Joseph Brodsky, Darker and Brighter

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.

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