Joseph Brodsky

Watermark: An Essay on Venice

“I'd never possess this city; but then I'd never had any such aspiration.”

There should be a word for places that are not home but have tenets of home. Familiarity without contempt. Shall we call it “A home away”?

Venice was Joseph Brodsky’s (May 24, 1940 – January 28, 1996) home away. Watermark: An Essay on Venice maps this Nobel laureate’s magnificent relationship to this jeweled city. Born in Russia in 1940, Brodsky was exiled from his country in 1972 and settled in New York. However, like John Keats, who is buried in Rome, Brodsky’s final resting place is Venice.1

Venice photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joseph Brodsky's "Watermark" in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In Watermark, Brodsky gestures at the space adjacent and invites us to sit: “Here,” he lifts our chin, “This is my Venice.”

The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious. On both sides, knee-deep in pitch-black water, stood the enormous carved chests of dark palazzi filled with unfathomable treasures—most likely gold, judging from the low-intensity yellow electric glow emerging now and then from cracks in the shutters. The overall feeling was mythological, cyclopic, to be precise. I entered that infinity I beheld on the steps of the stazione and now was moving among its inhabitants, along the bevy of dormant cyclopses reclining in the black water, now and then raising and lowering an eyelid.

Poet Mary Oliver pushed herself to “keep attention on eternity.” My own singular focus on the eternal is a feeling of empathy, a warm, generous expansion into the world.

For Brodsky, it isn’t the familiarity of Venice that allowed him to expand into that infinity; it was the unknown, the anonymity.

I was standing there waiting for the only person I knew in that city to meet me. She was quite late.
Every traveller knows this fix: this mixture of fatigue and apprehension. It’s the time of staring down the clock faces and timetables, of scrutinizing varicose marble under your feet, of inhaling ammonia. […]
Save for the yawning bartender and immobile Buddha-like matrona at the cash register, there was no one in sight.

Venice photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joseph Brodsky's "Watermark" in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In this inconspicuous setting, this pause of life, what Roger Ebert called “the pastime of Being By Myself in a City Where No One Knows Who I Am and No One Knows Where to Find Me,” Brodsky blends into Venice. Through his senses, sight, touch, and smell, he becomes “smitten by the feeling of utter happiness.”2

One recognizes oneself in certain elements; by the time I was taking this smell in on the steps of the stazione, hidden dramas and incongruities long since had become my forte.

Travel is a means to finding ourselves or, rather, to unearthing parts hitherto hidden. The most significant travel experiences are less about going and more about existing in a pause that allows self-reflection.

Photo of Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Featured in Joseph Brodsky's "Watermark: An Essay on Venice" in the Examined Life Library.
Palazzo Ducale, Venice. High tide. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Where, Brodsky argues, better than Venice? Venice is many, many things, but its blood is water. Surrounding, palliative, destructive, reclaiming water.

Water, and thus Venice itself, is a mirror, one that can tell us more about who we are. Brodsky desires to paint Venice; he (perhaps wittingly) paints himself instead.

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 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 gypsy-like knowing but with tenderness and with gratitude.

Perhaps because he was driven from his own country, Joseph Brodsky romances the notion of possession. He suggests he would never possess Venice. Venice does not exist within him. It exists apart from him. “A departure from this place always feels final; leaving it behind is leaving it forever.”

Marble well-head.
This Venetian carved marble well-head stood in the courtyard of Tintoretto’s home circa 1490. The marble is worn from daily use. Note the notches on the far side where ropes cut into the stone. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Maira Kalman opened her book The Principles of Uncertainty by asking “How can I tell you Everything in my Heart?” By sweeping his pen on these pages, Brodsky illuminates the anonymity of arrival, the sensory beauty of being there, and the separation felt at departure.

But does he ‘tell’ us Venice? No, no one can.

Venice photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joseph Brodsky's "Watermark" in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Ultimately, that is the power of a far-away home. Its separateness. I cannot express what my far-away home means because I cannot now reach it. I simply carry its residue on me, its watermark.

Venice is static while we are not. It possesses us, not the other way around. Brodsky looked to “simply be” in Venice. It warms my heart that he achieved that upon his death.

Enjoy the beautiful brushstrokes and scenery of Watermark alongside John Steinbeck’s journey of self-discovery taken at the end of his life, Hemingway’s self-formation in Paris, and the brief, powerful essay on going nowhere from travel writer Pico Iyer. Or turn to my own study of the feeling of home and the alienating features of memory.