Published first in Russian and then in English, Brodsky among Us is a memoir about the renowned Russian poet by his publisher and friend Ellendea Proffer Teasley, who was instrumental in getting him out of the Soviet Union. Marat Grinberg, in his review, discusses Brodsky’s politics and his Jewishness:
A staunchly philosophical poet, Brodsky shunned any explicit reference to politics in his verse—which was a political gesture in itself. Proffer . . . emphasizes that his opposition to Soviet power was presented in starkly moral terms [and] implicitly links Brodsky’s Jewishness to this resistance to the “evil structure” [that was the Soviet Union]. It is a primary subject of their first encounter, which she describes thus: “Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child, his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson.”
The “Jewish accent” had to do with Brodsky’s inability to roll his “r”s, which, while by no means unique to Jews, was a mark of the Jew in the largely anti-Semitic Soviet environment. Brodsky bought into the prejudice and at the same time wore it with pride, making it his own.
Jewishness is an ongoing theme in Brodsky’s early poetry of the 1960s, in which he speaks of a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Leningrad and imagines his future “Jewish gravestone.” His [poem] “Isaac and Abraham” is a beautiful, tortured, and complex midrash on the binding of Isaac. Brodsky transplants the biblical patriarchs onto the Soviet landscape, making the relationship between Abraham and Isaac symbolic of the rift between Russian-Jewish fathers and sons, who are burdened by the loss of Judaism as well as historical traumas both near and distant. The poem reveals Brodsky’s familiarity with Hebrew scripture as well as the kabbalah.
In his later poetry, the explicit Jewishness all but disappears in accordance with his goal of becoming the greatest Russian poet of his era and instead becomes a powerful undercurrent.
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