Joseph Brodsky, Darker and Brighter

Joseph Brodsky, Darker and Brighter

A spellbinding new biography rescues the poet from sentimentality and kitsch.


In June 1972, a young poet from Leningrad stepped off a plane in Detroit and into a new life. His expulsion from the Soviet Union had won him international fame; yet he didn’t know how to drive, how to open a bank account or write a check, or how to use a toaster. His English, largely self-taught, was almost incomprehensible. He had dropped out of school at 15. Nevertheless, at age 32, he would soon start his first real job, and at a world-class institution: He was the new poet in residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Within a few years, Joseph Brodsky would be a colossus on the New York literary scene. Within 15, he would be awarded a Nobel Prize.

At the moment the plane landed, however, Brodsky became the poster boy for Soviet persecution: a “victim,” in other words, and therefore a cliché. He wasn’t the cliché, but publicity would grant him instant power and prestige in his adopted land. The American voices suddenly clamoring around him could not fathom the forces that had shaped him: KGB arrest, prison, psychiatric hospitals, a courtroom trial, and a sentence of hard labor and internal exile near the Arctic Circle. It was the stuff of legend and contributed to a barrage of media coverage. A Cold War Stations of the Cross was easier to package for mass consumption than an accounting of the musicality, metaphorical ingenuity, compression, and raw intelligence of Brodsky’s verse, which had barely appeared in English at all, and only in the most select publications.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir, Brodskij sredi nas (Brodsky Among Us), offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it, as a poet and a person. The book’s reception itself is instructive. Since its publication by Corpus Books in the spring of 2015, Brodsky Among Us has been a sensation in the poet’s former country, quickly becoming a best seller that is now in its sixth printing. Last spring, Teasley made a triumphant publishing tour, speaking at standing-room-only events in Moscow and St. Petersburg; Tbilisi, Georgia; and a number of other cities. The book received hundreds of reviews. According to the leading critic Anna Narinskaya, writing in the newspaper Kommersant, Teasley’s memoir had been written “without teary-eyed ecstasy or vicious vengefulness, without petty settling of scores with the deceased—or the living—and at the same time demonstrating complete comprehension of the caliber and extreme singularity of her ‘hero.’” Galina Yuzevofich, in the online publication Meduza, praised Teasley’s “exactness of eye and absolute honesty,” resulting in a portrait of “wisdom, calm, and amazing equanimity.” Even so, the book has yet to find a publisher in English, the language in which it was written.

The Detroit airport wasn’t Brodsky’s original destination. The Soviets intended to send him to Israel, a place that held no interest for the poet, a secular Jew. At the Vienna stopover, Brodsky was met by Carl Proffer, a professor of Slavic languages and literature from the University of Michigan, who was waiting at the airport with a plan to divert him to Ann Arbor. Proffer, Teasley’s husband, had no authority to offer Brodsky a position at the university. Yet he successfully bluffed the diplomats, embassies, and various bureaucracies.

Brodsky had little notion of what to expect in Ann Arbor, where the Proffers had been living on the edge for some time. Carl was a Nabokov and Gogol scholar; Ellendea was writing about Bulgakov. In 1971, the couple launched an innovative publishing house called Ardis after several visits to the Soviet Union. Ardis published literature that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in its homeland, in Russian and English translation. The venture was started on bank loans, credit cards, and borrowed cash from charitable, if mystified, parents. Eventually, the couple acquired a former country club to house Ardis, Russian Literature Triquarterly (a journal they launched in 1971), and their growing family. A garage was used for inventory, and, over pizza, friends helped with mailings. Ardis ran on a shoestring.

Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, had been the Proffers’ carte d’entrée to a literary world that had reason to mistrust foreign visitors. Eventually, she led them to Brodsky. The Proffers would fear for the poet’s safety from the beginning of their friendship: Teasley writes that “it is hard for us to think about him without resorting to the words destiny and fate, because those words seem to be in the air around him.” Of her and Carl’s first meeting with Brodsky, in Leningrad in 1969, she says: “The poet is quick to say that he is no dissident—he refuses to be defined in any way by opposition to the Soviet government; he prefers to act as if the Soviet regime does not exist.” She adds: “He talks we are nothing in the face of death, but he exudes I will conquer.”

