After reading works by Vladimir Nabakov, (Lolita and Pale Fire) and a work by Joseph Brodsky (Watermark), I am struck by the exquisite uses of the English language employed by each of these Russian émigrés. How does that happen? How does a person write in a language, other than what they were born into, with such fine understanding as to produce writing that tests the border between poetry and prose?

Watermark does just that. Brodsky’s ode to the singular beauty of Venice, even when the city is supposed to be in its least hospitable season (winter), is based upon the connections between water and time, water and beauty, water and humanity. The book was sent to me by painter, Tino Zago and his wife, Dolores, who once owned an apartment in Venice. That city’s visual and spiritual impact has been reflected in much of Tino’s expressive art work.

Brodsky writes, “…the city is a real triumph of the chordate, because the eye, our only raw, fishlike, internal organ indeed swims here [in Venice]: it darts, flaps, oscillates, dives, rolls up. Its exposed jelly dwells with atavistic joy on reflected palazzi, spiky heels, gondolas, etc., recognizing in the agency that brought them to the existential surface none other than itself.”

Brodsky follows that philosophical observation with the poetic, “In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.”

Some of Brodsky’s writing is tough sledding. His vocabulary is too big. “Chordate” for example, means creatures with spinal cords, brains and central nervous systems. But his book is a pleasure to read if one can let his language flow through you, from page, through eye and brain, to acceptance, much in the way that Shakespeare’s sometimes difficult but always poetic verse can flow through the brain of an English speaker. Yes, it can be halted, studied and dissected, but perhaps it is best to simply experience it in its intended elegance first and re-examine the most challenging parts later.

For many readers, it will be worth the effort. For example, in making a point about the effect of light and the preponderance of water in this unique, beautiful city, Brodsky writes, “[As sunset approaches] In the streets it gets dark, but it is still daytime in the Fondamenta and that gigantic liquid mirror where motorboats, vaporetti, gondolas, dinghies and barges ‘like scattered old shoes’ zealously trample Baroque and Gothic facades, not sparing your own or a passing cloud’s reflection either.” In reading the passage, I can see the multi-layering of imagery provided by moving water, reflections of shape and colour, sometimes recognizable, often simply abstract, always a riotous, ever-changing interaction of light and colour.

Upon learning that my girlfriend and I had an interest in Venice, a woman locally renown for her travel experience and expertise invited us to dinner. Yes, we have a sincere interest in visiting Venezia, the city that everyone has once visited, if only in their dreams.