We often think of Canada as a country of immigrants; one that’s full of lucky people who escaped their awful countries to relocate to a beautiful new land. We almost never think of immigration as a result of a forced exile. In fact, we almost never say “exile,” replacing it instead with the much-cooler word “diaspora.” Many Canadian Jewish families still know next to nothing about the countries from which their ancestors came, as those ancestors often did not want to traumatize them with stories of their awful pasts.
Immigration itself is often a choice of a lesser evil, but when it comes to writers and poets, it almost always results in tragedy.
Mikhail Baryshnikov recently came to Toronto to perform a one-man show at the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre, based on poetry by Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Brodsky. When Baryshnikov, 70, arguably the most accomplished contemporary male ballet artist of modern times, reads and dances Brodsky’s poems about hopelessness, fear and imminent death, one cannot help but feel Brodsky’s pain.
Brodsky died tragically young from heart failure, likely a consequence of surviving the Siege of Leningrad in 1942, deportation to Yakutsk in the 1960s and expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1972, without the right of return, even for the funeral of his own parents in the 1980s.
In the United States, Brodsky became a college professor and a prolific essayist, but his poems – deep, dark, complex ones – lost so much in translation. Brodsky could not become an English poet because, as Edward Said once famously noted, for poets, exile is death without the mercy of death. By this, he meant the death of the poet’s voice, or the death of a poet as a prophet.
Brodsky and Baryshnikov became friends after they both left the Soviet Union. Baryshnikov defected in 1974, when his theatre was on tour in Toronto, and Brodsky left in 1972, when he was given the choice to either go back to jail, or leave the country. He never returned – not when he won the Nobel Prize in 1987, not after 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, not even after he died (his widow refused to bury his body in Russia because Brodsky felt ambivalently about his place of birth).
Both Brodsky and Baryshnikov are Russian artists, although Brodsky was Jewish and Baryshnikov is ethnically Russian. Baryshnikov was trained in the Russian school of ballet and his first audience was Russian – the same people who read Brodsky first. Brodsky did not love ballet, but he loved Baryshnikov. He wrote a poem for him: “Though I’m a Yid, though you are a goy, though you have a different profile, still I cannot perform with my hand/what you can accomplish with your leg.”
Baryshnikov “got” Brodsky, not just because they were close friends, not just because they both shared the same culture, but because Baryshnikov knew that exile does not just cause physical hardships, displacement and loss, but that it silences people.
The death that Baryshnikov so breathtakingly and scarily performs on stage while reading Brodsky’s poems is, above all, the spiritual death – the death by silence, the death by ignorance, the death by belittling. Every immigrant experiences this death and every immigrant in that audience, especially those who did not rely on subtitles, immediately got what the show was about. They could not express it as well as Brodsky, or dance it like Baryshnikov, but they knew.
They also knew why they were in the room. Brodsky stated in his poem and Baryshnikov danced these lines for them:
“Keep my shadow. I cannot explain. I am sorry./Need it now. Save my shadow keep./At thy back be silent in the bushes running./I have to go. You will remain after me.”