The Proffers would learn of his tenderheartedness and vulnerability as well as their contraries: his insolence, arrogance, boorishness. Teasley writes, “I am reminded of what Mayakovsky’s friends said about him—that he had no skin.” Brodsky lived in a world of absolutes, and his animosities could be adamantine. In Leningrad, speaking of America, he had insisted that the Black Power movement should be crushed, student protesters beaten by the police, and Vietnam turned into a parking lot. Time would modify these judgments, but it wouldn’t eliminate the thinking behind them: Brodsky arrived in the West with a Soviet template and continued to apply it to the world around him. He possessed a dangerous credo and a magnetic presence. “The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union,” Teasley writes. “In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.” Hence, he refused to consider himself a dissident—a label that would have defined him in terms of the government he loathed. “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” Teasley writes. Brodsky was determined that they know what they had lost.

* * *

In 1984, Carl Proffer died of cancer at the age of 46, leaving Teasley a widow with four children. She moved to Southern California, received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1989, and eventually remarried. But Carl had left her with a promise to keep: As he was dying, Teasley gave her word that she would make sure his unfinished memoir, about 20 pages that cut off abruptly, was published.

On the eve of publication, she let Brodsky have a look. “He read it and was horrified, despite the fact that it conveyed our love and admiration for him,” Teasley writes in Brodsky Among Us. “He was upset by Carl’s objectivity; a friend should not write this way. Actually, Joseph imagined that he could control what was written about him.” In a letter, he threatened to sue her if it were published; she capitulated and pulled the memoir from a posthumous collection of essays. Years later, Susan Sontag asked Teasley how the friendship survived the bruising. “I had to make the decision to forgive Joseph,” Teasley told her. “Now I think it would have been truer to say that I couldn’t bear to lose another person from my life.” Yet her deathbed promise is fulfilled with Brodsky Among Us, which retrieves the voice of an eyewitness otherwise lost to us. Teasley seamlessly weaves portions of her late husband’s memoir into her own.

Her book is particularly welcome news for Russians eager to hear about Ardis, for its story is their story, too, and the story of their literature. They were seeing a reflection of themselves they didn’t recognize, like a fairy-tale princess looking into a mirror for the first time—and the image they saw excited them. They had their own clichés to confront: Brodsky had been portrayed as a martyr, which Teasley says he would have found unbearable.

There were other reasons for the book’s exultant reception: Teasley is a celebrity in Russia, and her book’s translator, the renowned Viktor Golyshev, was the poet’s friend. Moreover, Russians didn’t know much about Brodsky’s American life, so the book was a revelation. But certainly part of its success has to do with the present moment in Putin’s Russia: With government censorship and repression, some Russians fear the country of Brodsky’s days is back.

When, largely with Carl Proffer’s help, Brodsky left one world for another, he didn’t—and couldn’t—realize how complete the renunciation would be. He would never see his parents again, despite his desperate attempts to get a visa for them. The phone became a lifeline. Marina Basmanova—Brodsky’s estranged amour, with whom he’d had a son—was reading from afar the poems he dedicated to her. When Ardis published the Russian edition of New Stanzas to Augusta in 1983, his muse phoned him. “I imagine,” Carl wrote, “that there have been few cases in world literature where the Muse, particularly such a difficult one, suddenly materialized in this way to reward the poet who sang her.”

At a talk in St. Petersburg a dozen years ago, Teasley told her audience that she “had never known anyone who wanted to leave the Soviet Union more than Joseph did”; he’d spoken of leaving from the day she first met him. One of his friends challenged her: Perhaps the poet had wanted to leave, he finally conceded, but certainly he wanted to be able to return. “Did he?” she replied. “I was one of the many who tried to convince him to visit Russia after 1989.”

