Published on Academy of American Poets (

Joseph Brodsky in Venice (1981)

La Serenissima, in morning light, is beautiful.
But you already knew that. 
Palette of honeyed ochre and ship’s bell bronze, 
water precisely the color of the hand-ground pigment
with which the water of Venice has been painted for centuries, 
angled slats of aquamarine chopped by wakes to agate, 
matte black backlit with raw opal 
and anodized aluminum, rope-work of wisteria, wands
of oleander emerging from hidden gardens. At noon, 
near the boat-yard of the last gondola maker, a violin echoes 
from deep inside an empty cistern. 
Lo and behold. Ecco. 
A swirl of wind-blown ashes from yet another cigarette 
and for a moment you see December snow
in Saint Petersburg, the Lion’s Bridge, crystalline halo
crowning Akhmatova’s defiant silhouette. 

Sunset: bitter orange and almond milk,
sepia retinting the canals with cartographer’s ink
as you study the small gray lagoon crabs
patrolling a kingdom of marble slabs 
descending into the depths; rising almost imperceptibly,
the tide licks at, kisses, then barely spills 
across the top step’s foot-worn, weed-velveted lip 
in slippery caravans, dust-laden rivulets.
So another day’s cargo of terrestrial grit 
enriches their scuttled realm, 
and they make haste, like drunken pirates in a silent film,
erratically but steadfastly, to claim it. 


Copyright © 2014 by Campbell McGrath. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on March 5, 2014. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

About this Poem

"On a visit to Venice a few summers ago, I happened upon a historical marker noting that Joseph Brodsky had lived for a time in a certain palazzo. Brodsky had been my teacher at Columbia back in the 1980s, and the image of him smoking his cigarette with Russian intensity amidst Venice’s shopworn beauty seemed at first paradoxical, and then strangely logical. And so I simply imagined him into being, watching the lagoon crabs go about their business. Given his rigorous poetics, it seemed impossible to write a poem about Brodsky without some formal component, and haphazard rhyme was the least I could do. Let me add, as a postscript, that conceiving this poem brought to my attention Brodsky’s own memoir of Venice, Watermark, a slender, lyrical, deeply delightful book."
—Campbell McGrath


Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten collections of poetry, including XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, In The Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, Shannon, and Seven Notebooks. His third book, Spring Comes to Chicago, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

Date Published: 2014-03-05

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