but subordinates it totally. After a while – on the third or fourth day here – the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye’s carrier, as a kind of submarine to its now dilating, now squinting periscope. Of course, for all its targets, its explosions are invariably self-inflicted: it’s your own heart, or else your mind, that sinks; the eye pops up to the surface. This of course owes to the local topography, to the streets – narrow, meandering like eels – that finally bring you to a flounder of a campo with a cathedral in the middle of it, barnacled with saints and flaunting its Medusa-like cupolas. 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. On the map this city looks like two grilled fish sharing a plate, or perhaps like two nearly overlapping lobster claws (Pasternak compared it to a swollen croissant); but it has no north, south, east, or west; the only direction it has is sideways. It surrounds you like frozen seaweed, and the more you dart and dash about trying to get your bearings, the more you get lost. The yellow arrow signs at intersections are not much help either, for they, too, curve. In fact, they don’t so much help you as kelp you. And in the fluently flapping hand of the native whom you stop to ask for directions, the eye, oblivious to his sputtering A destra, a sinistra, dritto, dritto, readily discerns a fish.
Excerpt from WATERMARK by Joseph Brodsky.
Copyright © 1992 by Joseph Brodsky.
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.