Brodsky famously refused to return. While many reasons were advanced—his health, his reluctance to be a tourist in Russia or to respond to an “official” invitation, even a crazy superstition or two—they may simply have rationalized an obdurate reality: There was no going home. Brodsky couldn’t unsplit the atom.

“He said different things, depending on his time and mood, so all one can really trust are his actions,” Teasley writes. “He did not return to his native country when he could have. I know a few of his reasons: one was the iron conviction that return would be a form of forgiveness. He could not believe the new masters were really that different from the old masters, the ones who had refused to let his parents out. Exile was so difficult that it was hard to believe one could just go back as if it had not cost you anything.” Teasley concludes that “sometimes you love your country but it doesn’t love you back. This loss becomes a part of your new identity.”

* * *

Nadezhda Mandelstam had told the Proffers, with special emphasis, that Brodsky’s mentor, the legendary poet Anna Akhmatova, had been a great influence on him—in particular, on how he conducted himself as a poet. “What a biography they are making for our redheaded boy,” Akhmatova had crowed after his 1964 trial on charges of social parasitism.

She had taught him, then, how to position himself; she was expert in such self-­fashioning. However, Akhmatova, an upper-crust poet who had come of age under the czars, was at home in Europe, where she’d had a chance to practice her version of herself. Her brief 1965 visit abroad to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University enhanced her mystique, and she had peppered her conversations with talk of Brodsky.

One wonders if Akhmatova had been the first to teach him how to invent himself, to mask his occasional self-pity with a tough stoicism, in his poems and prose. Brodsky told one friend that he would make exile his personal myth, and so he did. But a myth could take him only so far. Nothing could prepare him for the demands for interviews, articles, reviews, speeches, essays, and letters of recommendation. He couldn’t say no to friends and fellow émigrés. It seemed everyone wanted advice, a reading, a lecture, a reference, a photo. He needed a carapace, and a thick one. Yet he had no skin.

The Nobel Prize disoriented him. He had won just about every accolade the West had to offer. The prize money was spent, often generously, on friends, and he was not inclined by upbringing or nature toward investment portfolios. But his world had shifted, and he couldn’t find his bearings. Enemies no longer mattered, and that was a problem. “He needed his enemies; resisting them—and the state—had formed his identity,” Teasley writes. He was no longer an underdog but, instead, a permanent outsider. He had shown the Soviets what they had lost, but the system that had oppressed him was now gone. His victory had become a hollow one. Perhaps he didn’t want to believe that anything had changed in the USSR because to do so would change the meaning of his life.

Death dogged Brodsky—the tricky heart in his chest, the repeated and increasingly complex surgeries to eke out a few more years—until he finally succumbed at age 55. It was another fact that fueled the romantic myth, when the reality was far grimmer and harsher than his public imagined. Brodsky was terrified of death, despite his protestations, despite lighting up another cigarette almost as soon as the open-heart surgery was finished. Teasley writes that he “fought fear of death with poetry, love, sex, coffee and cigarettes—­and tried to deny death’s significance while almost never being able to forget it.”

Michael Gregory Stephens, writing in Ploughshares in 2008, described meeting Brodsky in a seedy old-man’s bar on a Sunday morning, when the poet was already belligerently drunk. I thought Stephens must be mistaken, so I contacted him a few years ago to ask. He told me he’d confirmed with others that it was not an isolated incident. However, it appears to have taken place sometime in the year-and-a-half period when Brodsky lost his father, his mother, and Carl Proffer, the man he once called “an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.” Without the context provided by Teasley’s book, the episode would be preposterous and degrading, and difficult to reconcile with the aesthetic poet. Brodsky had achieved everything, succeeding beyond his wildest dreams—but he had lost the world in which he could savor those successes and the people dear to him who would have known what the victories had cost.

