South Hadley Meets Saint Petersburg

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 - 15:50

In 1972, photographer Mikhail Milchik took a picture of poet Joseph Brodsky as the latter prepared to leave Russia to go into exile. The photo shows Brodsky straddling his suitcase, cigarette cradled in his left hand, while waiting to depart Pulkovo Airport in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Despite years of government persecution for his work, including his being sentenced to five years of hard labor on a fabricated charge, Brodsky still did not want to leave his homeland.

Milchik discussed that pivotal moment--and his now famous photograph--during a two-day celebration last weekend in the Pioneer Valley, where Brodsky lived, wrote, and taught during 15 years as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke, until his death, at the age of 55, in 1996.

Joseph Brodsky: A Poet and his Place, began on Friday afternoon in Mary Woolley Hall’s New York Room, where some of Brodsky’s friends and colleagues, including MHC’s Viktoria Schweitzer and Peter Scotto, poet Tomas Venclova, Amherst’s Jane Taubman, composer Roman Yakub, Harvard professor Stephanie Sander, and writer Yuz Aleshkovsky, shared their own memories of him.

In her welcoming remarks, Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella praised Brodsky as a figure of “global scope in the world of literature” who “touched many lives with his talent, his enthusiasm, his sense of humor, and his old-school ways.”

Massachusetts State Senator Stanley Rosenberg presented Pasquerella and MHC Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Ken Williamson, who also serves on the South Hadley Historical Society, with citations for their contributions toward preserving the memory of Brodsky's connections to the area.

The College’s Ford Foundation Professor of History, Joseph Ellis (who, as dean of faculty, hired Brodsky in 1981) remembered the poet’s humorous fondness for nearby Rawson House—a nineteenth-century home owned then by Mount Holyoke—which was offered as a place of residence for Brodsky, rent free. While the old building struck Ellis as more of a “stable” fit for horses rather than humans, Brodsky saw it as “the perfect cage where my bird can sing.”

Indeed, Rawson House, which Ellis said reminded Brodsky of his home in Russia, inspired the displaced poet to sing on the page. Brodsky received a slew of accolades while living there, among them the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987.

Fittingly, upon finishing up in Mary Woolley Hall, the conference crowd gathered at Rawson House for the dedication of a plaque that memorializes Brodsky’s time there. Inside, Mikhail Milchik unveiled an exhibit of Brodsky photographs documenting the poet’s life in Russia. The collection, which also includes pictures taken by Brodsky’s father, commemorates what would have been Brodsky’s seventieth birthday year.

Friday’s events were followed by a daylong Brodsky symposium at Amherst College on Saturday. Segments included a panel discussion of Brodsky’s work and its reception, as well as a group reading of the Brodsky poem, “The Hawk's Cry in Autumn,” which depicts a bird’s eye view of the Pioneer Valley.

“The two days were really a Brodsky party,” said Peter Scotto, who organized the conference along with Hampshire's Polina Barskova and Amherst's Jane Taubman. “It was a community celebration. There were many people from Mount Holyoke working on Friday's events, from our students, support staff, and faculty, right on to the president. There were so many little details that needed to be addressed- from the Russian Departments’ Peter Larson coordinating the logistical move from the New York Room to Rawson House, to MHC student Natalia Li translating a speech by Nina Popova of the Anna Akhmatova Museum in Saint Petersburg when the Brodsky plaque was unveiled. And then there are the student volunteers from Amherst and Hampshire, to Stanley Rabinowitz of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture, who hosted Saturday’s symposium.”

The joint effort was massive, but something the conference organizers wanted to undertake in order to introduce Brodsky to a new generation. Despite Brodsky’s exile from Russia, to his later receiving the Nobel Prize and being named United States poet laureate, the renowned poet’s work, and his connection to the Pioneer Valley, says Scotto, has been largely occluded.

The conference also served as an inspiration for more Brodsky-related collaborations. “People were making connections and planting the seeds for future projects,” Scotto said. “These projects, along with this conference, will help us pass on Brodsky’s legacy.”

The Joseph Brodsky photo exhibit at Rawson House, Moments in a Life, will next be open to the public on Sunday, October 17 from 2 to 5 pm at the Sycamores (28 Woodbridge Street) in South Hadley. Visit the Sycamores website for more information.

Images (top to bottom):
1. Joseph Brodsky
2. Senator Stanley Rosenberg presents President Pasquerella with the Brodsky citation
3. Peter Scotto shares his thoughts on Brodsky