If Venice is married to Death - the small island of San Michele is the offspring of this union. It takes an entire day to visit San Michele, the legendary Isle of the Dead. The entire island is a cemetery, which resembles a labyrinth consisting of many contrasting sections, almost like miniature islands within one larger island. One of the most striking and memorable "rooms" of this labyrinth is the children’s section: children’s graves, most of them recent, with photographs, toys, flowers… On marble stones kids’ faces are so painfully alive, smiling, laughing, celebrating the joy of their too fleeting lives. The contrast of their youth and their surrounding is heart-wrenching. We do not associate death with youth, yet children are much closer to that vast non-existence from which we all come from and where we all end up, and the thread which binds them to that "forever beyond" is much shorter than with most adults.
A turn in the labyrinth of San Michele – and a 19th century cemetery comes into view, with forgotten graves, some half-decayed, names no longer decipherable… Another turn – and an island of gravestones for nuns appears all neatly organized in rows like brave little soldiers conquering the heavens.
A narrow path leads to an open sea of flowers of the most recent graves – after 12 years of temporary residence in San Michele, they will be transported elsewhere. At San Michele, the post-mortem real estate seems to be just as coveted and unattainable as guaranteed indulgences. One more twist of the road - and the foreigners' section is found. The Isle of the Dead is home to many famous artists.
Visiting Isola di San Michele in Venice was a sort of pilgrimage for me. The impact of Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky in music and theater, specifically their collaborations in Le Noce, Le Sacre du Primtemps, Pulcinella and Petruchka, was the most influential in the 20th century. Their legacy is felt by every living composer, choreographer and producer today.
In death, they stand as they stood in life: Diaghilev’s overpowering large gravestone and Stravinsky’s modest plate without any overstatement, but at the center of attention by visitors.
I am always interested in the offerings the living bring to the dead. Diaghilev's grave is covered with… ballet slippers. Real, worn ballet shoes which dancers bring as offerings of their gratitude to him. On Stravinsky's grave there are also several glued pieces of paper with handwritten music, offerings from composers, perhaps.
Next to Stravinsky is the gravestone of his wife, Vera. Her grave is the mirror image of his, yet her stone-plate is covered with leaves, and there are no "gifts" of burning candles, slippers or music pages. Even in afterlife, she is in his shadow.
Joseph Brodsky's work was introduced to me in Russia when I was thirteen. His name did not mean anything to me then. Simply someone once gave me a few typed pages with his poems. My teenage reaction was one of shock. His work was unlike anything I had read. His poetry was real, it spoke to me in a powerful way, it was a calling, a recognizable, irresistible voice addressing me directly. It was impossible to ignore. When I arrived to the United States in 1991, one of my wishes was to meet Brodsky. This meeting happened, and his support of my work meant the world to me during that crucial time of my life when everything I knew was left behind.
Brodsky's wish was to be buried at San Michele. He visited Venice often, always in the winter. This was the city of his love if one can be in love with a city. Yes, Venice, more than his native St. Petersburg, was the city of his dreams; Venice, with its glorious decay, its endless reflections, its past so vast that it already contains its future.
Brodsky's grave is simple yet beautiful, with overgrown flowers and many special offerings from visitors. There was a cigarette on his grave-stone (he was a heavy smoker), a Watermen fountain pen (his favorite brand); someone left a few old Soviet coins, which I personally thought would not be the most welcomed gift by this deceased. And, of course, candles and flowers.
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate - not too far from Brodsky lies another famous poet, in many ways Brodsky's opposite – Ezra Pound. Pound's grave is large yet unkempt.
I spent long hours wandering this cemetery, listening to the seagulls, deciphering the writings on the graves, and thinking of Time. Time is always abundant in Venice. Venice is cradled in Time just as it is draped in death. This cradle song of death is comforting, quiet and peaceful. In a world where everything multiplies and doubles with reflections, San Michele provides perspective which widens the horizon and unearths the essence.
Sometimes, before falling asleep, I imagine what it would be like to spend a night at San Michele, listening to the moon-beams splashing the water and the occasional cries of birds. I imagine the ghostly concerts and poetry readings featuring that never finished symphony or a poem and wonder if the dead are just as curious about the living as we are about them.