* * *

Had it not been for America, there would have been no Nobel for Brodsky. In his adopted land, the high voltage and velocity of his poetry inspired a plethora of writers, artists, and thinkers. “He landed among us like a missile,” said Sontag. Yet anglophone readers know they are getting a shadow of the original, an echo—like a good vintage that’s been cellared too long. Sometimes the cork got into the wine, as when Brodsky insisted on self-translation.

“He perfected his English at fantastic speed and started studying rhyming dictionaries and dictionaries of slang,” Teasley writes. “However, and this is in no way odd, he could not feel the appropriateness of a word, given its normal and historical usage, he was limited to what a dictionary gave as examples.” Moreover, he continued to hear the Russian intonations in his head, and so he wrote in English with his Russian accent and stresses intact. Teasley writes:

As time went on he got better at translating his poems, but not before he had disenchanted serious readers of poetry. Friends of mine—American poets or Russian scholars—would call me up and sadistically read the latest Brodsky translation (or English original), and I got very tired of defensively saying that he was a great poet in Russian.

People ask why his translations were not seriously criticized until after his death. The answer is that he was both influential and vengeful, and therefore some felt the cost of giving an honest evaluation was too high. As for his friends, poets and otherwise, they loved him and they did not want to hurt his feelings. In addition—and this is always a point where Brodsky is concerned—his poetic biography of persecution by a totalitarian state gave him immunity from the normal literary process both in America and Britain, at least in print.

Teasley has reservations about the wisdom of translating his poetry in meter and rhyme. However, the work of Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and very occasionally even Brodsky himself proves otherwise, although no translator could be expected to re-create all the complicated patterns of rhythm and rhyme that appear in his Russian verse. (Teasley would rightly point out that Brodsky interfered even with Hecht and Wilbur.) Nonetheless, in a poetry culture dominated by free verse, it put on him an additional burden of proof.

Both the absence of new translations and the problematic translations that exist have contributed to the erosion of Brodsky’s reputation in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, detractors have questioned his high standing, as if the poets who championed him—Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and Tomas Venclova—had somehow been hoodwinked. About two-thirds of his poetry remains untranslated, and that’s a shame.

Some Russian readers have commented that there’s another book between the lines of Brodsky Among Us. Teasley told an audience in Russia that she was only telling about a quarter of what she knew. She didn’t want Brodsky’s personality to overwhelm his poetry, so she left much about his life unsaid. “The only god he served was the god of poetry, and of that god he was a faithful servant. What made him believe in a higher power was the fact of his miraculous gift itself.” And, she writes, “he was a poet every minute of every day.”

There is a danger that Brodsky will “become his admirers,” as Auden wrote of Yeats. He is being sentimentalized and kitschified. Russians have complained of whitewashed memoirs; in America also, the rough surfaces and sharp edges have been filed down to leave a smiling public man, a patrician artiste dispensing wisdom. The public commemorations have been similarly banal. The organizers of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, oblivious to irony, featured Brodsky’s image and work, among those of other famous Russian writers, in the closing ceremonies. With his death, it seems, everyone can imagine they would have received his kisses rather than his scorn. Teasley documents this commodification of the poet into “Brodsky lite”:

There is a Brodsky stamp in America, and there is an Aeroflot plane named after him. I don’t want there to be a museum for Joseph, I don’t want to see him on a stamp, or his name on the side of a plane—these things mean he is dead dead dead dead and no one was ever more alive.

I protest: a magnetic and difficult man of flesh is in the process of being devoured by a monument, a monstrous development considering just how human Joseph was.

Joseph Brodsky was the best of men and the worst of men. He was no monument to justice or tolerance. He would be so lovable that you would miss him after a day; he could be so arrogant and offensive that you would wish the sewers would open up under his feet and suck him down. He was a personality.

Brodsky Among Us appears to have been written in a single exhalation of memory; it is frank, personal, loving, and addictive: a minor masterpiece of memoir, and an important world-historical record. Will we ever be able to read it in English?

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