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.