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.